Million-dollar mystery persists years after Roanoker's death
A New Hampshire museum is offering a $1 million reward for a missing Liberty nickel, one of five in the world.
By MASON ADAMS THE ROANOKE TIMES
Roanoke coin dealer George Walton was on his way to a coin show in Wilson, N.C., when he reached the crossroads of death and legend.
The 55-year-old Walton had almost arrived on the rainy night of March 9, 1962, when he collided head-on with another car. The wreck killed Walton and scattered his coin collection worth $250,000 over the road.
Supposedly among the scattered coins was the crown jewel in Walton's collection, a 1913 Liberty nickel.
After the wreck, the nickel disappeared. But last month, a New Hampshire museum offered a $1 million reward for the missing coin, one of five in the world. The locations of the other four are known.
The reward, merely the latest and greatest in a series over the years, has sparked a new wave of interest in Walton, who was the last person known to have owned the coin. Bounty hunters and coin enthusiasts alike have turned their attention to Walton's life and death in search of clues that could lead them to the million-dollar nickel.
The five Liberty nickels were minted in 1913, the year the United States shifted to buffalo nickels. According to legend, employees of the U.S. Mint sneaked into the building after hours and made several Liberty nickels with the 1913 date.
"There was a lot of collusion going on then," said Lawrence Lee of the American Numismatic Association Money Museum. "In the 1860s, the president fired the head of the Mint because there was so much corruption going on. This was a continuation of that thing. Somebody was clearly making some stuff and slipping it out the back door."
No one knows for sure how many nickels were made. But only five have been verified. They showed up in the hands of Samuel Brown, an ex-employee of the Philadelphia Mint, a few years after they were made.
Max Mehl, a Dallas businessman, placed ads in newspapers around the United States during the 1930s, offering a reward for a supposed sixth nickel. He never found it, but he did use the interest generated by the ads to obtain a lot of other valuable coins. The whereabouts of Brown's five nickels are well documented until the 1940s. In 1941, Conway Bolt purchased one but said he traded it to a millionaire in Winston-Salem, N.C. According to one account, Bolt said he traded it to "Reynolds," and a favorite coin debate is who "Reynolds" could be: cigarette magnate R.J. Reynolds or a member of the Reynolds aluminum family? Or someone else?
In any case, Walton supposedly obtained the nickel from that millionaire in a trade, said Beth Deisher, editor of Coin World magazine. Walton estimated he paid $3,750, according to a Raleigh News & Observer story.
From there, things get blurry. Not everyone agrees Walton actually had the Liberty nickel. Most experts - including Lee and Deisher - think he did own it, at least for a bit.
Walton: The man surrounded by lots of myths
Walton lived in Roanoke, but only part time. According to a 1962 article in The Roanoke Times, his home was the Ponce de Leon Hotel on Campbell Avenue. When he wasn't there, he was at similar hotel "homes" in Charlotte, N.C., and Jacksonville, Fla., or on the road at coin or gun shows to buy, sell and trade valuable pieces.
"My general impression of him is he was a bachelor and pretty much a loner," Deisher said. "He had a clientele throughout the Southeast. He had a lot of clients in North Carolina, and he lived in hotels there for a period of time."
Harold Bowman, a Roanoke County man who said Walton dated his best friend's sister, remembered Walton as "a bit of a braggart." "I never saw him without a real nice double-breasted suit," Bowman said. "He was a coin collector, a gun collector and other antiques. And a gem collector. He had a lot of everything. He showed me a double handful of gold coins one time, and a handful of cut polished gemstones, unmounted. I never saw the coin [the Liberty nickel], but he told me he had it."
Walton had thin hair, which he combed straight back, Bowman said. He was stout but always looked trim in his suit.
"He always looked just as sharp as he could be," Bowman said. "I never did see him in casual dress."
Walton had three sisters and two brothers, all of whom lived in the Roanoke area. None is alive today, but his sister-in-law Lucille Walton still lives here.
