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Rare coins worth millions displayed in New Orleans

Friday - 5/10/2013, 12:21pm  ET

Patick Heller of Lansing, Mich., looks at rare coins at the National Money Show held by the American Numismatic Association in the New Orleans Convention Center in New Orleans, La., Thursday, May 9, 2013. Heller was on the committee that helped design the 2004 Michigan state quarter. (AP Photo/Matthew Hinton)

STACEY PLAISANCE
Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Coin enthusiasts are getting a glimpse of more than $100 million worth of rare money, including some of the crown jewels of money collecting at the National Money Show in New Orleans.

Among the attractions are two exceedingly rare 1913 Liberty Head nickels valued at more than $5 million. One was hidden in a Virginia closet for four decades before selling at auction last month for $3.17 million. The other was frequently carried in the pocket of a former owner from Wisconsin so he could show it to strangers.

The show runs through Saturday.

The Liberty Head nickel, first minted in 1883, was replaced with a design featuring an American Indian and a buffalo in 1913. No 1913 Liberty Heads are known to have been released for circulation, so the five known to exist have been shrouded in mystery in numismatic circles.

Other highlights include an 1804 silver dollar valued at more than $3 million and an example of the first coin federally authorized by President George Washington -- a 1792 half disme, an early spelling of the word dime.

The 1804 dollar is known among collectors as the "king" of collecting, and it also has a mysterious history.

The United States did not strike silver dollars for circulation after 1803. But in the 1830s, as the nation began to expand trade in far-flung nations, diplomats wanted examples of U.S. coins to present to foreign rulers. So the most recent dollar design was modified with the date 1804 and struck for presentation sets. This didn't sit especially well with collectors of the day, so in the 1850s the mint is believed to have struck additional copies for them. About 15 total originals and restrikes are known.

The U.S. resumed striking dollars for circulation in large numbers beginning in 1840.

"The historical connection to coins and money, to the stories that go with them, that's what's so exciting. Coins are history," said Douglas Mudd, curator of the American Numismatic Association Money Museum in Colorado Springs, Colo., which has held the $3.17 million nickel for most of the past 10 years.

One of the 1913 nickels arrived by armed guard in New Orleans on Wednesday.

Jeff Garrett of Lexington, Ky., and friend Larry Lee of Panama City, Fla., bought the coin at auction in suburban Chicago last month. They were on hand at the money show.

"It's like a dream coin," said Garrett, who posed with Lee for pictures with the coin. "If you ever wanted one coin that you could just have your career to put on your mantel like, you know, I handled it for a while and it was really neat to have, this is it."

The show, which continues through Saturday, is being held at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center along the riverfront, not far from the Old U.S. Mint that began operation in 1838. The New Orleans mint had the distinction of issuing coins under three government authorities -- the United States, the Republic of Louisiana after its secession from the Union and the Confederate States. The mint ceased operations in 1861 as bullion ran out and reopened in 1879 after Reconstruction. It closed for good in 1909. Its coins can be identified by the distinctive "O'' mintmark.

Coins from the mint are on display at the show, as well as paper money and historic tokens produced in or for New Orleans and other locations in Louisiana. Some of the items are nearly 300 years old.

There are silver and bronze examples of the medal awarded to Zachary Taylor by Louisiana after his victories in the Mexican-American War and some rare items related to the great "Mississippi Bubble" paper currency scandal of the 1720s that created an economic crisis for France during colonial times and stunted Louisiana's growth for decades. The exhibit includes currency and satirical medals and tokens related to the financial disaster.

John Thornton, a coin collector from Baton Rouge, La., said he relished the opportunity to take in the exhibits.

"I find that when you go in your average coin shop, you don't see too many really early American issues of coins, but here you can see some of those, and the artwork on those is incredible," he said. "Just the beauty of those coins is something really to behold."

Mudd said New Orleans was a good place to produce silver and gold coinage because of its ability to import bullion from South America and the Caribbean.

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