Grading Liberty Head Five Cents (1883-1913)
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Charles Barber designed and modeled the Liberty Head five-cent piece, which appeared first in pattern form in 1881 as part of a matching set of minor coins struck in nickel. The set was to include a one-cent and three-cent piece of the same design, but Congress decided to leave those denominations unchanged. The new five-cent piece debuted in 1883, although nickels of the old Shield type also had been coined that year.
The first edition of the Liberty Head nickel lacked any indication of value, except the Roman numeral V. Within the context of the matching set of one-, three- and five-cent pieces as originally conceived, this presented no cause for alarm. But the debut of a new five-cent piece alone prompted a few sharp individuals to gold plate these still unfamiliar coins and pass them as five-dollar pieces which, as luck would have it, were almost the same diameter. The Mint quickly relocated the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM within the coin's reverse and added the word CENTS where it had been to eliminate any further possibility of confusion.
The change made to the reverse not only established this coin's value, but it also slightly improved its overall striking quality. The Official American Numismatic Association Grading Standards for United States Coins has relatively little to say about Liberty Head nickels other than descriptions of each grade, but it does note that 1883 "no CENTS" nickels, as well as those dated 1912-D and 1912-S, often were weakly struck. This is important, as striking quality is one of the few variables in this relatively consistent and easily graded series.
In circulated grades the Liberty Head nickel traditionally has been graded by the amount of letters visible in the motto LIBERTY. This criterion remains valid, and the ANA's grading guide combines this feature with others, as well as the degree of wear evident in the reverse wreath and lettering, to establish the overall grade. The guide also notes that "because the obverse design is in higher relief than the reverse, all dates appear to be more worn on the reverse in low grades." This is likewise evident in the photographs that accompany each grade.
Mint state examples of the Liberty Head nickel typically are well struck overall, though those coined from worn dies will exhibit some softening around the stars and peripheral legends. One design element that often is weakly struck is the corn ear at the lower left of the wreath on the coin's reverse. It is directly opposite Liberty's fore curls, the highest point of relief on the obverse, and this resulted in poor metal displacement for both features. Such localized weakness has very little effect on a coin's grade, though the discriminating collector will seek a fully struck piece whenever possible.
Mint state Liberty Head nickels usually exhibit good luster, ranging from the semi-prooflike surface of fresh dies to the very frosty texture of worn dies. The copper-nickel alloy provided good resistance to toning, although a light wash of gold color is sometimes seen on these coins. Examples showing multicolor toning are quite scarce and highly sought. Cleaned coins are more likely to acquire colorful toning, but they usually have an unnatural look that experienced collectors shun and grading services typically reject.
The hardness of copper-nickel also protected coins of this type from deep contact marks and abrasions, though most mint state examples will show a few small marks and possibly hairline scratches. If hidden within the most detailed areas of the design, these can pass without much notice and have little effect on a coin's grade. Marks on Liberty's cheek, the date or in the open fields, however, will weigh more heavily.
Proof examples of this coin type vary widely in quality. Those struck circa 1895-1912 are more consistently attractive. Their die fields were properly polished, and the coins are more fully struck. Earlier dates, particularly those from the 1880s, often suffer from mediocre strike or are lacking in brilliance. Collectors seeking coins from this era should purchase certified examples whenever possible.
From One to Seventy originally ran in The Numismatist, official publication of the American Numismatic Association (www.money.org)
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