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Challenging and Affordable, Nickel Series Has Several Virtues
By Mike Thorne, Coins Magazine
September 05, 2012

This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine.
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The new design was the Liberty Head, or V-nickel, as it is sometimes known. The “V” is for the large letter on the coin’s reverse, which is the Roman numeral for the number 5.

Actually, the impetus for the new coin came from Joseph Wharton, a leading advocate of the use of nickel in coins. Not coincidentally, Wharton was deeply involved in mining and refining the metal. In fact, according to Q. David Bowers, writing in A Guide Book of Shield and Liberty Head Nickels, Wharton “had loomed large in the creation of the three-cent coin in 1865 and the Shield nickel in 1866.…”

In 1881, Wharton had a new idea, instead of just three-cent pieces and nickels made from a nickel alloy, cents too would be minted in 75 percent copper and 25 percent nickel. To this end, Mint Superintendent A. Loudon Snowden ordered the Mint’s chief engraver Charles E. Barber to develop consistent designs for new cents, three-cent pieces, and five-cent pieces. The three coins would differ only in their sizes and in the Roman numerals on their reverses.

2012 U.S. Coin Digest: Nickels
2012 U.S. Coin Digest: Nickels

This download allows you to focus your attention strictly on nickels! Get your download today!

Only the five-cent coin was actually produced. As Walter Breen described Barber’s design in his Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins, the obverse “featured a profile of Liberty, copied from a Greco-Roman marble head, onto which Barber (imitating Morgan’s dollar design) had affixed several wheat ears, cotton bolls, etc., above and behind the coronet. [The reverse] displayed value in Roman numerals within a rococo wreath of wheat, corn, and cotton.”

Nothing happened with this design in either 1881 or 1882, but in 1883, Treasury Secretary Charles Folger approved the idea for a new nickel design. Breen notes, “The version he chose had stars (rather than lettering) around head, and motto below wreath without CENTS: a stupid blunder.”

The story of the “no cent” nickels has been recounted many times: Persons with larceny in mind gold-plated the new nickels, reeded them, and passed them off as new gold $5 pieces. In addition, many of the new centsless coins were saved by ordinary people who reasoned correctly that the Mint would quickly come up with a new design to correct its “mistake.” Because of this differential retention, the 1883 “no cents” Liberty Head nickel is more available today than the coin that replaced it later in 1883, despite the fact that nearly three times as many were made of the latter.

Bowers mentions the oft-recounted tale of Josh Tatum, a deaf mute, who supposedly stood trial for passing gold-plated nickels. As the story goes, Tatum was not convicted, because he never actually said anything to his victims. As Bowers puts it, “This is one numismatic tale that refuses to go away.…” Apparently, it’s just a good story, not a true one.

As a collectible, Liberty Head nickels have a lot going for them. For one thing, a complete date/mintmark set consists of just 33 different coins, as all Liberty Head nickels were made in Philadelphia except for Denver and San Francisco varieties produced in 1912, the last year of the series.

Note that my discussion of the collectible set does not include the essentially uncollectible 1913 Liberty Head nickel. This is the topic for another article, as only someone with millions of dollars in his coin budget would consider this a must-have date for a complete collection of Liberty Head nickels.

Another plus for the series is that only three of the dates lists for more than $100 in Good-4, and none of them is prohibitively expensive, at least in lower grades. The three keys are the 1885, 1886, and 1912-S. Of these, only the 1912-S had a small mintage (238,000), and as a last-year-of-issue coin and the first nickel minted in San Francisco, it was retained in large enough quantity to make it relatively available today, for a price.

As noted above, Liberty Head nickels began with the 1883 “no cents” variety, which had one of the lowest mintages of the entire series (5.5 million). However, as I indicated, many of these were saved. Bowers writes, “Today, examples are common in all Mint State grade levels.”

Average retail values (taken from Numismatic News “Coin Market”) range from $7 in G-4 to $215 in Mint State-65. If you can’t afford one in MS-65, it makes sense to purchase one in MS-63, which lists for just $46.50. Also, because a coin in this grade is so inexpensive, there would seem to be little point in buying one in either a circulated grade or in a lower mint-state grade (MS-60 through MS-62). As the quality of strike can vary considerably, choose one with the sharpest strike you can find.

