Grading Three Cent Nickels (1865-1889)
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Since the 1960s most collectors of United States coins have sought the small, nickel three-cent denomination only by type, perhaps acquiring just one piece in nice condition. The more advanced type collector might seek both a proof and a currency strike. In earlier years, however, it was not unusual for veteran collectors to own complete date sets of these pieces, usually consisting of a run of proofs with perhaps one or two currency strikes to finish the set. This change in collecting habits simply reflects the higher cost of these coins in recent decades.
Now may be a good time to consider putting together a date set of these interesting and distinctive coins. Doing so will require a bit of study, as the characteristics of both currency and proof examples varied somewhat over the span of the series (1865-1889).
Because these coins were intended to replace the unpopular fractional paper notes that circulated during and after the Civil War, the issues from 1865 through 1870 were coined in the millions annually. Those struck in 1871 and later years were produced in much smaller numbers. A redundancy of unredeemable minor coins developed about that time, so Congress passed a redemption law permitting banks and businesses to cash in any minor coins that exceeded their needs. The coins so redeemed could then be reissued in place of newly struck pieces, greatly reducing mintages for the rest of the series duration. In 1881, however, more than a million pieces were struck, and this remains an unexplained anomaly.
All these fluctuations produced subtle changes in the quality and finish of the three-cent piece, and these variations are somewhat reflected in their grading. The Official American Numismatic Association Grading Standards for United States Coins describes the various grades of this coin type and is useful for circulated coins. Wisely, it includes explanatory notes that aid in understanding these coins:
Nickel three-cent pieces are sometimes difficult to grade because so many were weakly struck or made from worn dies. The word LIBERTY and the Roman numeral III are often very weak or incomplete even on Uncirculated coins. The rims, lettering, date, or parts of the hair may show similar weaknesses because of coining difficulties. The appearance of mint luster on Uncirculated pieces varies from brilliant to frosty. Many coins from the 1860s show clash marks in the fields on one or both sides. Pieces dated in the 1870s are often uneven and softly struck.
To the above warnings I would add one more that will be important to collectors of mint state and proof coins: From about 1877 through the end of the series proof strikes are often less than fully brilliant in the fields, while non-proofs frequently are faintly prooflike in their fields. If this sounds confusing, it is — even to professional graders. However, the graders at NGC have examined many thousands of these coins and have learned to consistently distinguish between dull proofs and prooflike currency pieces. If, after studying such coins yourself, you find they are too hard to tell apart, you may want to let the experts make this call for you and buy only certified coins. That's a personal choice, although anyone collecting this series by date should become familiar with the subtle distinctions.
References such as the familiar "Red Book" (Whitman Publishing's A Guide Book of United States Coins) often list each date in this series across a wide span of grades. In reality, you'll find that the dates after 1876 (with the sole exception of 1881) are rather difficult to locate in circulated grades, particularly the lower ones. When found, they tend to be About Uncirculated or better, and the proofs typically are more available than the circulation pieces.
By the 1880s this denomination had largely ceased to be of further utility, but token numbers of non-proofs were coined annually to justify the sale of proofs to collectors. The Mint was relieved when, in 1890, Congress finally abolished the copper-nickel three-cent piece.
From One to Seventy originally ran in The Numismatist, official publication of the American Numismatic Association (www.money.org)
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