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Shield Design Ugly?
By Mike Thorne, Coins Magazine
May 20, 2013

This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine.
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What’s the first of its kind, ugly as can be, and widely ignored by coin collectors everywhere? If you guessed the Shield nickel, give yourself a pat on the back.

And just how ugly was the Shield nickel considered to be at the time of its introduction? According to Walter Breen’s Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins, “The shield design was promptly ridiculed as ‘the ugliest of all known coins,’ while even Joseph Wharton [nickel mine owner and major advocate of the use of nickel in coins] called its obv. ‘a tombstone surmounted by a cross overhung by weeping willows.’ These scurrilities were typical of many appearing in early newspapers and coin trade magazines commenting on the new issue.”

Even the bars between the stars on the reverse of the 1866 and early 1867 issues were derided as being the product of Southern sympathizers at the Mint, as they were reminders of the Confederate stars and bars flag. Yet despite the lack of accolades for the new nickel five-cent piece, the coin was accepted well enough by the public that it continued to be produced, albeit with a succession of different (and more applauded) designs.

Minted from 1866-1883, the Shield nickel was yet another attempt to solve the coin-hoarding problem caused by the Civil War. The nickel three-cent piece also falls into this category, and both coins were influenced by Joseph Wharton’s advocacy of nickel.

The alloy of the new nickel was the same as that of the three-cent piece, 75 percent copper and 25 percent nickel. Both coins were also to be used in place of the widely hated Fractional Currency introduced during the Civil War. The law authorizing the nickel five-cent piece “…also banned the issue of fractional paper money of less than a 10c denomination,” according to Gloria Peters and Cynthia Mohon’s The Complete Guide to Shield & Liberty Head Nickels.

The coin’s designer was Mint chief engraver James B. Longacre of Indian Head cent fame. Along with his slight reworking of the obverse of the two-cent piece, Longacre produced obverse designs featuring either Washington or Lincoln. The latter design was rejected because Mint Director James Pollock thought it would be poorly received in the South. In this, Pollock was undoubtedly correct.

Treasury Secretary Hugh McCulloch chose the Pollock-favored shield design, and the rest, as they say, is history. It soon became apparent that the bars or rays on the reverse made an already difficult design even harder to fully reproduce on copper-nickel planchets. As a result, the coin’s reverse was reworked in late 1866 to remove the rays.

The new design did not take effect immediately in 1867, so that approximately 2 million 1867 “with rays” nickels were produced.

If you have an interest in our first nickel five-cent piece, there are a number of different ways the series can be collected. The simplest (and least expensive) approach would be to collect Shield nickels as type coins. In this case, you would need just two pieces: an example with rays on the reverse and one without such rays.

Coins from the first two years would fit the bill (1866 “with rays” and 1867 “no rays.” Alternatively, you could select a high-mintage later date for your no rays example, such as 1868 (28.8 million minted).

Prices seem remarkably inexpensive for the Shield nickel as a type coin. According to “Coin Market” from Numismatic News, the 1866 nickel is worth $29 in Good-4, $38 in Very Good-8, $55 in Fine-12, $80 in Very Fine-20, $150 in Extremely Fine-40, $250 in About Uncirculated-50, $280 in Mint State-60, $375 in MS-63, and $2,050 in MS-65. Without rays, the 1867 is worth $18.50 in G-4, $28 in VG-8, $30 in F-12, $37.50 in VF-20, $64 in EF-40, $115 in AU-50, $150 in MS-60, $200 in MS-63, and $825 in MS-65.

Just think, you can probably get one of each variety in a decent grade such as VF-20 for not much more than $100. In EF-40, the pair should be only a little over $200, and you’re looking at less than $600 for both in a decent mint-state grade (MS-63).

You could also try to put together a complete run of circulation-strike pieces. Such a set would consist of the 1866, 1867 of both types, 1868-1876, and 1879-1883. That’s 16 different dates, or 17 different coins counting both 1867 types (with and without rays). There are also several different varieties that are typically listed in pricing guides, but I’ll talk about them later.

Of the 17 different nickels, the scarcest and most expensive are 1879-1881. When you look at the mintages, you’ll see why: 1879 (29,100), 1880 (19,995), and 1881 (72,375). Another date with a relatively low mintage and prices above those of common dates is 1871 (561,000). Beyond these four dates, the rest of the series consists of coins with substantial mintages and remarkably low values.

