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Jefferson: Most Easily Collected Set?
By Ginger Rapsus, Numismatic News
June 06, 2013

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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Jefferson nickels are seen every day in change. Most collectors take them for granted, even though this coin has been minted since 1938 – 75 years now. This coin is not large or all that impressive, and soon the metallic composition may change, if the denomination is not discontinued. Most mintage figures are large. Jefferson nickels are largely ignored by many collectors.

Yet, this set provides its own challenges. The Jefferson nickel is probably the only Untied States coin that can be collected out of circulation. There are no major rarities, but that can be an advantage to a collector who likes to complete sets. Varieties and metallic changes and special issues spice up this set. What’s not to like about the Jefferson nickel?

Felix Schlag, a Chicago sculptor, designed the Jefferson nickel, winning a design competition. His rendering of Jefferson is based on a 1789 bust by Jean-Antoine Houdon. The reverse depiction of Monticello, Jefferson’s home, appears quite different from Schlag’s original design. The original shows Monticello in a three-quarters view, as opposed to the straight-ahead view shown on the nickel.

One hundred fifty proof specimens of the new Jefferson nickel were mounted in frames, numbered and signed by the designer. The frame shows Schlag’s original design, and is a must-have item for any collector who wishes to pursue this set.

A set-within-a-set can be found early on in this series. The war nickels contained some silver, as nickel was needed for the war effort. The composition of 35 percent silver, 56 percent copper and 9 percent manganese looked attractive in Mint State – the pretty silver-white color – but circulation and handling produced a mottled, dirty looking coin. A war nickel can always be spotted in a group of Jefferson nickels.

Another characteristic of war nickels is the large mintmark, above Monticello on the reverse. Mintmarks P, D and S appeared, the first time the P mintmark, for Philadelphia, was used on any United States coin. One is available in proof. The 1942-P was made for proof sets, only 27,600, low by modern standards. This coin is in demand from Jefferson nickel collectors, type collectors and World War II buffs.

One of the most famous modern coins is found in the Jefferson nickel set, the 1950-D. This coin was recognized as a scarcity practically from the time it was minted. Many were saved, often in roll quantities. One roll of 1950-D nickels could sell for hundreds of dollars and reached the $1,000 level in 1964, at the height of the roll and bag boom in numismatics.

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The Jefferson nickel had healthy mintages throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Young collectors, or those who enjoy collecting the old-fashioned way, can try to find these coins in circulation. Some may be much harder to find than others, such as 1951-S and 1955-P.

A minor type change came in 1966. The designer’s initials, “FS,” were finally placed on the obverse in 1966.

Great changes came to the Jefferson nickel in 2004. Two completely new reverse designs were used, to commemorate the Lewis and Clark Expedition. One design, by Norman Nemeth, was based on a famous Indian Peace Medal, of the kind that were carried by Lewis and Clark and presented to Native American chiefs. The second design, by Al Maletsky, showed the keelboat used by the Expedition.

The following year, both sides of the coin were changed. The familiar portrait of Thomas Jefferson, in use for 67 years, was changed to a more close-up view, with the word “Liberty” as Jefferson wrote it. The two new reverse designs showed an American bison and a view of the Pacific Ocean, based on Clark’s own entry in his journal, along with his words, “Ocean in view! O! The joy!”

Jefferson’s portrait changed again in 2006, to a facing view, not often seen on United States coins. The reverse again showed Monticello. No changes in the design are forthcoming, but perhaps a change in the metallic composition will be the next major change in this series.

How should you collect Jefferson nickels? There are many options to specializing in a series dating back to 1938. Try to find one of each date and mintmark. That’s the standard way of collecting. Check your change. Go to the bank and get a few rolls. You may find coins dated in the 1930s and 1940s in all conditions, and maybe a few war nickels, which still turn up now and then.

Get out your magnifier and look carefully. Some nickels that are fully struck, showing six steps on Monticello, are difficult to find. Discriminating collectors can spend years searching for certain dates that are famous for weak strikes.

Keep that magnifier handy, for checking your nickels for varieties. Overdates, over mintmarks, and other varieties can be found in this series. A few are in the war nickel set, such as the 1943/2-P overdate, a 1943-P “double eye,” and 1945-P doubled-die reverse.

Other varieties to look for include the 1939 showing doubling of the words Monticello and “Five Cents” on the reverse, 1941-S with large and small mintmarks, and the 1942-D showing a horizontal D under the D mintmark. There are also doubled mintmark varieties in the 1940s and 1950s. Look carefully – a dedicated Jefferson collector could find the next major overdate.

Jefferson nickels were struck in proof in most of its years of production. Proofs can be collected from 1938-1942, 1950-1964 and from 1968 to the present date. Proofs were struck at Philadelphia in the early years and at San Francisco from 1968 on, bearing the S mintmark.

Special Mint Sets were made instead of proofs from 1965-1967. These coins were specially made and have a better appearance than circulation strikes. A few 1964 prototypes are known.

Nickels with a finish resembling matte proofs were struck in 1994 and 1997, included in collector sets. Only 25,000 were made of the 1997 coin, making this issue a modern rarity.

Error collectors can find a wealth of mis-struck, off-center, wrong planchet, laminated, multi-strike, and off-metal varieties in the series. Jefferson nickels have something to offer every collector – the beginner, the detail-oriented, the variety specialist, the error enthusiast, or anyone who appreciates an interesting series of modern American coinage.

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