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HomeUS Coins1899 Liberty Head Nickel : A Collector's Guide

1899 Liberty Head Nickel : A Collector’s Guide

 

1899 Liberty Head Nickel. Image: CoinWeek.
1899 Liberty Head Nickel. Image: CoinWeek.

A relatively unremarkable year for the nickel, 1899 saw a continued upswing in mintage sizes, which started after the United States Mint temporarily suspended operations in 1894 due to the Panic of 1893. Five years on, the Nation’s economy was booming and the demand for small change was high; unlike today, the nickel in 1899 still had purchasing power. That year, a loaf of bread cost an average of 12.9 cents; a dozen eggs cost 20.9 cents; and a pound of sugar was 5.9 cents. Adjusted for inflation, a Nickel in 1899 was worth about $1.80 in 2022 dollars. Additionally, a wave of new coin-operated vending machines that were tooled to accept nickels were cropping up all over the country.

With all of this in mind, the Mint purchased 75,000 lbs. of nickel blanks for coinage in 1899. Using upwards of 119 obverse and 63 reverse dies, the Philadelphia Mint ultimately struck 26,027,000 nickels that year. As the largest issuance of the series to that point, the 1899 mintage represents an increase of roughly 108% from the prior year and 63% from the second-largest mintage in 1897. By 1899, the old neoclassical mint building in Philadelphia was full of outdated machinery and was struggling to fulfill the nation’s coinage requirements. Shortly thereafter, the facility was abandoned in favor of the third building at 1700 Spring Garden Street.

While generally well struck, the 1899 nickel usually lacks strong luster.

There is also an interesting 1899/8 Overdate. Originally only known as an extremely worn example (which led to a number of questions about its authenticity), a number of subsequent examples were located in 1971 that proved it was a genuine overdate. The die, originally punched with the 1898 date and re-punched in 1899, displays the 8’s lower loop within the lower loop of the 9. It is important to note, however, that some experts feel this is not an overdate error at all, but rather a defective chipped die.

How Much is the 1899 Liberty Head Nickel Worth?

Originally thought to be scarce in high grades, today it is clear that the 1899 type is actually relatively common in all but the highest grades.

Interestingly, these coins are worth more than the grading price in grades as low as EF 45. However, of the total combined certified population (PCGS and NGC) of 2,161 coins, only 56 pieces (2.59%) are graded as EF 45 or lower.

Collectors looking to acquire a handsome example in a high AU grade should expect to pay upwards of $100.

Meanwhile, low Mint State grades (MS 60 – 62), which account for roughly 10% of the certified population, actually are much more common. These pieces, which are worth $100 – $150, can be found without too much difficulty. And sometimes, these grades sell for more; Stack’s Bowers sold a handsome MS 63 example for $192.

While auction records show that MS 64 examples are worth between $200 and $250, recent eBay sales of coins of equal quality and eye appeal earned between $140 and $200. As the most common grade for this type, with 750 pieces or nearly 35% of the total population, this grade remains easy to acquire. The first major price jump is between MS 66 and MS 66+, where the price nearly doubles from $700 to $1,200.

The population drops down in MS 67 to a mere 18 examples, making this grade a conditional rarity. The most recent sale in August 2021 by Stack’s Bowers of a piece with “exquisite satin surface” was for $3,240. However, this population has increased dramatically over the past 25 years, and there are almost certainly more than a few examples remaining ungraded in this high grade.

Finally, the sole top pop MS 67+ example, which sold in 2012 for just over $38,000 and again in 2018 for nearly $23,000, currently holds the high price for this type. As a truly spectacular “flawless, [and] fully struck superb gem nickel,” with just a hint of toning, it is not surprising that this coin realized a record price.

Design

Obverse:

The Liberty Head nickel was designed by Charles E. Barber, who is the namesake behind the Barber (officially “Liberty Head”) dime, quarter, and half dollar. Some hobbyists have similarly dubbed the Liberty Head nickel as the “Barber” nickel, though this has not been common practice. The Liberty Head nickel features a leftward-facing bust of Miss Liberty, whose hair is tied into a bun behind her head. She is crowned with a tiara bearing the inscription “LIBERTY.”

Thirteen stars, representing the 13 original states of the Union, mostly encircle the bust along the obverse rim. At the bottom center of the obverse is the coin’s date (1899).

Reverse:

While the Liberty Head nickel may only infrequently be identified as the “Barber” nickel by hobbyists, the coins do have one widely popular nickname: the “V” nickel. The “V” refers to the large Roman numeral “V” that anchors the reverse design and indicates the coin’s denomination of five cents. The “V” sits within a wreath of cotton, corn, wheat, and tobacco – important crops representative of different parts of the country. Centered under the wreath is the inscription CENTS, which was added to the design in late 1883 to ensure that the coin could not be plated gold and misrepresented as a five-dollar gold piece.

On either side of the word CENTS is a single dot, which divides the denomination inscription from the legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, which wraps around the top three-quarters of the reverse along the rim. Near the top center of the coin, under the words STATES OF, is the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM. Translated from Latin to English, E PLURIBUS UNUM means “Out of Many, One”. Since the coin was struck in Philadelphia, there is no mintmark.

Edge:

The edge of the 1899 Liberty Head nickel cent is smooth, without inscription.

Designer

Charles Edward Barber was born in London in 1840. He was the son of William Barber, the fifth Chief Engraver of the United States Mint, under whom he worked as an assistant engraver. Upon his father’s death in 1879, Charles Barber became the Mint’s sixth Chief Engraver. The coins he designed during his tenure are collectively known as “Barber coinage” and include the dime, the quarter, and the half dollar. His Liberty “V” nickel is also well-known, as is his supposed feud with engraver George T. Morgan.

Coin Specifications

Country: USA
Year Of Issue: 1899
Denomination: Five Cents
Mint Mark: None (Philadelphia)
Mintage: 26,027,000
Alloy: 75% Copper, 25% Nickel
Weight: 5.00 g
Diameter: 21.20 mm
Edge: Plain
OBV Designer Charles E. Barber
REV Designer Charles E. Barber
Quality: Business Strike

 

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Sources

https://archive.org/details/compguideshieldliberty1995pete/page/n143/mode/2up?q=1898

https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=umn.31951000014585x&view=1up&seq=233

CoinWeek Notes
CoinWeek Notes
CoinWeek Notes presents expert analysis and insights from Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker, the award-winning editors of CoinWeek.com.

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