USA Coin Album: Coins of the 1950s — Part 3

Posted by David W. Lange, NGC Research Director on 11/12/2013

This decade started with a bang, as far as nickels were concerned. These days, there is often a long delay in getting the Mint to release its monthly production figures — but in 1950, this information was published regularly in The Numismatist and its closest rival, The Numismatic Scrapbook Magazine.

Readers following this data noted with interest the absence of five-cent coinage at the Denver and San Francisco Mints, and this went on month after month. Ultimately there would be no 1950-S nickels at all, and it was not until August that Denver reported a small production, just $131,501.50 worth. Coin collectors watched closely for this figure to be supplemented during the remaining months of the year. When 1950 became history, with no additional production of nickels at the Denver Mint, it finally sank in that the figure of 2,630,030 1950-D nickels was final. This was the smallest mintage of nickels since 1931 and thus the smallest number for the entire Jefferson series.

The rush was on! The saving of Mint State rolls was already well established by 1950 and had become an annual ritual for thousands of collectors and speculators, but news of such a low-mintage current coin put this practice into overdrive. As a result, very few 1950-D nickels ever made it into circulation. Most remain as fresh and bright as they looked in 1950, and this issue became the speculative darling of the coin business over the next 14 years. Its value peaked at the height of the roll market in 1964, with individual coins selling for about $25. Adjusting for inflation, that’s more than $200 today. A lot of folks got burned buying them at that time, as the 2014 Red Book shows this coin having a value of just $14 in MS-60 grade.

Of course, a lot of other date/mint combinations exist for nickels of the 1950s, but none of these are rare in Mint State. Even gems, coins grading MS-65 or higher, are plentiful for all issues. Where Jefferson nickels become a challenge is in finding them fully struck from unworn dies. The most specific point of evaluation is the staircase leading up to Monticello. The fine, horizontal lines which represent these six steps are at the highest point of relief on the reverse of the Jefferson nickel and are thus also the deepest portion of the die cavity. This makes them among the last portions of that cavity to fill with metal at the moment of striking, and it is very rare to find examples from the 1950s on which all six steps are complete from left to right.

As noted in the first installment of this series, all United States coins made during the 1950s were coined on strict budgets that led to overuse of the dies. Most nickels from this decade are poorly struck and may show erosion lines of varying depth and severity. Under these circumstances the likelihood of any Jefferson nickel displaying all details, including the steps of Monticello, is pretty slim. Collectors who specialize in this coin series seek to obtain only examples having full steps, and the rarity of individual date/mint combinations showing full steps varies considerably.

One general observation is that the four San Francisco Mint issues of 1951-54 are rare fully struck, as this mint was perhaps the biggest offender when it came to overuse of its dies. The Philadelphia and Denver Mints weren’t much better. Ironically, Denver entered this decade with higher production quality than Philadelphia, only to fall behind it and start producing worse coins by 1960. The respective rarities of each Jefferson nickel with full steps are beyond the scope of this study, but collectors should be aware of the distinctions made by the two major grading services. NGC uses either 5FS or 6FS on its labels to denote nickels having those respective numbers of complete steps, while PCGS labels Jefferson nickels solely with an FS designation for coins having at least five complete steps.

Another issue with nickels of the 1950s is planchet quality. The mint had years earlier stopped making its own planchets for cents and nickels, instead buying these ready to coin from commercial suppliers. The quality of planchets received from such vendors varied from year to year, and certain dates of nickels are frequently found with a very dark color as made. I’ve seen dark examples dated 1955(P), 1957-D, 1958-D and 1959(P), though there are probably others; I’m not a specialist in this series. Fortunately, there are enough Mint State survivors of all these issues that collectors may simply step around these dark and ugly examples to find more desirable ones. They are just historic oddities that provide some drama to a relatively common series of coins.

A number of interesting die-punching varieties have been found for nickels from the 1950s, and these add a further dimension to collecting Jeffersons. The best known varieties are the overmintmark issues of 1954-S/D and 1955-D/S. There are actually several reverse dies for 1955-D showing some degree of overpunching, but only the one illustrated in the Red Book carries a substantial premium. Also desirable is a variety of 1954-S showing a boldly double-punched S. Various doubled-die varieties exist for nickels from the 1950s, and readers are referred to The Cherrypickers’ Guide to Rare Die Varieties, Volume I for illustrations and descriptions. If you want to learn even more about Jefferson doubled-dies, get a copy of the book by John Wexler and Brian Ribar titled The Best of the Jefferson Nickel Doubled Die Varieties.

David W. Lange's column, “USA Coin Album,” appears monthly in the Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.