In 1854, at the height of the California Gold Rush, the San Francisco Mint produced less than 300 special $5 coins. Only three were known to survive into modern times. Until today, that is. Now there are four.
The owner of the fourth coin, who wishes to remain anonymous, really was convinced that the coin was fake. Coin dealers thought it was a forgery too, insisting that there's no way he could have had a rare 1854 piece like that. But he brought it to the Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC), a Florida-based company that does third-party authentication of coins, and its experts confirmed this rare treasure was the real deal.
Authenticating the coin was no small task. The company had to do some sleuthing by comparing it to the three coins that are known to exist. The biggest problem? One of the known coins was stolen from the Du Pont family in 1967 and has never been recovered.
Back in October of 1967, the chemical company heir Willis H. Du Pont and his family were tied up in their Coconut Grove, Florida mansion while masked gunmen ransacked the place. The thieves made off with over 7,000 rare coins, some of which have been found in odd places over the years. But Du Pont's incredibly rare $5 piece from 1854, known as a Liberty Head Half Eagle in collecting circles, is still missing.
"We wanted to make sure that this wasn't that coin, so we were able to obtain images from when it was previously auctioned in 1962," Richard Montgomery, president of NGC, told Gizmodo over the phone.
Once NGC determined it wasn't the Du Pont coin, they received high-resolution images from the Smithsonian, where one of the coins is held, as well as from the Pogue Family, private collectors who own millions of dollars in coins.
"We look for common things that you'll see between the coins," Montgomery told Gizmodo. "You'll see the four in the digit is slightly attenuated or not as high in relief as the regular part of the four. We noticed that was exactly the same as the Smithsonian piece."
Subtleties like that - along with what Montgomery calls "proprietary" methods to inspect the coin - helped them verify that this piece was the real McCoy.
But where did the coin come from? Was it found a garage sale? In somebody's attic somewhere? Was it discovered in a time capsule? NGC isn't letting us in on that secret. The company will only say that the owner lives in New England and refers to the owner as a "he."
And what about the exact value of the coin? Montgomery says that's not their job since they don't deal in the sale of coins and only provide authentication and quality assessments. All they will say is that it's worth "millions."
"It's always incredible to find something that's long been thought not to exist," said Montgomery. "It really is like [NGC Chairman] Mark Salzberg describes it - like finding a Picasso at a garage sale. You do this long enough that you think a rarity won't pop up and then there it is."