From a million-dollar nickel to a hidden surprise in the attic, MainStreet readers share their incredible true stories of found treasure.
When we stumble upon a penny in the street, we tend to shrug it off, thinking that it's pointless to stop and pick it up. After all, we tell ourselves, how much is a penny worth, anyway?
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But imagine if that penny were a nickel, and not just any nickel, but an extremely rare one that had been sought after by numismatics for years and was valued at $2.5 million. Ryan Givens's uncle, the famed collector George Walton, possessed such a coin, but when his estate left the nickel to Givens's mother, it ended up sitting in her closet gathering dust for nearly four decades until Givens was prodded to take a second look.
MainStreet decided to look at what it means to "luck into" found treasure, and all the exciting ways this can happen. From Givens's heartwarming tale of the Liberty Head nickel that vindicated his uncle to a historical ranch in Lampasas, Texas, that literally abounds with buried treasure, MainStreet is excited to share three tales that are sure to boggle your mind and inspire you to clean out your closet.
Up in the Attic
Steven Hoffer had a hunch there was treasure lurking in his parents' attic when he dropped by one day to sort through the many boxes that had been sitting there, sealed, for nearly 30 years.
"I was an only child, an odd kid," says the part-time recording artist from a suburb outside of San Francisco. "I always kept track of my toys really well, everything I had I really saved. But once you grow up and see that you have stuff, you watch shows and you want to get as much money as you can."
The "sea of boxes" crowding his parents' attic were mostly labeled 1975 or 1976, but many were filled with belongings dating to 1977, the year when an epic space opera from George Lucas sparked a serious toy obsession for Hoffer.
"It was almost like found money," the composer says of the 50 sets of first edition Star Wars toys he found in the attic. "Instantly, it's like I had this investment that I was forced to now manage and make proper decisions on. I found that I'm sitting on a gold mine that's worth up to $10,000."
Hoffer took it upon himself to thoroughly research the toys and sell them in bulk to a comic book store in San Francisco.
"They were blown away, but didn't want to show their full enthusiasm," he recounts of the sellers, especially since he's been told by friends that the collectors market is tough. But for Hoffer, the items were an unexpected windfall that came at a rather tough time.
"I have friends that tell me, 'Hold onto this, maybe the value will go up in 20 years or so'," he says. "But I work in the music industry and things are tight right now, so I definitely see this as a way of supplementing my income. This investment was dumped on my lap. I don't have a personal attachment."
Lampasas, Texas: Locals call it Hill Country, a lush expanse of rolling hills, but to Pablo and Beverly Solomon, it's home to their historic, sprawling ranch built in 1856--and roughly 50 acres of buried treasure.
"It's a state historic site, though it's privately owned," Pablo, a sculptor, explains in his trademark drawl. "Any time we dig in the yard for any reason, whether it's to put in a phone line or plant a tree, we've found coins going as far back the Civil War. We found a Confederate cavalry spur for boots, lots of old boots, really old toys, some cast-iron toys that were well over 100 years old."
And the list doesn't end there. The Solomons have found old tools, cast-iron goods hand-forged by a blacksmith dating back to the 18th century, old hand forks (a gardening tool), toys and even Native American artifacts that are 2,000-7,000 years old.
"We've found some really nice Indian arrowheads," Solomon says, "plus a grindstone and grinding bowl. We found a little porcelain doll, probably from Germany, and one time we found an old Christmas ornament that was stamped, I want to say 1880."
While it's legal to sell "found treasure" from state historical sites in Texas, Solomon and his wife choose not to do so, instead viewing the bounty as a token of the house they bought in 1988.
"We choose not to sell them because they're important to us," Solomon says. "We like to hang them on our walls."
The $2 Million Nickel
George Walton loved nothing more than collecting rare coins, and when the North Carolina dealer was killed in a car accident in 1962, his extended family inherited a princely sum.
Among the pieces was one of five Liberty Head nickels bearing the date 1913.
As the story goes, the main U.S. coin between 1883 and 1912 was the Liberty Head, which was replaced in 1913 by the Indian/Buffalo coin.
"There weren't supposed to be any 1913 Liberty Head nickels made," Givens explains, "but there was a period of time that the U.S. Mint said, 'Let's wait and see what we can do with it,'" and the Mint held onto the dies.
About five years later, a U.S. Mint employee used the dies to create five 1913 Liberty Head coins, perhaps in a shady move to trigger his own collecting craze. Givens says the Mint would contend they were never printed, but this made the coins even more desirable to collectors. When Walton lucked into the nickel in 1945, he cherished it with all his heart, taking great care to remind his family that he was sitting on a fortune.
Givens never doubted Uncle George, but the host of auctioneers who appraised the nickel in 1962 after Walton's death felt differently. Something was amiss, and so it was left to gather dust in Givens's mother's closet, where she kept it for 40 years.
In 1992, Givens' mother passed away and in a strange twist of fate, the coin collecting community renewed its interest in the mysterious nickels, which were now said to be worth millions.
"I didn't pay attention to it until a gentleman asked me if I had it or knew where it was," says Givens. "He offered $5,000, but I told him I couldn't sell it and he'd have to ask my family."
But Givens couldn't shake the idea that the nickel might be the real thing. When the fourth Liberty Head nickel sold in 1993, he had to find out for sure.
"It was fun to imagine it to be real, even though I knew it wasn't, but the more I looked at it, the more I couldn't find anything wrong with it," he says.
Ten years later, it all came together.
On a fateful night, Givens attended the American Numismatic Association's annual convention in July, where there was to be a great display of all four Liberty Head nickels. A little while before an editor at Coin World had wanted to do a piece on the altered-date coins, and had her reporter tap Givens's sister, Cheryl Myers, for an interview about Uncle George. The editor also had an idea to have Myers feature the coin in the ANA's display because after all, it was part of the story.
But what happened next took everyone by surprise.
In an effort to find the missing nickel, the coin dealing firm Bowers and Merena, with the help of Donn Pearlman, offered a $1 million bounty to whoever could come forward with the authentic piece. With all the coins now in one place at the convention, a group of six professional appraisers, as well as Pearlman and Givens, examined Walton's coin. And after hours of comparing and contrasting, what they found took the coin collecting world by storm—the coin was the one.
"It vindicated Uncle George," says Givens.
Today, the George Walton Nickel is still owned by the Givens family, but travels to exhibits around the country. It is currently on display at the Money Museum in Colorado.
"It's just an interesting coin to look at, and from our point of view, it's even more interesting because of the mystery of when they tried to authenticate it in 1962," Givens says. "It's something that's done a lot for the family, and it was good for my uncle—usually people forget collectors, but his name came back in the news. Mainly it's the story behind it, what's happened to it, where it's been."
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- George Walton