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Olsen-Hawn 1913 Liberty Nickel Sells for $3,737,500

Posted By Greg Reynolds On January 8, 2010 @ 7:53 am In Auction News, Classic Rarities, Heritage Auction Galleries, US Coins | No Comments

by Greg Reynolds for CoinLInk

The Olsen-Hawn 1913 Liberty Nickel sold shortly after 10:00 PM on Thursday, Jan. 7. It is the highest valued item in an auction extravaganza conducted by Heritage Auction Galleries in association with the annual winter FUN Convention in Orlando, at the Orange County Convention Center. This convention is open to the general public.

The Olsen-Hawn 1913 Liberty Nickel was the centerpiece of this year’s FUN Platinum Night auction event, which is devoted to expensive U.S. coins. Much more modestly priced coins are auctioned at other times.The Olsen-Hawn piece is widely regarded as the second finest of just five 1913 Liberty Nickels in existence.

This nickel was purchased “by a sophisticated East Coast collector,” according to Todd Imhof, the Executive Vice President of Heritage, and “has found a home among other Great Rarities,” Imhof adds. “He is not completing a set of Liberty Nickels. He bought it because he likes Great Rarities.”

Greg Rohan, the President of Heritage relays that the underbidder wishes to reveal only that he is an accomplished “business executive who just re-entered coin collecting circles.” Further, Rohan indicates that the underbidder “wanted to get started again by buying a 1913 Liberty Nickel. He is very disappointed.” It would have been a neat and exciting way to start a new coin collection.

Sam Foose was the auctioneer. Before this coin ‘came up’ for live bidding, it was indicated on the Heritage website that the opening level would be the reserve, which had not yet been met, $2,750,000, or $3,162,500 with the 15% buyer’s fee that is standard at all major coin auctions. Bidders usually take this 15% fee into consideration when they factor their bids. It is logical to do so. So, I will include adjusted bids in parentheses herein.

There were three bidders, all of whom were represented by Heritage officials. Though there were more than seventy coin enthusiasts in the room at the time, no collector openly bid. A female Heritage employee ‘at the podium’ (which is also known as the front table) immediately bid $2.8 million ($3.22 million). I am not certain who bid $2.85 ($3.2775), a partial increment. Each bidder is allowed one ‘cut bid’ on each lot. The woman at the podium, who may not wish for her name to be mentioned, came back with a bid of $2.9 ($3,335,000). After several seconds of suspense, Rohan indicated a bid of $3 million ($3,450,000) on behalf of the collector referenced above. Imhof then consulted with his collector-client on the phone, and captured the coin for $3.25 ($3,373,500).

As the bidding closed, most of us in attendance were pleasantly surprised. Some were clearly stunned. The reserve amount, which would have been widely regarded as reasonable in 2007 or 2008, was considered a little aggressive by many participants in 2010. A prior majority owner of this coin, Bruce M., deserves considerable credit, however, for very publicly predicting, weeks ago, that the Olsen-Hawn 1913 would sell for $3.1 ($3,565,000). I am unaware of anyone else putting forth such a remarkably close prediction of the price realized. During lot viewing sessions, a few experts stated that it would not sell. The fact that there were at least three different collectors who were willing and able to pay MORE than $3.25 million for this coin may be an excellent sign regarding the strength of markets for Great Rarities in general.

Great Rarities are widely recognized, distinct U.S. coin issues for which fewer than twenty-five pieces, in all grades and including all varieties of the same issue, are currently known to exist. The 1927-Denver Mint $20 gold coin is also a Great Rarity, and the Ralph Muller 1927-D sold in this same Platinum Night event, earlier in the evening, for $1,495,000. Though the Muller 1927-D Saint probably would have realized a higher amount, if it had been auctioned between Jan. 2006 and mid-August 2008, this is an impressive price in Jan. 2010.

The most startling price, however, during Platinum Night, was $1,265,000 for one of two known Bickford $10 gold patterns. While I was unable to form an expectation, in advance, regarding bidding for the 1913 Liberty Nickel, I did expect, weeks ago, for this Bickford Pattern to sell for between $650,000 and $800,000, if it sold at all. Besides Ultra High Relief 1907 $20 gold pieces, I cannot now remember any other individual gold patterns selling for more than $1 million at auction.