Lucille Walton said she did not know Walton well. She remembers his charisma and showmanship, largely from several newspaper articles written about him during his life.
"I have one clipping where George Walton was flipping the [Liberty] nickel in the air and catching it. He said it wasn't the real nickel, but he had the real one put away in the bank down in Charlotte," Lucille Walton said. "It's in one of those clippings he goes on and says he saw all five of them, and he could have bought all of them.
"Famous George. He was famous. There are pictures of him with his rare coins and all these famous big shots. These little people would put him down. You know how tales go," Lucille Walton said. "Some people say he would tip very little, but that was because George didn't want people to think he had very much money."
Appointment with fate
Most of the George Walton legend stems from the fatal car wreck on March 9, 1962. Walton was on his way to a coin show to display the Liberty nickel, according to a Wilson Daily Times story from the day of the wreck. Coin World reported that police recovered the nickel from the wreck.
However, there is no mention of the nickel in later stories about the auctioning of Walton's coin collection in New York City. Stack's Coins ran the auction, which brought in $804,022, according to an October 1963 Roanoke Times story.
The disappearance of the nickel led some collectors to believe it was still near the wreck scene. For years, collectors were seen walking with metal detectors along North Carolina 264, looking for a gleam in the grass.
"There's a real myth about that car wreck that's grown up," said Lee. "We don't really know [what happened], but it sure makes a good story. I've also heard that half the people don't know the real site of the wreck and are looking in the wrong place."
Most coin experts now agree that the 1913 Liberty nickel found at the wreck was a fake, a 1910 Liberty nickel, which is fairly common but can be made to look like a 1913 nickel by scratching out part of the date. Walton apparently kept the fake for everyday use at shows, while the real nickel was in a safe-deposit box in Charlotte.
After the wreck, the fake nickel was acquired by one of Walton's siblings, now deceased. That coin now resides with one of Walton's other relatives in the Roanoke Valley, who does not want to be identified because of the coin's notoriety.
Other parts of Walton's collection were acquired by Charles Walton, George's brother and Lucille's husband. Lucille Walton said her husband kept the coins in their basement. Their coin collection, however, was stolen in the early 1990s.
"When it hit the papers that my husband inherited the money, we were robbed twice," Lucille said. "Our coin collection is gone. We had it in the basement. It was silly for us to have it there."
So where is the real 1913 Liberty nickel?
Lucille Walton doesn't think her brother-in-law would have sold it.
"He wouldn't have sold that nickel. He was going to build a museum in Myrtle Beach [S.C.] and put that coin there, and all his stuff," Lucille said. "He wouldn't have sold that nickel under any circumstances."
But Deisher thinks that Walton sold the nickel shortly after he acquired it. She said it is unlikely a dealer such as Walton would have held onto such a valuable piece for 15 or more years.
"He often said he 'had access' to it," Deisher said. "He probably had sold or traded the genuine coin to a client and knew where it was. There are many people who believe it was perhaps a wealthy collector in the Southeast, because that seems to be where most of his clients were. But his reach of clients could literally be anywhere. That's where the trail really just goes cold.
"It is very likely that the coin resides in an old-time collection. Either it's still sitting in a collection somewhere, or sometimes collections are stolen," Deisher said. "If something like that happened, it's not worth melting, and it could have been casually spent. That just opens up, literally, this coin could be anywhere."
Attempt to recoup $100,000 fails
16 June 2003 By ANNA WALLIS
A bid by a Palmerston North art dealer to get $100,000 out of convicted Ashhurst fraudster Steven McKelvey has failed because his debtor has been declared bankrupt - for the second time.
Tony Martin went to Palmerston North District Court on Friday in an attempt to test a financial statement given to the courts by Mr McKelvey, but was told by Judge Geoffrey Ellis that he was wasting everyone's time.
The matter should be taken up with the police or the Official Assignee, the judge said, who described Friday's hearing as "pointless".
Mr Martin was awarded the money after Mr McKelvey duped him into exhibiting paintings purportedly by French masters Gauguin and Renoir in Auckland three years ago.
