The most valuable U.S. coin isn't made of gold, or even silver. It contains nickel.
It is a nickel -- a 1913 Liberty Head nickel. At a New York auction last May, it brought $1,485,000.
This was the first time anyone ever spent a million dollars in a public sale for a single rare coin. "And," exults its new owner, Jay Parrino of Kansas City, Mo., "already I've been offered $2 million for it."
From 1948 to 1996, his five-cent piece was at home in an underground bank vault at Baltimore and Light streets, one of many ultra-rarities in the collection of Louis E. Eliasberg Sr. A Baltimore financier, Eliasberg holds lasting fame in the numismatic world for having pulled off a supposed impossibility -- assembling an example of every coin ever minted by the United States of America. Every variety of design, denomination, date and mint mark: Eliasberg cornered them all. Several of his coins are unique, the only known example.
Now that the Eliasberg Collection has been broken up, coin authorities say, no one appears willing to try putting it together again, not when a single coin can cost seven figures. Completeness, some 3,000 coins altogether, took Eliasberg 25 years and roughly $550,000. He bagged his last missing specimen (an 1873 Carson City dime without arrows, formerly in the collection of Adolphe Menjou, the actor) in 1950; the news broke locally as a 1951 Sun Magazine story, and then internationally as a color spread in Life magazine.
A quiet man, distinctive for his acumen, patience, generosity, cigars, bridge-hand triumphs, shock of gray hair and store of jokes, Eliasberg enjoyed the coin fuss. Without complaint, he set about acknowledging, one by one, the responses -- to him directly, and to Life, more than 7,000 letters.
Eliasberg, born an even 100 years ago, died just after his 80th birthday and just before the last big public exhibition of his coins, in Philadelphia, at the U.S. Mint, as part of the 1976 Bicentennial celebration. This was at government request: the National Coin Collection, housed at the Smithsonian Institution, is good but has always had gaps.
Louis E. Jr. and Richard A. Eliasberg, each a Baltimore businessman, turned out not to have inherited the genetic blueprint that marks, and impels, a collector. Ever since 1976, dealers and collectors the world over have waited for them to decide whether to sell their father's coins, and when.
Scene: the Quadrille Ballroom of the St. Moritz Hotel in Manhattan.
At the podium: Q. David Bowers, of Bowers and Merena, the Wolfeboro, N.H., firm that is to coin auctions what the U.S. Treasury is to government bonds.
Ground rules: payment in U.S. funds only. No credit cards.
The moment in time: midway in May's three-day, 1,348-lot Eliasberg sale. Specifically, Lot 807, "The Finest Known 1913 Liberty Head Nickel, [a] Superb Gem Proof [of] America's Most Famous Rarity," according to the sale program, an oversize, illustrated, 352-page, $50 catalog written by Bowers and staff associates.
Now Dave Bowers, gazing out over his standing-room-only audience, suggests an opening bid of $700,000. At once, around the room, half a dozen paddles are raised. The climb is on, its rungs $50,000 apart.
Near each other in the throng are two well-acquainted coin-deal pros. The man from California has persuaded himself that the lot will go for "between 750 and a million." Suddenly the man from Missouri jumps the bid, shouting, "One million dollars!"
The auctioneer interrupts his spiel to announce, "Ladies and gentlemen, numismatic history has been made!"
The bidding resumes, but California, hanging in at $1,300,000, is flustered. "I sort of froze," he says afterward. Following a resolute "One million, three hundred fifty thousand" from Missouri, there is a fateful silence. "Sold!" cries Bowers, "to Jay Parrino." (The customary 10 percent auctioneer's premium raises Parrino's bill to $1,485,000.)
Applause sweeps the ballroom. A recess is called so photographers can group Parrino, his associate David Krassner, and Richard Eliasberg.
Then the sale continues; strange to say, without print or broadcast attention. It is left for Maine Antique Digest to break the story of "The Most Expensive U.S. Coin." (Founded, published and edited by old-Baltimorean Samuel C. Pennington, M.A.D. has become the leading full-spectrum antiques-trade monthly, topping 350 pages an issue.)
And to total the sale's proceeds: $11,598,000.
Dave Bowers, now 58, has been a coin dealer since age 15. In 1975, on invitation from Mr. and Mrs. Eliasberg Sr., he came to Baltimore for a week of show and talk. What future for his host's bank-vault lode? Eliasberg, a player not a glory-chaser, expressed distaste for immobile institutional custody. But on Eliasberg's death, the year after, his will simply split the collection in two; for his sons, no hard-and-fast instructions.