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HomeUS CoinsClassic U.S. Coin for Less Than $500 Each, Part 25: Liberty Head...

Classic U.S. Coin for Less Than $500 Each, Part 25: Liberty Head Nickels


Coin Rarities & Related Topics: News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, markets, and coin collecting #355

A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds …..
Publicly distributed, Liberty Head nickels were minted from 1883 to 1912. A set of business strike Liberty Head nickels may be completed without spending as much as $500 on any one coin. Excluding the 1885 and the 1913, a set of Proofs could be completed as well, with such a budget.

Business strikes were made by ordinary or rapid means. Each United States branch mint is or was a factory.

Proofs were specially made, in a more time-consuming manner. A definition of Proof is outside the scope of this discussion. During the era of Liberty Head nickels, Proofs of all then-current denominations were sold by the Philadelphia Mint to collectors and to the general public.

There are two design types of Liberty Head nickels. The first is a one-year type. For a few months in 1883, the reverse of each Liberty nickel featured the Roman numeral five (V) without any mention of cents.

Some dishonest people gold plated 1883 ‘No Cents’ Liberty nickels and spent or traded them as if they were half eagles ($5 gold coins). Liberty Head half eagles, which are not similar to Liberty Nickels, were minted in substantial quantities and widely circulated during the early 1880s. Nevertheless, many people were fooled, so the word ‘cents’ was added to the reverse design of Liberty Head nickels.

After the word ‘cents’ was added, the prominent Roman numeral ‘V’ remained central to the design of the reverse. Liberty Head nickels were often called ‘vee’ nickels.

‘No Cents’ 1883 nickels are widely available in a range of grades. In July, the firm GreatCollections sold a PCGS-graded MS-66, and CAC-approved, 1883 ‘No Cents’ Liberty Head nickel for $344.30 USD. A heavily circulated 1883 ‘No Cents’ nickel can frequently be purchased for less than $7.50 at small or medium-size coin shows.

There survive five cent nickel patterns dated 1882 that appear like the regular issue of early 1883. Such patterns are rare, expensive, and not needed for sets of regular issue coins.

The five existing 1913 Liberty Head nickels are all Proofs and it is not known exactly when they were made. There is a good chance that they were struck in November or December of 1912 before the policy to replace Liberty nickels with Buffalo nickels was finalized.

Liberty Head nickels were designed by Charles Barber. He also designed Barber dimes, quarters and half dollars. Further, he designed or contributed to the designs, of several patterns of various denominations. Barber is generally credited with the designs of the One Dollar Gold commemoratives issued from 1903 to 1905, the Isabella quarter (1893) and the Lafayette silver dollar (1900).

For the Columbian (1892-93) and Pan-Pac (1915) half dollars, as well as the McKinley One Dollar Gold commemoratives of 1916-17, Charles Barber designed the respective obverse and George Morgan designed the corresponding reverse. It is often maintained by researchers that Charles Barber clearly copied several elements in his coin designs from other, widely recognized works of art.

Charles’ father, William Barber, designed many patterns of U.S. coins, including famous ones. William is best known as the designer of the U.S. trade dollar, which was minted from 1873 to 1885.

William was chief engraver at the Philadelphia Mint for only about 10 years, from 1869 to his death in 1879. Charles, then assistant engraver, succeeded his father in 1879 and was chief engraver until his own death in 1917. It is curious that Liberty Head nickels are not called ‘Barber nickels.’

Both business strikes and Proofs of the second design type of Liberty Head nickels, ‘With Cents’, were formally distributed every year from 1883 to 1912. With a $500 per coin limit, collectors may choose to collect Proofs, business strikes or both.


“A whole set of CAC-stickered, NGC or PCGS Proof-64 Liberty head nickels, except the 1885, could be done for less than $500 per coin,” declares John Albanese, the founder of Certified Acceptance Corporation (CAC). “Some CAC Proof-65 Liberty nickels could be found for under $500, too.”

In July 2015, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned an 1883 ‘No Cents’ nickel that is PCGS-certified as Proof-64 and CAC-approved for $305.50. On September 18, 2016, GreatCollections sold a PCGS certified Proof-65 and CAC-approved 1883 ‘With Cents’ nickel for $410.30.