Mr McKelvey was ordered to pay $100,000 to cover Mr Martin's expenses and costs by Judge Chris Tuohy in Wellington District Court on December 6, 2002.
The case, said to be one of New Zealand's biggest art scams, was brought by Mr Martin against Mr McKelvey, an unemployed tradesman.
In twists and turns in the case, it has been suggested the bogus paintings were by master scammer Carl F Goldie, aka Karl Sim, though he has denied responsibility.
During the controversy over the exhibition, Mr Martin went as far as to get a lock of hair from Gauguin's great-granddaughter to determine authenticity.
And in another surprise, Mr McKelvey has listed art work "stolen by Tony Martin" among his assets.
The paintings are currently held by Mr Martin's lawyer in Palmerston North.
It has been revealed that Mr McKelvey was already a convicted fraudster and bankrupt when he approached Mr Martin in August 1998 about the art works.
In December 1989, Mr McKelvey was sentenced to four and a half years in jail on 425 fraud charges. While an employee of the former Department of Social Welfare, he had over several years diverted $1.9 million into his own bank account.
He has also been declared a bankrupt.
In Friday's civil action, Mr Martin sought to change Mr McKelvey's statement of financial means given to Palmerston North District Court, which said he had income of $14,332 a year, no assets and $3.29 in the bank.
Mr Martin went to court wanting to know why Mr McKelvey continued to say he lived in Drury, Auckland, when the owner of a property in Sherwood Grove, Ashhurst, had stated Mr McKelvey had been his tenant "totally, continually" for the past five years.
Mr McKelvey was also the registered owner of a Honda Accord that he had not listed in his financial statement.
But Judge Ellis said Mr Martin couldn't continue with any action, because the matter was now under the jurisdiction of the Official Assignee.
Judge Ellis said that if McKelvey were avoiding paying the money, Mr Martin had to either contact the police to press perjury charges or the Official Assignee to have the bankruptcy declaration reviewed.
Mr Martin said he had already contacted the Official Assignee but received no reply.
The Manawatu Standard tried to speak to Mr McKelvey after the court hearing, but he refused to answer questions.
Tablet Is A Fake
The "Yehoash Tablet" is a forgery - at least according to a board of experts convened by the Antiquities Authority. The panel included archaeologists and ancient Hebrew script experts, whose findings will be published next week. It appears that Oded Golan, an antiquities dealer who tried to sell the stone, will be indicted - although he claims that the committee did not even hear him out before coming to its conclusion.
The stone, whose existence became publicly known last November, was found to be genuine by Israel's Geological Institute. It was thought at the time that its ten lines of Phoenician script described activities carried out by King Yehoash in the First Temple some 2,700 years ago, and was written at his behest. In March, the police took hold of the tablet, after MK Uri Ariel demanded an investigation into the activities of the Arab who claimed to have found it on the Temple Mount, as well as of the antiquities dealers acting on his behalf. At least two antiquities experts told Arutz-7 last March that they though the tablet was a fake.
Sharp end of civilisation
By Peter Aspden Published: June 13 2003 15:45 | Last Updated: June 13 2003 15:45
They arrived in London in 1811, cracked and battered, but, like an asylum seeker with suspect credentials, they had to wait for another five years before they found a new home, in a brick-built shed in Bloomsbury.
Within months, they became one of the city's most compelling attractions. One admirer, the painter Benjamin Haydon, wrote with amazement that 1,200 people had visited them in a single day. He liked to record conversations in his diary: "We overheard two common-looking decent men say to each other, 'How broken they are, a'ant they?' 'Yes,' said the other, 'but how like life'."
"Thus began the long exile of the Parthenon sculptures, hence forth to be known as the Elgin Marbles, after the Scottish aristocrat who removed them from their Athenian home and brought them to London.
