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Homepage Archives Open in new window Index (11/2003) Headlines (10/2003) Headlines (12/2003)   Vol. 37 November 2003 
Treasure In The Headlines
As seen in the November 2003 edition of W&ET Magazine


The fifth and final 1913 Liberty nickel, valued at nearly $3 million, has been found after it disappeared more than 40 years ago.

And it turns out it was right here in the Roanoke Valley the whole time.

The nickel, one of five in the world, was last seen in the hands of George Walton, a Roanoke-based coin collector and dealer. However, in 1962 Walton died in an automobile crash near Wilson, N.C., that scattered his coin collection over the road.  The nickel disappeared into history, with coin experts debating for years whether Walton ever truly owned the famous nickel.

But mid-summer, relatives of Walton brought a 1913 nickel to a Baltimore coin show, where it was examined by experts, matched against the four other nickels and finally authenticated as the real deal.

"It's the neatest thing to happen in our hobby maybe ever," said Paul Montgomery, president of Bowers and Merena, an auction firm that offered a $1 million reward for the missing nickel in May.  "It's an almost half-a-century-old mystery that got solved last night at 1:15 in the morning."

The coins were minted in 1913, the year the United States mint switched to buffalo nickels.  Mint employees secretly printed five nickels with that year's date and a Liberty head design.

The nickels emerged in 1920 in the hands of Samuel Brown, a former Philadelphia mint employee.  By the 1940s the nickels were in the hands of various collectors around the world. After Walton's 1962 car crash, though, the fifth nickel disappeared, leading to a series of legends, myths and theories as to its whereabouts.

The coin's owners, at least one of whom lives in Roanoke, said they hope the discovery restores Walton's good name.  They asked not to be identified, due in part to two break-ins in the early '90s at Walton's sister-in-law's house after news stories about the nickel. 

Incidentally, that sister-in-law, Lucille, who still lives in Roanoke, said she never doubted Walton's claims of Liberty nickel ownership.

"George Walton wasn't the type of man to lie about anything," she said.  "I'm so happy that someone in the family ended up having it.  They're good people."

The events leading to the discovery of the nickel started in May, when Bowers and Merena offered the $1 million reward for the nickel.  Gallery president Montgomery said he'd write a check for $10,000 just for the opportunity to see the nickel first.

After finding out about Walton's Roanoke roots, the Roanoke Times wrote a story about the legend surrounding his death and the nickel.  In doing so, a reporter contacted a relative who said he had a fake nickel Walton had carried.  After the 1962 wreck, Walton's sister had obtained it, along with several other coins determined to be fake and having value only as historical curiosities.  Eventually the collection came into the possession of another of Walton's descendents in the Roanoke Valley.

Walton's descendant started to wonder whether the nickel might be real after comparing it to internet photographs of authentics.  He confided in his siblings, and his curiosity only deepened after his sister compared a close-up photograph of his coin with photographs of verified 1913 nickels.  They matched.

"We finally came to the conclusion it was either real or it was counterfeit" as opposed to having been altered, the sister said.  "And counterfeiting one of these would have been really hard or impossible.  You'd have to have access to a real one to do it."

After the Roanoke Times story ran, Coin World editor Beth Deisher contacted Walton's relative.  He and his siblings e-mailed her an image of the "fake" coin.

"When I saw that coin on my screen, I was shocked," Deisher said.

She invited the Walton family to the American Numismatic Association convention, saying the chance to have their coin authenticated against the four real ones by a staff of experts was a once-in-a-lifetime chance.

Members of the Walton family arrived in Baltimore on Tuesday night and were immediately assigned a guard and escorted into a small room with Deisher and three experts, including Bowers and Merena president Montgomery.

"We'd looked at literally hundreds of coins and gotten thousands of letters and e-mails and telephone calls.  We'd been telling people 'no' for months, and I felt going into the meeting it was going to be the same thing," Montgomery said.  "I put on my poker face.  I looked at the coin, looked up, looked at the coin again and said, 'This looks pretty good.'"

Everyone had gone into the meeting fairly sure the coin would be discarded as fake.  After all, that's what auctioneers from Stack's Coins had said in 1962.  But as the examination dragged on, a nervous tension started to grow.