It would be tedious to cite an auction record for a Proof Liberty Head nickel from every year. I mention a few to provide a rough idea of market values. In the series of Liberty Head nickels, coins of equivalent quality and eye appeal of most dates are worth around the same amounts. The 1885 and the 1886 are significantly more expensive.

18835cproofIn February 2015, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned an 1889 nickel that is PCGS-certified as Proof-64 and CAC-approved for $246.75. In this same event in New York in February 2015, there were two 1909 nickels, each of which was NGC-certified as Proof-65 and CAC-approved. Each brought the same price, $411.25.

On July 17, 2016, GreatCollections sold a CAC-stickered, NGC-certified Proof-64 1910 for $299.20. On March 20, 2016, a a CAC-stickered, PCGS-certified Proof-64 1912 brought $271.70.

In March 2014, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned two PCGS-certified Proof-64 and CAC-approved Liberty nickels. An 1884 brought $329 and an 1887 went for $317.25.

The 1886 is markedly scarcer than most the other dates of the Liberty Head nickel design type. Is it possible to buy a Proof 1886 with a CAC sticker for less than $500?

In November 2013, Stack’s-Bowers sold a CAC-approved, PCGS-certified Proof-64 1886 for $547.55. There are perhaps more than a dozen other Proof 1886 nickels that are CAC-approved at the 64 level. One of them might sell for less than $500 in the current market environment. Additionally, CAC has approved one 1886 as Proof-63 and that coin could possibly sell for less than $500 if offered in the near future.

Among coins that are not CAC-approved or have never been submitted to CAC, finding a Proof 1886 nickel for less than $500 would not be too difficult, though it could take months. In August 2014, GreatCollections sold an NGC-certified Proof-62 1886 for $344.30.

A Proof 1885 that grades above 60 probably cannot be purchased for less than $500. A set of Proof Liberty Head nickels may otherwise be completed, and would be a neat accomplishment.

Business Strikes

The 1885 and the 1886 are keys to a set of business strikes too, as is the 1912-S. Before 1912, all U.S. coins that contained the metal nickel were minted in Philadelphia. In 1912, nickels were minted in Denver and San Francisco, in addition to Philadelphia.

Generally, U.S. nickel coins are 25% nickel in composition, except copper-nickel Flying Eagle and Indian cents, which are 12% nickel. For reasons that are not intuitive, nickel dominates copper in copper-nickel alloys. Indeed, U.S. five cent nickels, which consist of a 25% nickel and 75% copper alloy, do not appear visually to contain any copper.

Except for the three keys, business strike Liberty nickels priced under $500 are plentiful, of all dates. Certified “MS-64” or even “MS-65” representatives of most dates can be easily found for less than $500 each. For example, in August 2014, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS-graded MS-65, and CAC-approved, 1904 for $423. Market values are not higher now.

The 1888, the 1894 and the 1912-D are relatively scarce. These are ‘better dates’ that could fairly be called semi-keys. On October 26, 2014, GreatCollections sold a PCGS-graded MS-64 1888 for $398.48.

It might not be practical to seek a certified “MS-64” 1894 for less than $500. In March 2016, Stack’s-Bowers sold a NGC-graded MS-62 1894 for $305.50. In August 30, 2016, Heritage sold a PCGS-graded AU-58 1894 for $235. In the same event in August, a PCGS-graded MS-63 1912-D realized $259.68.

A PCGS-graded MS-64 1912-D brought $376.48 in a GreatCollections sale in 2014. That 1912-D is characterized by a rust-tan color that frequently forms naturally on Liberty Head nickels.

1912d5cms64The 1912-S is considerably scarcer than the 1912-D. On April 3, 2016, GreatCollections sold a PCGS-graded VF-20 1912-S for $397.66. In March 2015, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS graded Fine-15 1912-S for $182.13.

Given a $500 per coin limit, it is not hard to acquire a 1912-S, though a well circulated coin would not fit ideally in a set of mostly MS-64 grade coins. A set of Liberty Head nickels in Fine-12 to Extremely Fine-45 grades would be inexpensive and fun to assemble.

