(Bloomberg) -- In the late 1980s, William Morton-Smith, a Santa Barbara, Calif.-based doctor, was rummaging through a garage that contained some of his deceased parents’ belongings. He opened the drawer of an old desk, and “there was a bunch of loose coins,” says Morton-Smith’s son, Tim.
Most people, when confronted with a pile of change, would simply put the coins in their pocket and forget about it. But “luckily,” Morton Smith says, “my dad had some wits about him, enough to realize they could be worth something.”
To be fair, Morton-Smith had a tip-off: The desk had belonged to his grandfather William Spaulding, the scion of a Boston Brahmin family whose wealth came primarily from sugar refineries. Together with his brother John, Spaulding was one of the wealthiest men in New England.
A 1915 “Who’s Who In New England” entry, for instance, details Spaulding’s partnership in the Nash, Spaulding & Co. sugar-refining company, along with his directorship of Boston Consolidated Gas Co. and trusteeship of the Suffolk Savings Bank, along with other lucrative positions.
(Helpfully, the entry also lists Spaulding’s country club and yacht club memberships, his home address—a mansion that still appears to be standing, at 99 Beacon Street— and the location of the Spaulding brothers’ summer home, a colossal manor house designed by the society architects Little & Browne in Prides Crossing, Mass.)
A Treasure Hunt
The Spauldings were prolific art collectors, and their 1921 donation of more than 6,000 Japanese prints to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston represents a significant cornerstone of the institution’s collection.
“But no one ever knew of any reference to coins,” says Morton-Smith.
Not long after his discovery back in the 1980s, Morton-Smith’s father began an investigation into the coin’s origins. What he found inspired him to keep hunting for more rare monetary units; the result is one of the most significant numismatic collections in the U.S.
“My dad had a thing for coins, prior to discovering the drawer,” his son says, “but that really kicked off his interest. It triggered a modern-day treasure hunt, where he peeled back the history of the coins.”
At the time of his death in 2016, Morton-Smith had amassed a set of coins whose value Brian Kendrella, the president of the coin auctioneer Stack’s Bowers Galleries, estimates at $10 million. “Dr. Morton-Smith was definitely a collector, but he was also—and I hate this term, but I’m going to use it—a trophy hunter,” says Kendrella. “He just bought spectacular pieces.”
The 1913 Liberty Head Nickel
The drawer contained colonial cents, half-cents, and most prominent, an almost-complete set of Liberty Head nickels. The coins were made from 1883 to 1912 and depict Lady Liberty on one side and a V, the roman numeral for 5, on the other.
The set, which is worth about $100,000, was missing a piece that would elevate its value to the millions: a rare 1913 version of the coin that was struck by the United States Mint before its run of Liberty Head nickels was canceled. “Since it was discovered, it’s been one of the most sought-after coins in the United States,” says Kendrella.
Just five examples of the 1913 coin are known to exist. One is at the Smithsonian Institution (and was once owned by King Farouk of Egypt), another is in the American Numismatic Association’s Money Museum in Colorado Springs, Colo., and three are in private hands.
After more than two decades, Morton-Smith finally completed his grandfather’s collection by purchasing one of those three nickels— the so called “Eliasberg Nickel,” named after its onetime owner, collector Louis Eliasberg, for a reported $5 million in 2007.
Now, as his children auction off the estate, that single 1913 nickel will come to auction at Stack’s Bowers in Philadelphia in August. (The children will not sell all of the set, for sentimental reasons.) The nickel carries a relatively conservative $3 million-to-$5 million estimate.
Not coincidentally, the coin was the key to Morton-Smith’s grandfather’s collection.
“The crazy thing,” his son says, “is that it started with that desk.”
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