The $3,737,500 result for the Olsen-Hawn 1913 is an auction record for any nickel, and ties the third highest auction result for an individual coin. In July 2002, Sotheby’s, with Stack’s, auctioned the Fenton 1933 Saint Gaudens $20 gold coin for $7,590,020. In August 1999, the firm of Bowers & Merena sold the Childs family 1804 silver dollar for $4,140,000. In the Spring of 2008, Heritage auctioned the Mickley-Hawn-Queller 1804 silver dollar for this same $3,737,500 price.

Coins tend to be named after famous collectors who previously owned them. Fred Olsen’s collection was sold in the 1940s, and this coin then became the first 1913 Liberty Nickel to be publicly offered. Previously, these had traded privately. Reed Hawn, who is very much alive, was one of the most famous collectors in the 1970s and 1980s. Part of his collection, including this nickel and the Mickley 1804 dollar, was auctioned by Stack’s in October 1993. It brought $962,500, which was then the second highest price that a coin had ever realized at auction. The Dexter-Dunham-Bareford 1804 silver dollar sold in 1989 for $990,000.

The million dollar barrier was not broken, at a public auction, until Jay Parrino purchased the Eliasberg 1913 Liberty Nickel in May 1996 for $1,485,000. Parrino had been the underbidder for this Olsen-Hawn coin in 1993. Before 2010, a 1913 Liberty Nickel had never sold for more than $2 million at auction. Both the Olsen-Hawn and Eliasberg 1913 Liberty Nickels, however, had sold privately for much higher amounts. In 2007, the Eliasberg 1913 was sold privately by Legend Numismatics, via Ron Gillio, to a collector for a reported price of $5 million.

Two of the five 1913 Liberty Nickels are impounded in museums, and was is (or recently was) on a long term loan to a museum. So, the Eliasberg and Olsen-Hawn pieces have been the only two 1913 Liberty Nickels ‘on the market’ in a very long time.

The offering of a 1913 Liberty Nickel is always exciting, as this issue is the second most famous of all coins, behind the 1804 silver dollar. Moreover, 1913 Liberty Nickels, along with 1894-S dimes, are the coins that most young collectors dream about. Liberty Nickels were struck for circulation from 1883 to 1912. The set of circumstances that brought about 1913 Liberty Nickels involves a mystery that will probably never be solved. Buffalo Nickels replaced Liberty Nickels in 1913.

It is generally held, and is my view, that all 1913 Liberty Nickels were struck as Proofs, though they were not struck in accordance with the same specifications as any other issue of Proof Liberty Nickels. They all do, however, show evidence of double striking for aesthetic purposes. Further, the forms of some of the design elements, teeth at the borders (dentils) and rims are much more like those of Proofs than of business strikes. There are, however, counter-arguments that suggest that 1913 Liberty Nickels are not Proofs. Unfortunately, none of the five pieces were exceptionally well preserved such that all criteria for Proofs could be fully evaluated. I theorize that all five had strong mirror surfaces, and several other Proof characteristics, when they were minted.

Proof coins are specially made, usually for collectors, and Proof coins almost always grade somewhere between 50 and 70 on a scale that only coin experts understand. The Olsen-Hawn coin has been authenticated, designated as a Proof, and graded by both the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS) and the Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC). Each service assigned a grade of  “64″ to it. The finest known 1913 Liberty Nickel, the Eliasberg piece, has been graded “66″ by both services. The grades of the other three 1913 Liberty Nickels fall into the range between 50 and 62

As business strikes of almost all dates in the Liberty Nickel series are very inexpensive in low grades (Fair-02 to Very Fine-20 perhaps), kids frequently collect them and wish for a 1913. After collecting-kids grow up, they often return to the hobby later in life and they never forget their longings for a 1913.

Though I have since become far more interested in other coins, I can remember giving a presentation to my elementary school classmates about coins, and then focusing on 1913 Liberty Nickels, when I was ten years old. Indeed, two or three of the other kids knowledgeably commented upon 1913 Liberty Nickels during after my talk. They were already aware of its fame. I presume that kids continue to often buy inexpensive, well circulated Liberty Nickels and Barber Dimes at flea markets and small or medium size coin shows.

© 2010 Greg Reynolds

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