USA Coin Album: Liberty Head Nickels — Part Two

Posted by David W. Lange, NGC Research Director on 1/25/2013

In this month's column, David looks at the remaining issues from 1884 through 1912.

The large mintages of nickel five-cent pieces during 1882-84 was more than enough to meet the demand during the two years that followed. A brief recession during 1884-85 further reduced the need for additional nickels, which was just as well, as the Philadelphia Mint was having some difficulty with its supplier of five-cent blanks (only rarely did the US Mints manufacture their own blanks for minor coins, and both the price and quality of the pieces provided by commercial vendors varied over the years).

The mintage of nickels thus fell to just 1,472,700 coins in 1885, making this date the key issue of the Liberty Head nickel series. The 1886 nickel is not much easier to find, as its mintage amounted to only 3,326,000. Given the high attrition rate of Liberty Head nickels, it’s easy to see how these two dates have become very scarce. There were no collectors of this series from circulation until the 1920s, at the very earliest, so their survival in anything but heavily worn condition is remarkable. In actual fact, both dates typically exist today in grades ranging from Poor-1 to Very Good-8. There is also a small cluster of Mint State coins and pieces grading About Uncirculated-50 through -58 as the result of mishandling, but 1885-86 nickels falling between these two extremes are very elusive.

Conditions returned to normal for 1887 and the next few years, with annual mintages of 10 to 17 million nickels being typical. The US economy tumbled again in 1893 and remained very troubled for the next two-three years. Mintages below 10 million pieces were the order of the day 1894-96 until prosperity returned in 1897. The production of Liberty Head nickels surged to more than 20 million coins that year, and there was no looking back after that. During the remainder of this series the annual coinage of nickels fell below 20 million only twice (1898 and 1909). The pinnacle of production was reached in 1911 when the Philadelphia Mint cranked out some 39,557,639 Liberty Head nickels.

This rising mintage was more than the Mint’s budget could handle, as it produced minor coins under a fixed annual appropriation of $50,000 that had been in place since 1873. This figure was ultimately raised following pleas from the Mint Director, but the real solution was not arrived at until the Mint was permitted to apply some of its seigniorage (profit) on the coining of minor pieces toward future coin production instead of returning it to the Treasury’s General Fund.

The relatively low-mintage nickels of 1894-96 are scarce in the most popular collector grades of Fine-12 through Mint State-64, but this fact is barely reflected in their respective market values. Only the 1894 issue carries a substantial premium over the dates immediately preceding and following. From 1897 onward, there are no Philadelphia Mint Liberty Head nickels that may be called scarce, and collectors can be very choosey when purchasing these later dates.

The year 1912 provided two milestones, as both the Denver and San Francisco Mints coined nickels for the first time. The initial run of 1912-D nickels was delivered on February 5, and about 8-1/2 million were struck by year’s end. The San Francisco Mint did not strike its first nickels until December 24, and a mere 238,000 Liberty Head pieces bearing the ‘S’ mintmark were coined before the calendar turned over to 1913. The 1912-S nickel enjoyed a special honor in that the first one struck was used by San Francisco Mayor James “Sunny Jim” Rolph to inaugurate service on that city’s municipal street railway, December 28, 1912. It was reportedly presented to the City Treasurer for preservation, but I could not locate this historic coin when I was researching an article on the event in the 1980s. Despite its very low mintage, the 1912-S nickel is only scarce, not rare, as it was coined late enough that collectors filling coin boards in the 1930s were able to preserve a disproportionate number of this issue for the future.

Proofs were coined for each date of Liberty Head nickels, aside from the two Denver and San Francisco coins. Their mintages range from a low of 1,475 in 1907 to a high of 6,783 for the 1883 with CENTS issue. There is no great difference in rarity between the various dates in lesser grades, but the availability of gems is another matter. The scarcity of Mint State currency strikes dated 1885-86 has boosted the values of proofs for these two years, but in reality they are of similar rarity to other proofs in the series.

In last month’s column I mentioned that my circulated set of Liberty Head nickels was lacking only the 1886 issue to be complete. Well, all the holes are now filled. I hadn’t thought much about this series until writing that column, and it prompted me to seek out the last remaining coin. I found an uncertified example online that graded VG-10 in my estimation and seemed from the photos to have original surfaces and no problems. To my delight, I was the only bidder and won this lot at a price below its catalog value. Apprehensive until it finally arrived, I was pleased to discover that my initial impression of the coin was correct, and now my set is complete.

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