By Jon Garner for PCGS ……
Jefferson nickels have been around since 1938, but despite the long run of this popular series, it has not spawned many truly rare dates among the regular issues. Only a handful of regular-issue business strikes saw mintages of less than 10 million pieces, but there two circulation issues saw relatively small mintages of fewer than five million apiece. These two issues, regarded as key-date coins for the series, have kept collectors busy searching through circulation since the middle of the 20th century.
The two Jefferson nickels that reign supreme as series key dates are the 1939-D and the 1950-D.
Both coins hail from the Denver Mint, which by the middle of the 20th century had become one of the most prolific branch mints in terms of overall coin production. While branch mints historically struck smaller numbers of coins than the “mother” mint in Philadelphia, the Denver Mint saw productions of certain coins that easily rivaled – and sometimes exceeded – same-year output for particular issues from its counterpart facility in Philly.
However, that wasn’t the case in 1939 or 1950. The Denver Mint struck only 3,514,000 examples of the 1939 Jefferson nickel, making the 1939-D the scarcest five-cent coin the Denver Mint had produced since it began striking the denomination in 1912. Even fewer Jefferson nickels would be struck by the “Mile-High” Mint little more than a decade later, in 1950. That’s when just 2,630,030 nickels rolled off Denver’s presses – a number that still stands as the lowest-mintage regular-issue five-cent piece struck at the Denver Mint.
The 1939-D and 1950-D Jefferson nickels both became key targets for anybody searching through pocket change during the great numismatic boom of the 1950s and early ’60s when scores of Americans were collecting coins from circulation. At this time, there were arguably more coin collectors than there were 1939-D and 1950-D Jefferson nickels available. Thus these two low-mintage coins became widely popular – already justifiably recognized as series key dates – became hot commodities. This was particularly so for roll quantities, and Uncirculated rolls of 1939-D and 1950-D Jefferson nickels were selling for as much as $1,000 apiece in the early ’60s!
But the market for rolls of contemporary coins cooled during the mid-1960s, and prices and general demand for 1939-D and 1950-D Jefferson nickels, as well as other late-date rarities, softened significantly. Still, the 1939-D and 1950-D nickels remain desirable coins, and many hobbyists pursue these pieces in both circulated and uncirculated grades for their collections. PCGS Set Registry members are also on the search for these key dates, especially those grading in the Gem Mint State range or better or those with Full Steps (FS) designation. Interestingly, while the 1939-D had a markedly higher mintage than the 1950-D, the former is much scarcer and costlier than the latter since fewer 1939-Ds were preserved in better condition.
Collectors who are particularly dedicated to the Jefferson nickel series will pursue the two main varieties for the 1939-D Jefferson nickel, which include the 1939-D Reverse of 1938 and the 1939-D Reverse of 1940. The primary differences between these two varieties can be found in the definition of the steps leading up to Monticello. The 1939-D Reverse of 1940 exhibits much greater enhancement on the definition of the steps than the 1939-D Reverse of 1938 does.
PCGS has graded only 17 examples of the 1939-D Reverse of 1938 as MS65FS, and prices trend around $400. Prices approach nearly 10 times that amount, or $3,850 for an example in MS67+FS, of which PCGS has graded only 10 specimens. Non-FS versions of the 1939-D Jefferson nickel are much more common and far more affordable at those levels, with PCGS examples in MS65 selling for $65 and those in MS67+ taking $600.
The 1939-D Reverse of 1940 proves a little scarcer, with PCGS-graded MS65 examples commanding $80 and MS67+ specimens realizing $750. FS pieces take much greater prices still, with one of the 23 PCGS-graded examples of the 1939-D Reverse of 1940 selling for $300 while the MS67+, which has just two PCGS representatives, taking $8,500.
Finally, there is the 1950-D Jefferson nickel, the rarest of all regular-issue business-strikes in the series. While PCGS-graded MS65s are plentiful and available for $25 each, obtaining an example in MS67+ is a different story. PCGS has encapsulated only one. Meanwhile, the 1950-D in MS65FS is a little scarcer than its non-FS counterpart but still obtainable for many collectors at $55. A 1950-D Jefferson nickel in MS67+FS is rare but not esoteric, with seven specimens graded by PCGS and these pieces presently trading for $2,000 in the marketplace.
Certainly, building a high-end Registry Set of Jefferson nickels is neither easy nor inexpensive. But there are some excellent opportunities to own some true conditional rarities among the Jefferson nickel series that are many times scarcer than many other tough 20th-century key and semi-key coins. While Jefferson nickels are admittedly not as actively pursued by collectors as other modern series, now may be the chance to build a high-quality set of these coins while prices are still relatively reasonable.