MILLION DOLLAR NICKEL
Paul Montgomery and Mark Borckardt drifted across a Baltimore parking lot.
It was long after midnight and the two men had just left the most significant gathering of their careers.
Montgomery and Borckardt are numismatists, professional coin collectors and experts in the field. The world they live in is one of idiosyncrasies, where a button of silver can carry the weight of several thousand dollars.
Still, coins don’t reveal themselves to be cloaked treasures everyday. And most certainly not twice a day. Except on that day.
Earlier, the duo had sold a $1.2 million coin at the American Numismatic Association (ANA) Convention. Now, they were walking back from a monumental, clandestine midnight meeting. They’d just confirmed the authenticity of a rare coin that had been lost for 40 years. Its monetary value exceeded $1 million, and the historical significance was greater still.
“What are we going to do now?” Montgomery, his head still buzzing with details, asked Borckardt. “We’re never going to have a good day again.”
A Team Separated
The Liberty Head nickel is part of a five-piece set struck illegally by a rouge U.S. Mint employee in 1913. In the years that followed their reveal, two of the nickels found homes in museums— the Smithsonian and ANA’s Money Museum. The other two remained prized possessions of private owners, and one sat in a shoe box on a closet floor in West Virginia.
The formula that put the last nickel in that box and drew it out again involved an indignant sister, an eager reporter and an ostentatious press release.
Coin enthusiast George Walton, who’d bought the last nickel in 1945, was driving to a coin show to display it when he died in a fatal car crash.
When relatives tried to sell it later, they were told that the piece was fraudulent. The numismatist saw a pitting around the ‘3’ in ‘1913’ that looked suspicious. Walton had sworn on the validity of the coin. The verdict made Walton’s sister so furious that she demanded to have the nickel back. The auction gave it to her for five cents.
Unearthing a Relic
In 2003, Paul Montgomery and PR director Donn Pearleman had a flashy idea to promote an upcoming ANA convention. They put out a call for the last Liberty nickel, and set the reward at $1 million.
They didn’t expect anything to come of it— except perhaps some hopeful phone calls. The calls certainly rolled in and so did news crews, talk show invitations, and the Associated Press.
The AP story screeched into a news room in Roanoke, Virginia and led an eager young reporter to Ryan Givens, the Walton heir who was housing the last Liberty coin in his closet. He still believed it to be fake.
Montgomery didn’t flinch when he got the call, but he decided to meet the family anyway. Visiting with clients is standard for him. Thirteen years later, he’s still driving hours to small towns to appraise coins and dole advice. Once he drove to Louisiana and spent three days at a family’s kitchen table studying their coin bank and determining its worth.
Back in 2003, Montgomery was standing with the Liberty nickel in his hand, the Walton family before him, and no feeling in his face because the blood had drained out of it. Every thing about the coin looked as it was supposed to. It was genuine.
The pitting around the three, the same one that debunked the coin in 1963, caught his attention. But Montgomery had crucial elements at his disposal, that weren’t available the last time.
He had four sister coins to compare against this one. He gathered a panel of experts to help him come to a final verdict. They met at midnight, after the ANA crowd had gone home. That was the first time the coins had all been together since 1945.
A Story with No Ending
They named the newly authenticated coin the “Walton” Liberty Nickel. Following this discovery, the Walton family opted to loan the nickel out to ANA, who would display it across the country. They carried the sentimental significance of the nickel closer to their skin than the price tag on it. They worried that selling it might sever a connection to their past.
But as Montgomery assured them years later, the Waltons will never be extracted from the sinews of the coin’s story. Montgomery, Uncle George, and his heirs will perpetually share a breath of the Liberty nickel’s enduring existence.
A few years ago the Waltons reluctantly sold the nickel for over $3 million.
The deal took place at the Chicago convention where the Liberty nickels were originally unveiled. Symbolism, it seems, isn’t lost on numismatists.