Today they sit in the somewhat insipid light of the British Museum's Duveen Gallery and attract considerably more than 1,200 people a day - some five million a year visit the museum, and the Marbles are second only to the Egyptian mummies in popularity.They have been repaired, restored and (controversially) cleaned; but they still look like life, and they still form an integral part of the museum's extraordinary collection of antiquities. Meanwhile, back in their homeland... at the foot of the Acropolis, in the shadow of the denuded Parthenon, a flurry of activity marks the laying of the foundations of a new building.
This will be the new Acropolis Museum, designed by the French-Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi. Its distinguishing characteristic is a glass rectangle on top of the building, designed in the same proportions and at the same angle to the hill as the Parthenon.
The glass hall is due to open in time for the start of the Olympic Games in Athens next August. It has been designed to house the Elgin Marbles, those very treasures that have not left Bloomsbury for 200 years.
In his office overlooking the building works, the museum's director, Dimitrios Pandermalis, shows me architectural sketches scattered on his desk, all of which contain drawings of the exiled sculptures in their proposed new home.
He moves to the other side of the office to show me a plaster cast of part of the Parthenon frieze, two riders reining in their bucking horses, and illustrates how the lighting will highlight the work's masterful detailing in the new museum.
It is part of the west frieze, almost all of which was left behind in Athens by Elgin, and I say that this cast is presumably taken from the Athenian collection. "No, no, no. This is the only block in the west frieze that is in London," and he lets out a laugh that is at the same time rueful and mischievous.
It is not news that the Greeks want their Marbles back. The argument has broken out sporadically ever since their removal, but the case for their return was given added impetus in the early 1980s by the country's charismatic minister of culture Melina Mercouri, a former actress whose performance as the raucous, hedonistic prostitute in Never on Sunday catapulted modern Greece -the Dionysian antithesis of fusty, Apollonian ancient Greece - into the world's cultural consciousness.
From the start, Mercouri, the granddaughter of a mayor of Athens, cleverly harnessed her personal allure to the populist thrust of Greece's new socialist government, headed by Andreas Papandreou. But the Greek case had substance too, largely focusing on the very acquisition of the sculptures.
Thomas Bruce, seventh earl of Elgin, freshly appointed ambassador to the Sublime Porte at Constantinople and art lover, had originally planned merely to make sketches and casts of the ruins at the Acropolis.
When his illustrator, the Italian Giovanni Batista Lusieri, was having trouble in getting access to the site, he asked for a firman, or authorisation, from the Porte to help his cause. Elgin requested a document which included the freedom to take away "qualche pezzi di pietra con inscrizioni, e figure" ("some pieces of stone with inscriptions or figures thereon").
On this authorisation, Elgin set to work, collecting some pieces that had already been removed from the Parthenon and lay damaged, but also using marble saws to remove works from the building itself. He ended up taking 56 of 97 surviving blocks of the frieze, 15 of the 64 metopes and 19 out of 28 preserved figures from the pediments.
From the Greek point of view, the apparent flimsiness of the authorisation was one thing; the fact that it was issued by the Ottomans, who were coming to the end of their 400-year-old occupation of Greece and had demonstrably cared little for that country's ancient monuments, was quite another.
There was revolution in the air at the beginning of the 19th century, which did not go unnoticed in Elgin's party. His architect, Thomas Harrison, was forced to write an anxious letter to his employer: "The opportunity of the present good understanding between us and the Porte should not be lost, as it appears very uncertain, from the fluctuating state of Europe, how long this part of Greece may remain under its present master - Greece may be called maiden Ground." Mercouri used the ambiguous nature of Elgin's agreement with the Porte - an ambiguity not unnaturally denied by the British Museum - and the political resonance of the Ottoman occupation as the cornerstone of her emotive appeal for the return of the Marbles, which talked unashamedly of their sentimental significance to the Greek people.
But her arguments carried little weight with the museum's director Sir David Wilson, and their exchanges went on to become almost comically hostile. Mercouri asked to visit the Marbles in London; Wilson said it was unusual to allow burglars to "case the joint" in advance. Mercouri accused the British of cultural imperialism; Wilson said the appeal for restitution amounted to "cultural fascism - like burning books, that's what Hitler did".
