The Liberty Head Nickel Does Not Go According to Plan
On February 1, 1883, after two years of development, United States Mint Chief Engraver Charles Barber’s Liberty Head nickel–or “V” nickel, as it is more commonly known–entered production.
The new design replaced James B. Longacre’s Shield nickel type, the five-cent nickel design since 1866. The new designs featured a matronly portrait of Liberty surrounded by 13 stars on the coin’s obverse and a large Roman numeral V on the center of the reverse, partially enclosed in a vegetal wreath.
Of the statutorily mandated inscriptions, as was customary, Liberty wore a pointed coronet on which LIBERTY was inscribed. On the reverse, UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and E PLURIBUS UNUM, both mandated by law, encircled the central devices on the reverse, wrapping around the inside of the rim. Missing from the design was the word CENTS. This coin would become known as the Liberty Head Nickel Without Cents type for reasons that will soon be made clear.
Releasing a new nickel design and omitting the word CENTS was neither an oversight nor an accident. Mint and Treasury Department officials had taken months to review Barber’s designs; neither objected to the absence of a word specifying the units in which the coin was denominated. Everyone involved, including Mint Director Horatio Burchard and Treasury Secretary Charles Folger, believed that the Roman numeral, prominently positioned on the reverse, along with the size of the coin and its plain rim, would be sufficient to inform the public that the coin was worth five cents. Secretary Folger even ordered Barber to make several unrelated changes before giving final approval of the design.
Besides, the public was already familiar with the three-cent piece, which the Mint had been producing for circulation since 1851. The value was enumerated with the Roman numeral III on both the three-cent silver coin and the three-cent nickel coin.
Releasing a new five-cent coin with a simple V on the reverse would have followed this precedent. Furthermore, Barber’s nickel design was part of a more ambitious overhaul plan that would see the cent, three-cent piece, and nickel five-cent coins all redesigned using the same obverse motif, and the Roman numerals I, III, and V used to denote one cent, three cents, and five cents.
Only the nickel design made it through. The Longacre-crafted Indian Head cent would continue to serve until 1909 and the three-cent nickel, also a Longacre design, would get phased out in 1889.
Why Was the Liberty Head Nickel Redesigned in 1883?
The Liberty Head nickel entered circulation within a day of its first coining. While Americans carried the coin throughout the country, it primarily circulated in the more densely populated Eastern portion of the United States.
Shortly after its release, stories published in several newspapers told of swindlers passing off the new nickel as five-dollar gold pieces. Ersatz gold coins, according to legend, were said to have been passed by one well-known conman as he traveled from Boston to New York.
More likely instigating the design change was the United States Secret Service, however, which voiced its immediate concerns in a press release issued in early February. Mint Director A. Loudon Snowden defended the design, but the Treasury Secretary ordered him to revise it. The new design would resize E PLURIBUS UNUM and place it above the wreath. The word CENTS would appear at the bottom of the coin, separated from the legend by interpuncts.
This revised design, known as the Liberty Head nickel, With Cents, would serve as the nation’s five-cent coin design through 1912.
On December 13, 1912, Mint Director George H. Roberts wrote a letter to Philadelphia Mint Superintendent John H. Landis, stating that we was to “do nothing” regarding five cent coins for 1913, waiting instead for the final approval of the new James Earle Fraser Buffalo nickel designs. No 1913 Liberty Head nickels were produced for circulation, but five 1913-dated coins, struck as Proofs using genuine dies, came to light in 1920. The circumstances of the production and release of these coins suggest that they were unauthorized issues made for the benefit of a U.S. Mint employee. Today, these rarities rank among the most valuable coins in the world and are the most valuable of all United States nickel five-cent coins.
The combined population tables from CAC, NGC, and PCGS report more than 67,000 grading events for the Liberty Head, With Cents nickel. Typically, these are coins in the Mint State grades of MS-62 to MS-65. PCGS has certified the most coins of this type (41,438 as of February 2024). NGC has certified 25,708, while CAC has stickered 4,114 coins and encapsulated 141.
One will seldom encounter a Liberty Head nickel in grades above MS-66. For PCGS, MS-67+ is the top grade awarded for the type, and for some issues, the MS-67 base grade is exceedingly rare. NGC and CAC are also stringent about the MS-67 grade. However, NGC has certified two coins, an 1884 and a 1902, as MS-68.
The 1883 Liberty Head nickel, With Cents is common, as are issues struck from 1899 to 1912 (Philadelphia strike only). The 1912-D and 1912-S nickels were struck at the branch mints in Denver and San Francisco and are the first United States five-cent nickel coins to be struck by a mint other than Philadelphia. These are popularly collected branch mint issues and command premium prices.
For the circulation strike issues, the 1885 and the 1886 Liberty Head nickels are considered key dates. In lower grades, the 1885 is much scarcer than the 1886, but the 1886 is a conditional rarity in MS66 or finer.
