The Jefferson nickel debuted in 1938, replacing the Buffalo nickel in the 25th year of its production run. A design contest to commemorate Founding Father and third president of the United States Thomas Jefferson, open to “all American sculptors”, was held in 1937. German émigré and American artist Felix Oscar Schlag was the winner. He received $1,000 for his effort.
Schlag’s concept for the obverse, which art scholar Cornelius Vermeule claimed was similar to Jean-Antoine Houdon’s 1789 bust of Jefferson, appeared essentially the same on the five-cent nickel for 66 years. His original reverse concept, however–featuring an innovative three-quarters perspective of Jefferson’s mansion Monticello–was rejected by the Treasury Department. Various changes were requested, the most significant of which is the flat, head-on portrayal of Monticello that is found on Jefferson nickels minted to this very day (though commemorative issues with different reverses have also been released). According to the rules of the design competition, the winning artist would receive no additional compensation for this extra work.
The 1939 Jefferson Nickel
120,615,000 Jefferson nickels were struck at the Philadelphia Mint in 1939, eclipsing the record mintage for the nickel denomination that was set in 1936 with the production of 118,997,000 of James Earle Fraser’s Indian Head design.
It is an interesting issue due to the fact that, early in the production cycle, the United States Mint modified the reverse, leading to the production of two distinct varieties: the Reverse of ’38, so-called because it used the original reverse design that debuted in 1938; and the Reverse of ’40, so-called because all Jefferson nickel issues in 1940 bore this enhanced design. The difference between the two designs is difficult for non-specialists to point out, but can best be described as a strengthening of the steps on Monticello, with the borders being less rounded and more defined. Of the two varieties, the Reverse of ’40 is less common.
Due to the issue’s high mintage and high survival rate in all grades, the 1939 does not carry a significant numismatic premium. However, it is important that we break down the 1939 issue into four categories to discuss their market value.
The Four Categories of the 1939
In order to break down the different pricing tiers of the 1939, we must break the coin down into four categories: circulated coins (like those typically found in change); uncirculated examples (like those typically sold in uncertified grades at coin shops); numerical Mint State coins (those in PCGS or NGC holders); and numerical Mint State coins with Full Steps designations (the most desirable of all Jefferson nickels for specialists).
Circulated to well-worn examples are the coins that you typically find in circulation. Unless an example has entered into circulation after decades of being held in a collection or accumulation, an 80-year-old nickel will appear well-worn with most of its details rubbed off. While finding one in change at this late date is unusual, the resale market for a low-grade circulated example is virtually non-existent. In this state of preservation, the coin is worth approximately double its face value – IF you can find a buyer for it.
“Raw” Uncirculated specimens are defined as examples that have never entered into circulation. These are not precisely graded coins and if purchased through a coin dealer or online they will arrive in a variety of grades: from BU (simply uncirculated, but not attractive) to Choice Uncirculated (approximately MS63), to Gem (approximately MS65) or better. Given the potential for a high-end raw uncirculated coin to receive a high grade or a FULL STEPS designation from a major grading service, it is unlikely that a knowledgeable professional coin dealer will sell superior quality specimens without first submitting them for grading and attribution. That being said, the typical retail price for an uncirculated and ungraded 1939 Jefferson nickel is approximately $10.
Only the opinions of major grading services (PCGS or NGC) are readily accepted in the market when it comes to designating grades in Mint State. A knowledgeable collector or dealer with grading skills can typically assign a reasonable ballpark grade for a coin, but without encapsulation by one of these two companies, the premiums that are generally paid on the market for high-end modern coins do not materialize.
The PCGS population for 1939 Jefferson nickels shows that a majority of the coins submitted for grading did not earn the FULL STEPS attribution. A number of references have been written about the Full Steps designation, but an easy explanation can be derived from the following graphic:
Here you can see that the steps, located on the design between the stylobate, a flat pavement section on which rest the four front columns of the design, and the foundation block at the base of the steps. Factors such as die condition, striking pressure, and incidental contact with other coins, play a significant factor in whether a Jefferson nickel will earn the Full Steps designation.