Gradually Mercouri, and the Greeks, became resigned to there being no reconciliation between the Greek and British positions. On one visit to London, giving the Herbert Read lecture at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, when she had been expected to restate a case that had begun to become all too familiar, she surprised all present by not referring to the Marbles at all.
Until her very last sentence: "Let me close by once more apologising to you and to my translator for my poor accent. I hear it and am reminded of what Dylan Thomas said of a British broadcaster: 'He speaks as if he had the Elgin Marbles in his mouth.' Thank you and goodnight." Wry humour had displaced Mercouri's righteous passion, and the game seemed to be up.
The award of the 2004 Olympic Games to Athens in 1997 gave fresh encouragement to those who hoped for a dramatic gesture of goodwill from the British Museum. A new plan to ask for the return of the Marbles began to be formulated. But this time it would be different.
The new minister of culture, Evangelos Venizelos, realised that to dispute the ownership of the Marbles would make no headway with the opponents of restitution so he tried a new tack.
He decided to concentrate on one line of argument only: that for the sake of artistic integrity, the Marbles should be reunified into the complete cycle, as they were conceived, and with the building from which they were taken.
In other words, they should be returned to Athens, but it wouldn't matter who owned them - they could be sent to Greece as a loan. In addition, Greece promised to forsake any claims on any other antiquity held in the museums of the world; to provide a series of loans of its most treasured objects to the British Museum and to provide a world-class museum that would provide a visual link between the Parthenon and its sculptures.
I meet Venizelos, a large, animated man, in his modest office at the ministry of culture behind Athens' national archaeological museum. A constitutional lawyer with a reputation for his eloquent speeches, he stresses that the new Greek position is taken on behalf "not of the Greek nation, nor the Greek people, but of the monument itself" and says the issue of actual ownership has become almost irrelevant.
In contrast to Mercouri's approach, he takes pains to "respect the dignity of British sensibilities, of the British arts community, of the British museum community". Most remarkably, he says that the Parthenon gallery in the new Acropolis museum could even be run as an "annexe" of the British Museum.
"It is time to rethink the role of the international museum at the beginning of the 21st century, which is absolutely different from the museum of two centuries ago which collected objects only to be concentrated in London or New York or Paris," he says.
"I have my own opinions about the ownership issue and the historical responsibilities of Lord Elgin and the British parliament. But I must respect the official position of the British Museum."
Up to a point. When I ask Venizelos about a recent proposal by Neil MacGregor, current director of the British Museum, that the Greeks use copies or digital representations of the sculptures held in London, he says with some irritation that it is "not acceptable, not just for us but in the eyes of international public opinion, to organise an exhibition of copies" - he almost spits the word out - "in the shadow of the Acropolis hill".
And when I ask him if he has any sympathy with the British Museum's position, which emphasises its importance as a testament to the Enlightenment project, his response is swift and pointed: "It is not a testament to the Enlightenment project, it is a testament to the colonial concept of culture and the arts.
It is not possible to understand an archaeological item out of its context, it is not possible to understand the construction of the Parthenon without the life and atmosphere and historical context of Athens.
This mechanical approach, of bringing different archaeological items of high interest to London, is a colonial approach. It is not the approach of the Enlightenment. The exhibition of the Parthenon Marbles out of their context in London is an artificial event. It is not a natural event."
I read out an extract from a House of Lords debate of a few years ago in which a member warned against the return of the Marbles, lest "the volatile Greeks... start hurling bombs around". How does that make him feel? Venizelos laughs, and offers me "an indirect answer".
"Greece is a peaceful and stable European country, at the core of the European Union. I would say that in London, or in New York, it is very important right now to be thinking about the need to protect the cultural heritage of an important area like Mesopotamia."
I visit Neil MacGregor - another lawyer, turned art historian - in his Bloomsbury office a few days after my return from Athens, and he is indeed thinking about Mesopotamia: the British Museum has been at the heart of the mission to trace the antiquities looted from the Museum of Baghdad.