Next, we have the 1883 “cents” variety, with a mintage of slightly more than 16 million pieces. As you might expect, because of all the interest in the “no cents” variety, this one was relatively overlooked. Because of this, its values range from $19 in G-4 to $625 in MS-65. Bowers writes, “Very few were saved [in mint state] at the time of issue.…”

If you want to spend less than $100 for an 1883 “cents,” the best coin you’re likely to get will be one in Extremely Fine-40, for $85. If you can afford one in mint state, the date lists for $215 in MS-63.

In 1884, the mintage dropped down to 11.3 million, with the result that this date is even more pricy than the 1883 “cent.” Its “Coin Market” value ranges from $22.50 in G-4 to $1,675 in MS-65. Like the preceding variety, the 1884 is still less than $100 in EF-40 ($92), and its MS-63 value is a relatively affordable $275. Bowers writes, “The 1884 is a plentiful date and is available in almost any grade desired.” “Gems are truly scarce,” however, which explains the MS-65 price.

The next two years, 1885 and 1886, are two of the three keys in the set. Mintages for the two dates are 1.5 million and 3.3 million, respectively, which sound fairly large. However, you have to remember that the nickel was an important coin in this time period, and Liberty Head nickels were workhorses in daily commerce.

Values for the 1885 range from $585 in G-4 to $8,650 in MS-65. In other words, there’s no grade for the date that’s not at least moderately expensive. At the present time, I have one of these, a coin graded G-6 by ANACS. I bought it from an eBay auction by a coin dealer in New Zealand. How in the world did it get so far “down under”?

Recently, I sold an 1885 graded About Good-3 by PCGS. In my opinion, the coin was actually better than the grade it received, as it had essentially full rims on both sides. However, the last digit of the date was decidedly weak, so PCGS called it AG-3. Unfortunately, no one shared my opinion of the coin, so I sold it at a slight loss.

I did better on an 1886 graded AG-3 by ANACS. I paid a price for the coin at auction that was significantly more than AGs typically bring but considerably less than its value in G-4 ($285). This was a coin with full rims front and back but weakness in some of the letters on the reverse. After it failed to sell on eBay, I took it to a coin show and shopped it around until I found someone who agreed with my grading rather than ANACS. I actually made a profit on this piece. About the 1886, Bowers writes, “The 1886 nickel is generally ranked as the second-rarest Liberty Head nickel in the early series, with 1885 first. However, in mint state, particularly at the gem level, the 1886 nickel eclipses the 1885 in rarity.”

The “Coin Market” values don’t support this observation, however, which suggests that the 1886 may be bargain priced in mint state relative to the 1885. In MS-60, -63, and -65, the 1886 lists for $1,950, $2,450, and $7,250, respectively, compared to “$1,950, $2,590, and $8,650 for the 1885.

The next seven Liberty Head nickels have mintages ranging from 10.7 million (1888) to 16.8 million (1891), and their values generally reflect the differences in mintages. For example, 1888 is the priciest of this group, with values ranging from $28 in G-4 to $1,500 in MS-65. The 1891 is one of the least expensive, ranging from $5.75 to $1,050 in the same grades.

About the 1888, which has the highest MS-65 value of the group, Bowers writes, “at the choice and gem Mint State levels quality can be a big problem. Finding a sharply struck coin with rich luster and good eye appeal is not easy to do.”

With one of the highest mintages of the group (16.3 million), the 1890 is the second most expensive of the bunch in MS-65 ($1,365). As Bowers writes, “The 1890 nickel should be plentiful in choice and gem Mint State, but it is not.” The problem was twofold: First, the coin market was at low ebb that year, and second, many of the date were weakly struck. The bottom line for the collector: If you can find a sharp example, jump on it.

The coin market and other markets were also in a slump in 1894, and the mintage of the Liberty Head nickels that year reflects this, as just 5.4 million were produced. Values for the date range from $16.50 in G-4 to $1,500 in MS-65. Bowers writes, “Mint State coins are scarce, and no-problem gems are rare.”

Although nearly twice as many nickels were minted in 1895 as in 1894, the 1895 has a higher value in MS-65 ($2,200). It’s much lower in other grades, however. For example, an MS-63 is listed for $215 compared to the 1894’s $425 value in the same grade. Bowers writes, “Once again, problem-free choice and gem nickels are a challenge, and relatively few of the 1895 date pass the test.”

