While the headline calls it a "rare coin," the truth behind the "Racketeer Nickel" is more nuanced and this article from the Rapid City Journal gets it right with comments from archeologists Kevin and Margie Akins, authors of Numismatic Archeology of North America.
In what is being described as a "Eureka!" moment, numismatists examining a treasure trove of coins unearthed during four years of archeological digs in this Black Hills community have discovered what may be one of the most unusual coins on earth.
Dubbed the "Racketeer Nickel," the 1883 U.S.-minted coin was uncovered July 31, 2001, during one of four archeological digs in Deadwood’s famed Chinatown district.
Found 59 centimeters below the surface of the soil in an area known as Trench 2, the coin’s location was recorded into a geographical information system for future reference. It was then transported to the South Dakota Archeological Research Center in Rapid City with 226 other coins found in the digs for cataloguing and assessment.
In 2009, the coin joined a quarter-million other historical artifacts in a new archeological lab and storage facility housed in the bowels of Deadwood City Hall, where it sat for seven years until California coin experts Kevin and Margie Akins re-discovered it late last month and realized what they had.
In 1883, the U.S. Mint issued a new 5-cent nickel (though it was not yet consistently called a nickel, as the 3-cent nickel coin was still occasionally used). At the time, it was an innovation in that for the first time, a non-precious metal coin carried a Liberty-head design, Kevin Akin told the Journal.
“This design was similar to that on gold coins of the time,” he explained. “So when the early 1883 V nickels came out with no 'cents' inscription below the Roman numeral 'V’ for 5, it was new to everyone, and grifters immediately began gold-plating them to pass as $5 gold coins.”
Last year, the city of Deadwood and its Historic Preservation Commission hired the Akins, authors of the recently published 300-page field guide, “Numismatic Archeology of North America,” to examine 202 Asian coins unearthed during the Chinatown Digs.
Using photographs of the coins supplied by the city, their task was to identify each with the intention of tracing the origins of the coins and tokens discovered in the Wild West town in an effort to shed light on the former gold camp’s frontier days. While visiting Deadwood in late September, historic preservation officials asked them to examine 16 of the Asian coins that could not be identified through the photos.
“When we found it, I held it up and said, 'Margie, look at this. A Racketeer Nickel, oh my God!’” Kevin recalled. “It was a bit of a Eureka moment.”
In researching the Racketeer Nickel, Kevin Akin said he had found more than 1,000 of them on sale on eBay as well as a number of well-worn stories tied to their use by scam artists on unsuspecting, easily deceived individuals.
The most interesting vignette involved a deaf-mute named Josh Tatum who noticed the nickel was the same size and had a similar look to $5 gold pieces, Akin noted. So Tatum began plating them in gold and passing them off on small purchases. After he was arrested, his attorney argued in court that Tatum could not have asked for change because he could not speak and thus, no crime had been committed. The court agreed and released the young man.
The problem with that tall tale, and the vast majority of the hundreds of purported Racketeer Nickels available for purchase online, is that they are all unproved, according to Akin.
“It’s pretty easy to plate a nickel,” he said. “It makes such a great story, but they’re fakes. None of them has the provenance of this particular coin, the Deadwood Racketeer Nickel.”
I would agree that this particular Racketeer Nickel is a special one because of its provenance and dating to a 19th century site. And "Deadwood" is a cool name. It's no million-dollar piece, but would still make a buzzworthy exhibit at a major coin show.
While we're on the topic of blockbuster exhibits, why not try for a loan of another archeological gold coin find, Lt. Dixon's Lucky Double Eagle recovered from the wreck of the Hunley.
To read the complete article, see:
Eureka moment arises as experts discover rare coin in Deadwood
To read an earlier E-Sylum article about Dixon's Lucky coin, see:
HUNLEY SUB LUCKY GOLD COIN FOUND
Wayne Homren, Editor
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