When I wish him well on a forthcoming trip to Iraq, he expresses his own irritation that, at a time like this, the Greeks should be expending so much energy on such a "self-indulgent" project as the restitution of the Marbles. It is evident that he is no more sympathetic than Sir David Wilson to the arguments for their return.
For MacGregor, the shift in the Greek position is of little significance: "I'm glad [the Greeks] recognise the legitimacy of the museum's ownership but their ambition is still the perpetual removal of the Parthenon sculptures.
But given that it is not possible to reconstruct the original work of art in its entirety, nor even to reconstruct the sculptural decoration because so much of it has been lost completely, what we are talking about is in which European museum of which rich European country are [the Marbles] best displayed, and how should they be displayed for the maximum public benefit? That is the only question."
He says there remains a "clear and understandable" divergence between the two positions. "All the people who work in Greek museums are essentially archaeologists and you would expect any archaeologist to privilege original site and original context, and the location of the object at the particular moment of its making. But if you are a cultural historian it is a different question because a whole set of other contexts become important.
The context of the Greece which was defining itself against the Persian Empire; the Greece which was drawing its cultural inspiration from what it was seeing in Egypt and Assyria; the Greece which actually later shaped Roman culture - that kind of story can only emerge in a universal museum.
"Put very crudely, it is an accident of history that roughly half of [the Marbles] are here and half in Athens, and that seems to me to be pretty ideal because you can show these objects in two completely different stories.
I have great difficulty in seeing why one story should be privileged at the total exclusion of the other, which is the Greek position."
But the Marbles tell the story of the birth of democracy - is that not the most important story of all?
"The British Museum is the monument to the European Enlightenment, to the ideals of free and informed world citizenship. The ideals represented in the British Museum are every bit as important to the world as the ideals of 5th century [BC] Athens. They are all part of the same thing."
And then MacGregor says something that is perhaps his most definitive statement yet on the issue: "I would argue that the life of these objects as part of the story of the Parthenon is over. They can't go back to the Parthenon. They are now part of another story."
What about the aesthetic argument, the sentimental argument, what about taking the Marbles back to the place of their conception, back to the unique light of Attica?
MacGregor's response borders on the scathing. "Well, every place has got its own light. They were never meant to be white sculptures under the unique light of Attica. They were never meant to look the way they do now.
"The unique light of Attica was shining on polychrome sculptures, but nobody is saying we should repaint them in their original colours."
How does he feel about the new, half-empty Acropolis museum? "It is their decision. But I find it startling that a European government should build something to house something that it acknowledges belongs legally to the national collection of another European country."
Surely, I ask finally, there is some sympathy with the Greeks wanting to reclaim antiquities which were taken away by a British aristocrat with the authority of an Ottoman decree? MacGregor remains unmoved: "That is a Braveheart view."
I talk to Bernard Tschumi briefly before his lecture on his new Acropolis Museum at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London. He says the return of the Marbles to Athens was a key part of his brief when designing the Parthenon hall, emphasising the importance of displaying the frieze in its original configuration, outward-looking and in sequence.
"I am convinced it will happen," he says.
"I just don't know when." Tschumi, like Pandermalis, does not like to discuss the possibility of the half-empty hall.
There has been more goodwill expressed on both sides of this contentious issue in recent years. Yet it seems finally irreconcilable, this clash between the stark, literal light of Athens and the diffused, metaphorical light emanating from the "sooty vitals", as the Greek author Nikos Kazantzakis put it, of Bloomsbury.
It is impossible not to be moved - in heart and mind, respectively - by both stories. As Dimitrios Pandermalis leans over the sketches of the new museum, he confirms to me that, if there is no restitution, there will be no replicas, no copies, no virtual-reality displays in the Parthenon hall; just a series of numbers in place of the missing pieces.
"It is," he says a little wearily, "a matter of authenticity. The Acropolis has had a troubled history. Its first destruction was by the Persians, then there was the bombardment [of the Parthenon] by the Venetians, and now it seems the right time to gather everything together again. To correct the destructions. To correct history."