With a relatively low mintage of 8.8 million, Bowers calls the 1896 “a key date,” as “fewer coins were saved as souvenirs than might have been the case.” Values range from $9 in G-4 to $1,950 in MS-65. “Today,” he writes, “sharply struck Mint State coins in higher grades are very elusive.…”

With a couple of exceptions (1898, 1909), mintages of Philadelphia issues from 1897 through 1912 are well above 20 million, with corresponding values across the range of grades. These are all inexpensive in MS-63, with values in this grade ranging from $127 to $175. These values strike me as remarkably inexpensive for uncirculated U.S. coins minted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

It’s worth noting that the 1909 has the lowest mintage (11.6 million) of any date after 1896. Not surprisingly, Bowers writes, “Today, the 1909 is the hardest to find of the later dates in gem Mint State.” “Coin Market” indicates that it is worth $1,075 in MS-65, but an MS-63 specimen lists for just $132, just $5 more than the most common dates.

Now, we come to two of the most interesting dates in the series, the two mintmarked 1912s. I’ll talk first about the 1912-D, the first nickel minted in Denver, with a mintage of 8.5 million pieces. Values range from $2.75 in G-4 to $2,200 in MS-65, with an MS-63 worth $360.

This is a date that Bowers thinks is underrated, a “sleeper” in other words, particularly in higher circulated and uncirculated grades. He writes, “Extremely Fine and About Uncirculated coins are quite scarce. In Mint State the 1912-D is much rarer than the mintage figure might suggest, especially when compared to the 1912-S.…” I was aware of Bowers’ thinking about the 1912-D when I bought a PCGS-graded AU-55 (with CAC sticker) a couple of years ago for $180. An AU-50 lists for $170 in “Coin Market.”

Of course, the 1912-S is one of the series key dates, with a mintage of just 238,000 pieces. Values, which for many years were remarkably low, have risen in recent years to the point that the date is somewhat pricy in all grades. The 1912-S ranges in value from $165 in G-4 to $5,900 in MS-65.

Bowers writes that the date is typically seen either well worn or in mint state, with relatively few available at intermediate grades. Although I always recommend buying only key-date coins certified by the major services, this is particularly important for the 1912-S, as fakes exist in the marketplace. It’s not difficult to spot one of these creations, however, as “All examples [of the 1912-S] seen have bulging in the obverse field and are somewhat lightly detailed.… Any sharp piece is likely an alteration from a Philadelphia Mint coin, made by adding an S.”

Although the certification numbers from the major services indicate that more 1912-Ds have been certified than 1912-Ss, the ratio is on the order of 2 to 1. Bowers points out that the mintage ratio of the two coins is actually about 36 to 1, which verifies that the 1912-D is actually much scarcer in higher grades than most people think.

In this article, I’ve focused on collecting circulation issues of Liberty Head nickels. >Collecting proof issues is another good way to approach V-nickels.

Because all Liberty Head nickels except the 1912-D and -S were minted in Philadelphia, each year of Liberty Head nickels, including the 1883 “no cents” variety, is available as a proof issue. Proof issues are desirable for their low mintages relative to circulation varieties and also because they show the maximum extent of the design Barber intended.

Proof mintages were greatest in the first year of the series, with the production of 6,783 of the “cents” variety and 5,219 of the “no cents.” Mintages thereafter are well below 5,000, with a range from 1,475 (1907) to 4,763 (1909).

With a few exceptions, values in PR-65 are below $1,000 apiece. In fact, “Coin Market” prices each of the dates from 1887 through 1912 at $585 in this grade. The 1883 “cents” and 1884 list for $610 each, with the 1883 “no cents” variety at $1,075. The priciest proofs are the 1885 ($3,150) and 1886 ($1,950), despite that fact that each date had a relatively large mintage (3,790 and 4,290, respectively).

Is the high price justified for the 1885 proof? Although the circulation-variety 1885 is quite scarce in high grades, “among Proofs it is one of the most plentiful coins in the series,” according to Bowers. However, Bowers also notes, “The market price for Proofs seems to be taking a nap.”

Finally, I will point out that proof Liberty Head nickels can also be desirable coins in grades below PR-65, and their cost will be significantly less in lower grades. As just one example, earlier this year I sold an NGC-graded PR-64 1887 Liberty Head nickel for $301. The purchaser loved the coin, so you see that there may be nice proof nickels available in grades less than PR-65 for considerably less than PR-65 prices.

No matter how you approach them, Barber’s Liberty Head nickels will be challenging but relatively inexpensive to collect. And how many series offer that combination of virtues?



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