Excluding the four dates listed above, the range of values for the others in G-4 is from $18.50 to $46. The latter price is for the 1875, with a mintage of just slightly more than 2 million pieces. With one exception, this is the lowest mintage among the “common” dates.

The exception is 1883, with a mintage of 1,456,919. Despite this relatively low mintage, 1883 is one of the least expensive Shield nickels. The reason? Differential retention because it was the last date in the series.

In F-12, the range is from $30 to $90. Again, the highest price is for the 1875. Other dates with relatively high values are 1872 ($85), 1874 ($74), and 1876 ($84). Note that the majority of Shield nickels are worth less than $100, and often substantially less, in grades of F-12 or below.

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In EF-40, there are still a few dates priced at $100 or less: 1867 “no rays” ($64), 1868 (either $64 or $77 depending on variety), 1869 ($64), 1870 ($100), 1882 ($64), and 1883 ($67). Several dates with values above $100 are not much above this figure: 1866 ($150), 1867 “with rays” ($180), 1872 ($135), and 1874 ($120).

In a decent uncirculated grade such as MS-63, the range of values for the common 13 dates is from $200 to $625, which strikes me as remarkably low for coins of this vintage. The top figure is for 1871, which you could probably guess. Most of the other figures are well below $300, with just the two “with rays” dates ($375, $475, respectively), 1875 ($355), and 1876 ($310) above.

Incidentally, the low-mintage 1883 lists for just $215 in MS-63. As David Bowers puts it in A Guide Book of Shield and Liberty Head Nickels: “…this is the most common of all dates in terms of Mint State coins in existence today…. The explanation is that in early 1883 there was great excitement that Shield nickels of this date would become rare and valuable, in light of their replacement by the new Liberty Head nickels. Many were saved.”

Looking at the three Shield nickels with mintages under 100,000, values are in line with mintages. The date with the lowest mintage, 1880, has the highest values. Starting at $500 in G-4, it’s worth $575 in VG-8, $700 in F-12, $850 in VF-20, $1,275 in EF-40, $1,700 in AU-50, $3,250 in MS-60, $6,350 in MS-63, and $47,500 in MS-65. This MS-65 value is by far the highest of any date or variety in the series. In the same grades, the 1879 is worth $390, $485, $625, $660, $720, $800, $970, $1,025, and $1,900, respectively; 1881 lists for $260, $340, $430, $500, $600, $675, $735, $940, and $1,800, respectively.

Of course, the question I always ask of any series is whether or not the various dates are actually available and in what grades. To answer the question, I look to see what’s listed on eBay.

At the time I looked, there were 2,439 active listings involving Shield nickels. To get an idea of the coverage of dates, I focused on the key 1879-1881 dates. For 1879, five were listed, but two were proofs, not circulation-strike coins. Of the three circulation-strike 1879s, only one was certified, an NGC-graded AU-50, which had been bid up to $555 with five days left for the auction.

As for the two raw 1879s, one was touted to be “Very Choice Brilliant Unc” and Buy It Now priced at $1,075. This is slightly over the “Coin Market” value for the date in MS-63, which the advertised coin may well be. The remaining raw 1879 was described as being in G to VG condition; the pictured coin had higher-grade detail but was quite rusty. It had a Buy It Now price of $719, which is $1 below the value for the date in EF-40.

Of the other two keys to the circulation-strike set, there were six 1880s listed, although four were proofs. The other two 1880s were both low grades, one described as Good or better and the other as AG. Personally, I would call the AG Fair-AG at best. The seller had it listed for a Buy It Now price of an outrageous $1,750 Or Best Offer. The coin that’s actually Good has been bid up to $112.60, with five days left on the auction.

The most “common” date of the three keys, 1881, was listed in 22 auctions, 10 of which involved proofs. The remaining 12 were in grades ranging from AG (with an impossible to see date) to an NGC-graded MS-67, which is tied for the finest known of this date. It’s listed for a Buy It Now price of $5,395.

The fact that all three of the circulation-strike keys are involved in auctions on eBay suggests to me that it should be possible to find the rest of the dates there as well. From what I saw, prices will range from the reasonable to the ridiculous.

Another way to collect Shield nickels is as proofs. If you take this path, there are two additional dates to consider, 1877 and 1878, which were issued only as proofs, although some of each did circulate.

