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Los Angeles Times

A rare 1913 Liberty Head nickel, buried in a family closet for 40 years, sold at auction for $3.2 million.

Only five of the nickels are known to exist, and three are available to collectors, according to Heritage Auctions, which handled the sale on Thursday night in Schaumburg, Ill., and received 19 bids.

The winning bidders were two men from Panama City and Lexington, Ky. The final price exceeded an initial estimate of at least $2.5 million.

"The 1913 Liberty nickel is one of America's most famous rare coins," said Todd Imhof, executive vice president at Heritage Auctions. "This particular one was off the radar for decades until it literally came out of the closet after a nationwide search."

The nickel took a circuitous route to the auction house.

A North Carolina collector, George Walton, purchased the nickel in the mid 1940s in a trade for other coins worth about $3,750, according to Heritage Auctions. Walton was carrying the nickel and other collectibles when he was killed in a car crash in 1962 en route to a coin show.

The coin was recovered from the wreckage, and appraisers told his Virginia family it was a fake. But his sister kept it anyway. In 2003, Walton's heirs decided to have it reassessed.

"I remember it like it was yesterday," said David Hall of the Professional Coin Grading Service, among the first to confirm its authenticity. "The minute I looked at it, I was 99.9 percent" certain.

In 2010, another 1913 Liberty Head nickel was bought for $3.7 million, according to the auction site.

Information from the Chicago Tribune was used in this report.