"You could just see the electricity forming," said one of the coin owners. 

Finally, the experts looked up and said they were "98 percent" sure the coin was authentic.  To make sure, however, they wanted to check the coin against the four known nickels, with even more experts.

After a reception, in which Edward Lee of New Hampshire purchased one of the known 1913 Liberty nickels from Dwight Manley of California for a record price of $3 million, the nickel owners and coin experts reconvened at the convention center.  This time the Walton family was told to wait outside.

They waited about 45 minutes while the experts looked for distinctive diagnostic marks left by the die used to mint the five coins, according to Montgomery.

"Then they called us back in the room and gave us the announcement," said a Walton family member.  "It was unique to see those experts.  They were so giddy, just ecstatic.  I was happy because we could finally give Mr. Walton the credit he so much deserves."

For now, the family isn't sure what they are going to do with the nickel.  One family member said that some other siblings have to be notified.

"I would say right off we wouldn't do anything with it right away with selling it.  In the future, maybe; but not until we've talked," she said.  "We may loan it out to a museum for a while and let other people see it and appreciate it as well.

"Maybe we'll be able to get out more information as more people are interested in George Walton instead of just the coin.  Maybe we can get out more about George Walton the man."

From The Roanoke Times, submitted by Chadwic Anderson, Bedford, VA, and many other readers.


Explorers say they believe they have found the sunken remains of an 1860s steamer that could yield the richest cargo ever recovered from a shipwreck:  thousands of gold coins worth as much as $180 million.

The S.S. Republic was carrying 59 passengers and 20,000 $20 gold coins from New York to New Orleans when it sank in a hurricane off Savannah, Georgia, on Oct. 25, 1865, according to newspaper accounts and other historical records.

All the passengers boarded lifeboats and got off alive, but the coins- intended to help pay for reconstruction of the South after the Civil War- went to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean with the Republic.  An expert has estimated they would be worth $120 million to $180 million today.

After searching for 12 years, Greg Stemm and John Morris of Odyssey Marine Explorations Inc. said recently that they found the wreck last month in 1,700 feet of water about 100 miles southeast of Savannah.

Documentation and excavation of the site using remote-control robotic equipment is set to begin next month.  Stemm said the Tampa-based company recently bought a 250-foot ship and a special "remotely operated vehicle" to carry out the project.

"It's almost like having a hand down there," Stemm said of the apparatus.  "You can literally feel the pressure when you're picking things up and moving them around."

Because the wreck is so far out in international waters, the company doesn't need a permit to begin work at the site.  It has, though, been granted federal "admiralty arrest" of the site to make it illegal for others to lay claim to it.

Odyssey crews combed 1,500 square miles of ocean using a robotic vehicle, sonar and magnetometer technology before finding the wreck they believe is the Republic, a side-wheel steamer that once served in the Union fleet.

"After all the years of searching for this particular shipwreck, finally finding it with just an incredible team of folks, it's just an indescribable feeling," Stemm said.

Odyssey, a publicly traded company founded in the mid-1990s, made headlines recently when it entered a historic partnership with the British government to excavate the wreck of the HMS Sussex, which sank in 1694 off Gibraltar while leading a British fleet into the Mediterranean Sea for a war against France and its leader, Louis XIV.

Historians believe the 157-foot warship was carrying nine tons of gold coins aimed at buying the loyalty of the Duke of Savoy, a potential ally in southeastern France.  The Sussex's cargo could be more valuable than the Republic's, but Odyssey will have to share it with England:  The company will get 80 percent of the first $45 million and about 50 percent of the proceeds thereafter.

Donald H. Kagin, author of "Private Gold Coins and Patterns of the United States," estimated that the $20 gold coins aboard the Republic would fetch $6,000 to $9,000 each, based on the sale of coins from previous shipwrecks.

"That value would depend on the ultimate quality of the specimens, but if their condition proves to be comparable to other shipwreck coins from the period, it would make his the most valuable documented cargo ever recovered from a shipwreck," Kagin said in a company press release.

The excavation of the Republic is expected to take a few months and cost the company $1 million to $3 million.

From the Orange County Register, submitted by Leonard Katanich, Tustin, CA, and many other readers.

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