A small number of Prooflike coins have been certified, but not nearly enough to establish a separate market for these coins.
Liberty Head Nickel Proof Issues
Proof versions of the Liberty Head nickel were struck for collectors for each year of the coin’s issue, from 1883 to 1912. In addition, five Proof coins dated 1913 were released to the collector market under suspicious circumstances after 1920.
Proof examples from the 1883 to 1912 issues are moderately priced up to the Superb Gem grade for most dates, with a few dates becoming expensive as Gem or finer. The 1885 and 1886 dates are more expensive than other dates at all grades, with the 1885 more so (though somewhat less than business strike examples for those same two years). Cameo and Deep Cameo Proofs have been certified for most years.
All 1913 examples are listed as Proofs and sell for a few million dollars each. As these coins are beyond the reach of most collectors, a complete set of Proofs runs from 1883 through 1912.
Liberty Head Nickel Varieties
Those listed in census reports include Double Die Reverse business strike examples for 1887 and 1900, and a proof 1884/188 date doubling. Several other doubling, repunching, and minor die varieties are known, though most are not of great interest to many collectors.
In-Depth Liberty Head Nickel Analysis by CoinWeek
- 1883 Liberty Head Nickel – Without Cents
- 1886 Liberty Head Nickel
- 1888 Liberty Head Nickel
- 1899 Liberty Head Nickel
- 1912-D Liberty Head Nickel
- 1912-S Liberty Head Nickel
CoinWeek’s Exclusive Coverage of the 1883-1912 Liberty Head Nickel
Coin expert Greg Reynolds wrote an informative two-part series on the Liberty Head nickel. In Part 1, Greg offers budget-minded collectors a helpful guide to collecting the series in circulated condition. Even coins that exhibit some degree of wear are collectible, and depending on what you can afford, a beautiful set of coins in XF and AU grades could provide a worthwhile challenge.
Not all Mint Set coins are treated equally in the rare coin market. In Part 2, Greg warns against purchasing coins graded MS-60 and MS-61, and discusses Mint State coins in Choice and Gem grades. He also discusses the subject of collecting Proof coins.
In this CoinWeek article, writer Eric Brothers tracks the ownership chain of all five 1913 Liberty Head nickels from Mint employee Samuel W. Brown to their eventual owners.
In this episode of the CoinWeek Podcast, hobby publicist Donn Pearlman discusses his role in bringing the missing Walton 1913 nickel back from the wilderness. Before Pearlman’s nationally-publicized efforts, the fifth 1913 nickel was thought to be lost.
CoinWeek Editor Charles Morgan Drops a “1913 Nickel”
CoinWeek set up an elaborate ruse for its readers, with this staged interview between Editor Charles Morgan and ANA Money Museum Curator Doug Mudd, where Charles drops the nickel during the handoff. It’s a funny segment, but don’t worry, we used a ringer.
On the obverse a somewhat matronly Liberty faces left, hair swept back and tied in a bun, with a few stray curls dropping down the back of the neck. On her head is a coronet inscribed with LIBERTY, with wheat and cotton clustered at its base. A circle of 13 six-point stars is placed inside the denticled rim, and the date is at the bottom.
A prominent V is located in the center of the reverse, surrounded by a small circle of two arcs of cotton and corn, tied at the bottom with a ribbon and separated at the top. Inside the denticled rim is a concentric circle of UNITED STATES OF AMERICA around the top and sides, CENTS at the bottom, and two interpuncts, one centered on each side of CENTS. Above the wreath is the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM. On the With Cents type, the motto has been moved from its more prominent position below the wreath.
Denver (D) and San Francisco (S) mintmarks for the 1912 issue are placed in the small space below the dot that is to the left of CENTS.
The edge of the Liberty Head nickel is plain or smooth, without reeding or lettering.
Charles Edward Barber was born in Londonin 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.
|Liberty Head Nickel
|Year Of Issue:
|Five Cents (USD)
|High: 39,557,639 (1911); Low: 238,000 (1912-S)
|High: 6,783 (1883 With Cents); Low: 1,475 (1907)
|75% Copper; 25% Nickel
|Charles E. Barber
|Charles E. Barber
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–. A Guide Book of Shield and Liberty Head Nickels. Whitman Publishing.
–. A Guide Book of United States Type Coins. Whitman Publishing.
Breen, Walter. Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of U.S. Coins. Doubleday.
Guth, Ron and Jeff Garrett. United States Coinage: A Study by Type. Whitman Publishing.
Montgomery, Paul, Mark Borckardt, Ray Knight. Million Dollar Nickels: Mysteries of the Illicit 1913 Liberty Head Nickels Revealed. Zyrus Press.
Taxay, Don. The U.S. Mint and Coinage. Arco Publishing.
Yeoman, R.S and Jeff Garrett (editor). The Official Red Book: A Guide Book of United States Coins. Whitman Publishing.
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