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The 1913 Liberty Head five-cent piece is one of the rarest coins in the world. The search and intrigue over the nickel—one of just five left—has strong Roanoke connections.
The collector met his death half an hour after sunset as he drove through Middlesex, North Carolina, on roads still rain-slicked from remnants of the Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962.
The collector was headed east to a coin show in his 1956 Ford station wagon. His coin collection rode with him. Valued then at $250,000, it included a 1913 Liberty Head Nickel—one of the rarest coins in the world and valued at $65,000.
On a slightly curved section of Highway 264, a car heading the other way occupied by a pair of 30-something local women smashed head on into the collector’s car, killing him instantly.
Police identified George Walton from news clippings found in the station wagon. According to the account that ran in the Roanoke Times, Walton’s coin collection “was reported to have been scattered along the road” in the crash. Walton’s 1913 Liberty Head Nickel was recovered; it was near impossible to miss, stored in a clear plastic case with a label.
However, when Walton’s coins were sent to New York auction house Stack’s Bowers Galleries to be put up for auction, Stack’s experts ruled that his Liberty Head Nickel was a fake. Rumor held that Walton often carried a fake version of the nickel for security, but a search of his collections in bank vaults and storage sites in Charlotte, North Carolina, Jacksonville, Florida, and Roanoke, Virginia, failed to turn up the authentic version.
News reports of Walton’s death claimed he lived in Charlotte, but Roanoke papers claimed him as the Star City’s, and indeed he was buried here, in a service by Oakey’s.
In the months and years that followed his death, Walton’s extensive collections—not just of coins, but firearms, swords, canes, stamps, historic documents and more—flowed out from the places they’d been stored. He didn’t have much money, but his collections were so voluminous as to resemble a hoarder, except that everything was chosen with a keen eye for novelty and value.
Much of Walton’s collection was stored in Roanoke, where he had family. He owned a house on Campbell Avenue SW that was used almost exclusively for storing his firearm, sword and cane collections. He didn’t live there, lodging instead at the Ponce de Leon Hotel or with family while in town, but he did employ a caretaker who kept an eye on the place.
The auctions that followed Walton’s death boggle the mind. In addition to the primary coin auction, a second was held just for the numerous duplicates in his collection. The sale of his coin collection—just a year after its value was estimated at $250,000—fetched $874,836.75, a world record at the time, worth about $6 million today.
The firearm/sword/cane auction in Roanoke featured hundreds of items that had been stored in the Campbell Avenue house, including items with features such as hidden flasks and daggers. A flier advertised “One of the nation’s largest collections of antique firearms, ammunition and swords to be sold at auction to settle the estate of the late George O. Walton,” then listed the items to be sold: 1,400 hand guns; 350 rifles; 100,000 rounds of collection ammunition; 500 swords; 100 canes, mostly with hidden guns, swords, daggers or flasks; and “other books, music boxes, bric-a-brac, and some china and glassware.”
One bidder, Paul Selley, bought a .45 Colt revolver for $100 that later was confirmed as having been Western legend Bat Masterson’s personal handgun, valued in 1964 at more than $10,000.
Prices realized at public auction for his various other collections included $25,404.60 for stamps; $7,914 for modern jewelry and watches; $4,150 for antique jewelry and watches; and $3,096 for books, almanacs, newspapers, tintypes, fans and historical documents.
Still, the 1913 Liberty Nickel carried a fame that outstripped the rest of Walton’s collection. The Stack’s declaration that Walton’s coin was a fake not only cast a shadow on his reputation but created an enduring mystery: Where was the fifth 1913 Liberty Nickel?
The allure of the five 1913 Liberty Nickels grew not only from their scarcity, but also from their murky origins. In 1913, the long-running Liberty Head design was replaced by the Buffalo Nickel. No one knows who made the 1913 Liberty Nickels, which featured the old design with the new year, but many believe rogue employees at the Philadelphia Mint surreptitiously made the coins.
The five 1913 Liberty Nickels made their public debut in 1920 when collector Samuel Brown displayed them at the American Numismatic Association’s convention. The coins passed through various hands but remained together until 1936, when they were broken up and sold to different owners. Collector Louis Eliasberg—famous as the only man to ever have assembled the only complete collection of U.S. coins—owned one, as did King Farouk I of Egypt.
“The coin is arguably the most famous in United States history because of the speculation about why they were made, the promotion of the coin during the Great Depression when a Texas dealer had newspaper and radio advertising that he would pay $50 for a 1913 Liberty Head Nickel, and the very fact that a small denomination coin could be worth so much money,” says publicist Donn Pearlman.
Walton’s death and the subsequent declaration of his coin as fake threw the coin world into contortions. Collectors with metal detectors walked the stretch of highway where the crash occurred, combing the ground in hopes of finding the coin. Others scrutinized statements Walton had made in interviews prior to his death, trying to read between the lines as to whether he owned it, or perhaps had access to it, or had just seen it, or maybe never had the real thing at all but only the fake.
More than one party offered a high-dollar reward for it, motivated partly by hopes it might materialize but just as much by the publicity and resulting opportunity to buy other, unrelated coins.
That’s part of what motivated publicist Donn Pearlman and Bowers and Merena auction house to offer a $1 million reward for the missing 1913 Liberty Nickel. Like those before it, this reward was intended largely as a publicity stunt. It worked: The Associated Press ran a story that was printed in newspapers around the world.
And that’s how the story wound its way into my hands as a hungry first-year news clerk at The Roanoke Times.