Prices for the series in PR-65 range from $645 (1882, 1883) to $75,000 (1867 “with rays”). Most of the prices are under $1,000, however, with the next highest value going to 1877 ($4,850) followed by 1866 ($3,450).

Of course, it’s possible to settle for lower grades (e.g., PR-63 or -64), with somewhat lower prices. Here’s some of what Bowers has to say about collecting proof Shield nickels: “As a general rule, proofs from 1866 to 1876 are harder to find in gem (Proof-65 or finer) preservation than are the later ones. Cleaned and spotted coins are plentiful…. Proofs of 1877 vary in quality[,] those of 1878…are usually seen choice, and those from 1879 through 1883 are easy to find in high levels.”

Mintages for the series in proof range from an estimated 55-80 (1867 “with rays) to 5,419 (1883). Presumably, survival of the proofs has been better than that of the circulation-strike pieces.

On eBay I found 56 auctions or sales involving proof Shield nickels. The prices, not counting ongoing auctions, ranged from $269 for an 1870 NGC-graded proof details with corrosion to $95,000 for an NGC-graded PR-66 Star Cameo 1867 With Rays. Remember, that’s a coin with an estimated mintage of 55-80. Right behind this gem was a similar piece without the NGC Star designation but the same grade for “just” $90,000. In both cases, the seller invites offers.

More reasonably priced proof Shield nickels included a PCGS-graded PR-64 1883 for a Buy It Now price of $459.95 with $8.70 shipping and a PCGS PR-65 1882 for $630. Note that this is a coin with a “Coin Market” value of $645.

Although a large number of the proof Shield nickel auctions were of common dates (e.g., 1882, 1883), the only dates not found were 1868, 1877, and 1879. I suspect that the missing 1879 was just an anomaly of when I looked, as its mintage was 3,200 pieces, making it one of the more common of the proofs. The other two dates are pricy and genuinely scarce.

Thus, I can conclude from my examination of eBay sales that proof Shield nickels are relatively available on the site. I was quite surprised to see the two listings of the proof 1867 “with rays,” as I tend to expect coins that scarce to be offered only in major auction sales. However, if the seller can get anywhere near the $90,000 and $95,000 he’s asking for the two, he will have done better than the auction values listed for similar coins in the Heritage Auction Archives. There, I found that two pieces with the same grades sold for $63,250 apiece in April 2011. Another sold in a slightly earlier sale for $80,500.

Beyond circulation strikes and proofs, Shield nickels can also be collected by varieties. Here, you’ll find a challenge that will keep you busy for the rest of your collecting life. As Howard Spindel, writing in A Guide Book of Shield and Liberty Head Nickels, puts it, “…pound for pound, Shield nickels offer more to the variety collector than any other U.S. series. No other specialty in federal coinage comes close to having the depth and breadth of varieties packed into the 18 short years of the Shield nickel.”

Varieties listed in guide books such as U.S. Coin Digest and A Guide Book of United States Coins (the Red Book) barely hint at the number to be found in the series. For example, U.S. Coin Digest lists only two varieties of 1873 (open 3 and closed 3) plus two overdates (1879/8 and 1883/2). In addition to these, the Red Book includes an 1866 with a repunched date and an 1873 with a large over small 3. “Coin Market” adds two versions of the 1868, one with the 1867 reverse and another with the 1868 reverse.

To gain an appreciation of the scope of the collecting possibilities, you should read the introduction to the series in Bill Fivaz and J. T. Stanton’s Cherrypickers’ Guide (5th edition). The authors write, “Year for year, there are more varieties known in the Shield nickel series than in any other. In fact, with well over 100 listings, this is one of the largest sections in the Cherrypickers’ Guide.” What follows are 69 pages devoted to the topic.

I’m not a fan of “flyspeck collecting,” looking for varieties that you need high magnification and a good imagination to detect. Many of the Shield nickel varieties pictured in Cherrypickers’ Guide do not fall into this category, however. In fact, they satisfy what one of my professors called “the intraocular traumatic effect,” they hit you between the eyes.

As just one example, pictured at the bottom of p. 202 of Cherrypickers’ Guide is an 1866 nickel with a repunched date. There’s almost a full number’s worth of separation between the two dates!

I hope you can see that there’s a lot to love about collecting the first U.S. nickel, despite the coin’s ugliness. If you do decide to collect the series, I predict you’ll even come to appreciate the coin’s appearance. Instead of saying “He has a face only a mother could love,” you’ll say, “It has an obverse only a collector could love.”

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