PCGS uses the attribution FS, as did NGC until 2004 when that company split its designation into 5FS (for five full steps) or 6FS (for six full steps).
PCGS accounts for a total of 219 coins with the Full Steps designation, the majority of which have graded MS66. Certified populations for modern coins can be misleading because they tend toward high-grade specimens. In reality, economic principles are at play. Given that the Terminal Grade of a 1939 Jefferson nickel (that is, the lowest possible grade where the coin is profitable for the submitter) is MS66 Full Steps, most submitters will pre-screen their coins for quality before submission and most buyers on the market will find it easier to buy a premium quality coin that has already been submitted than to undergo the laborious task of seeking out a premium coin and the trial and error of submitting coins to one of the two services.
The highest grade in the PCGS census for this issue is MS67+, with five examples noted. One example, PCGS Cert# 25340624, serves as an important caveat to those trading in ultra-high-end Top Pop certified coins. In 2014, Heritage Auctions sold this coin for a record price of $1,058. At the time, it was the sole example graded MS67+ by PCGS. Three years later, Heritage offered it again, this time with a population of five pieces, where the coin realized just $329. In MS66, the 1939 Jefferson nickel with Full Steps trades for about $150. Non-Full-Step-certified examples sell at about a third of these levels.
A look at the NGC census tells a similar story in terms of grade distribution, with slightly more coins submitted to NGC accounting for a higher population of coins in the market. NGC has slightly different standards for the attribution of Full Steps, as mentioned above, which probably drives the increased demand for 1939 Jefferson nickels in their holders. PCGS and NGC grading standards for this issue are more or less equivalent. To date, NGC reports one example in the grade of MS68. We are not aware of any auction records for this coin but can assume that it would realize a price of several thousand dollars if made available via private treaty sale or at a public auction.
When selecting a 1939 Jefferson nickel for your collection, remember that “look”, or eye appeal, is just as important as grade.
A left-facing bust of President Thomas Jefferson, including a colonial-era pigtail and strikingly similar in detail to the profile of Jean-Antoine Houdon’s 1789 bust, takes up the majority of the obverse. The top of his head almost touches the rim, and the barest of truncations is visible at the bottom where Jefferson’s left shoulder meets the edge of the coin. The motto IN GOD WE TRUST–which became the national motto in 1956–arcs clockwise along most of the length of the left side of the coin, starting from Jefferson’s chest and extending to his hairline. The inscriptions LIBERTY and the date 1939 run clockwise along the right side behind Jefferson. A small five-pointed star divides the two inscriptions.
The reverse features a front view of Monticello, Jefferson’s mansion near Charlottesville, Virginia. The polymath Jefferson designed the neoclassical building himself, based on architectural principles from the Italian Renaissance; the name “Monticello” comes from the Italian for “mound” or “little mountain”. The building loses much of its dimensionality in the flattened rendering, but the octagonal nature of the dome can still be interpreted, and better strikes reveal significant detail in the steps and portico.
Atop the reverse is the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM (“Out of Many, One”). The name MONTICELLO–the placement of which on the coin was one of the revisions forced upon Schlag by the Mint–is found in a straight line immediately under the building; the positions and spacing of the other inscriptions had to be adjusted to make room for it. The denomination FIVE CENTS forms a gently curving line beneath that, and the inscription UNITED STATES OF AMERICA runs counterclockwise along the bottom edge of the coin.
Interestingly, Felix Schlag’s initials did not appear on a Jefferson nickel until 1966.
The edge of the 1939 Jefferson nickel is smooth or plain.
Felix Schlag was born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1891. After receiving an education at the Munich University of Fine Arts, he moved to the United States in 1929. Schlag died in 1974. Yet while he did win numerous art contests and commissions throughout much of the remainder of his life, the Jefferson Nickel was his only coin design.
|Year Of Issue:||1939|
|Mint Mark:||None (Philadelphia)|
|Alloy:||75% Copper, 25% Nickel|
|OBV Designer||Felix Schlag|
|REV Designer||Felix Schlag|