The 1885

The 1885 is the princess of Liberty Head nickels. It is unlikely that a collector could acquire a Very Fine-20 or higher grade 1885 for less than $500.

In May 2015, GreatCollections sold a PCGS-graded Good-06 1885 for $418. In January 2013, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a different PCGS-graded Good-06 1885 for $430.04 and a PCGS-graded Good-04 1885 for $420.65. There are quite a few additional instances of PCGS- or NGC-graded Good-04 to -06 1885 nickels selling for less than $500.

Prices have fallen for nickels in general since some point in 2014 or 2015. On March 22, 2016, Heritage sold a PCGS-graded Good-06 1885, with a CAC sticker, for $376. On May 1, 2016, this same firm sold a PCGS-graded VG-10 1885 for $493.50.

A collector could count on obtaining a Very Good grade 1885 for around $500. If it is taken into consideration that representatives of almost almost all dates in the series may be obtained for well under $500 each, even for less than $200, the notion of spending a little more than $500 for an 1885 nickel is pertinent to this discussion.

On January 10, 2016, GreatCollections sold a PCGS-graded Fine-12 1885 for $577.50. Less than a month later, this same firm sold an NGC-graded VG-08 1885, with a CAC sticker, for $501.47.

Curiously, PCGS and NGC together have certified fewer than 2,500 1885 business strike nickels. Although there must be at least four hundred more, including many non-gradable coins, the combined total does include multiple counts of some of the same coins. It would seem plausible that around 2,000 business strikes survive and maybe 2,250 or so Proofs, for a total well under 5,000. Therefore, 1885 Liberty nickels are scarce in absolute terms.

In July 2008, just as markets for rare U.S. coins were peaking, Stack’s auctioned a PCGS-graded MS-66 1885 nickel for $45,000. According to the PCGS web site, the auction record for an 1885 was set when ANR auctioned Dale Friend’s coin in March 2006 for $74,750.

Dale’s coin was PCGS graded as MS-67. Credible rumors suggest that another sold privately for much more than $75,000 in 2012. For a MS-67 grade 1885, the PCGS price guide value is “$170,000”, an estimate which has not been changed in a long time and is now too high. Current retail values are in the range of $50,000 to $100,000, depending upon the quality of the specific “MS-67” grade 1885.

In contrast, 1885 nickels at the other end of the grading spectrum are considerably less expensive. On September 3, 2015, Heritage sold a PCGS-graded Fair-02 1885 for $130.43. For budget-minded collectors, there are multiple, practical options for collecting Liberty Head nickels. Of all series of classic U.S. coins, this is one of the easiest to collect.

For me, reflecting upon Liberty Head nickels brings back memories. When I was five years old, my grandmother started giving Liberty Head nickels to me. Along with some early Lincoln cents, these were the first classic U.S. coins that I ever owned.

© 2016 Greg Reynolds

[email protected]

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Recent Articles in This Series on Classic U.S. Coins for Less Than $500 Each:

Barber Dimes | Proof Shield Nickels | Braided Hair Half Cents | Matron Head Large Cents | Classic Head Half Cents | Draped Bust Half Cents | Classic Head Large Cents | Gem Early Lincoln Cents | Indian Head Half Eagles | Two Cent Pieces | Three Cent Nickels | Indian Head Quarter Eagles | Copper-Nickel Indian Cents | Standing Liberty Quarters | Walking Liberty Half Dollars

Greg Reynolds
Greg Reynolds
Greg Reynolds has carefully examined a majority of the greatest U.S. coins and most of the finest classic U.S. type coins. He personally attended sales of the Eliasberg, Pittman, Newman, and Gardner Collections, among other landmark events. Greg has also covered major auctions of world coins, including the sale of the Millennia Collection. In addition to more than four hundred analytical columns for CoinWeek and at least 50 articles for CoinLink, Reynolds has contributed hundreds of articles to Numismatic News newspaper and related publications. Greg is also a multi-year winner of the ‘Best All-Around Portfolio’ award from the NLG, as well as awards for individual articles, a series of articles on the Eric Newman Collection, and for best column published on a web site.

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