SALEM – For 40 years, Salem resident Ryan Givens thought the 1913 Liberty Head nickel in his closet was a worthless counterfeit. Little did he know that his uncle’s coin would one day make his family famous.
Givens’ uncle, the late George Walton, was a well-known collector: guns, stamps, and especially coins were his specialty. The most notable item in his collection was a 1913 Liberty Head nickel, one of five ever minted.
No one is sure exactly why the five coins were minted, when the Liberty Head was set to be replaced by the “Buffalo” nickel the same year. For whatever reason, be it a test run or an unauthorized minting, five of those Liberty Head nickels were produced.
In 1942, the set of five coins was broken up and sold to several collectors all over the country. Walton purchased one in the 1940s, and he traveled the country displaying his famous coin.
A fatal car crash in 1962 changed the Walton family’s luck. Walton was killed in the crash and the coin collection went to his sister, Melva Givens. Someone hired to value the estate told Givens her brother’s 1913 Liberty Head nickel was a fake. With her brother’s reputation in tatters for exhibiting a counterfeit coin as a real one, she hid the coin in the closet of her Salem home.
The story and how George Walton was vindicated was featured on The Learning Channel’s program, “Accidental Fortune,” which aired on May 19.
It was not until 1993 that coin resurfaced. An attorney who was settling Melva Givens’ estate after her death offered $5,000 for the nickel to her son, Ryan Givens. Givens decided that the coin might be worth something after all.
“We had thoughts that this one might possibly be real,” Givens said.
After pursuing dead ends for 10 years, Givens finally reached a turning point. At the 2003 World’s Fair of Money in Baltimore, the other four 1913 Liberty Head nickels were scheduled to be in the same place for the first time since 1942.
Beth Deisher, editor of “Coin World Magazine,” told Givens it was a great opportunity to have the coin authenticated by a team of experts. Givens agreed, and in a midnight meeting that included armed guards, the five coins were finally compared.
“The coin is absolutely genuine,” Givens said he and his siblings were told by the team of coin authenticators. His sister Cheryl Myers, who lives in Northern Virginia, played a big part in getting the coin authenticated, Givens added.
The Givens family was relieved. After spending years trying to vindicate their uncle Walter, his reputation was restored almost overnight.
“The main thought behind proving that coin was real is that now we can prove that Uncle George was telling the truth. He wasn’t lying to people,” Givens said. “The money was not important, and at the moment it still isn’t important.”
The coin is now on long-term loan to the American Numismatic Association’s Money Museum in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Meanwhile, The Learning Channel heard about the coin’s amazing story and decided to publicize the account on its special, “Accidental Fortune,” about everyday people who happen onto valuable items and sometimes strike it rich.
The segment was filmed on location in Salem, Vinton and Roanoke. Vinton resident Bootie Chewning, who represents Southwest Virginia for the Virginia Film Office, was called on to cast the characters and scout locations, she explained.
In mid-February, a cast of characters from all over the Roanoke Valley, as well as a small film crew from Pasadena, Calif., descended on Vinton for a shoot. The pivotal scene where the lawyer offers Givens $5,000 was shot in insurance agent Steve Musselwhite’s office on Washington Avenue. Givens’ Salem home was used and the Roanoke Civic Center was transformed into the Baltimore midnight meeting place.
Chuck Lionberger, who is community relations specialist for Roanoke County Schools, played the part of one of the coin authenticators.
In the end, Givens, Chewning, and the cast of actors were all happy with the result that aired last week.
“You never know what’s going to come out in the finished project,” Chewning said. “So I was really pleased that all of these people got ‘face time’. So even if it was only for three seconds, they can say, I’ve been on national TV.”