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The Scarce 1886 Liberty Nickel

1886 Liberty Head Nickel. Image: PCGS.
1886 Liberty Head Nickel. Image: PCGS.

By Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez for PCGS ……
The 1886 Liberty Nickel is among a trio of key dates that make collecting this vintage-19th-century five-cent series quite tough.

The Philadelphia Mint’s output of 1886 Nickels was relatively anemic, with just 3,326,000 struck. Still, this is not the lowest mintage among business strikes for this series. The key-date 1885 notched a production figure of just 1,473,300, and the 1912-S scored the lowest number of emissions among all the business strikes, with just 238,000 coins.

Yet, these figures are still gargantuan as compared to the five 1913 Proof Liberty Nickels, but those without the multimillion-dollar budget to buy an example take heart – there is no evidence to suggest it was an official United States Mint issue and is thus usually not required to complete a Liberty Nickel set.

The 1886 Liberty Nickel may not be as rare as the pricey 1885 or boast as low a mintage as the 1912-S, but it’s nevertheless a doozy of a coin to chase down. Due to strike issues that frequently manifested as weakness on the radial lines of the obverse stars and softness in the ear of corn on the lower-left reverse, it can be tough to find a specimen that carries the sharpness of strike that so many collectors desire.

These particular issues relating to strike are less significant when discussing well-circulated examples, such as those grading G4 or F12, where prices chart at $175 and $375, respectively. However, strike does become a more pressing matter for the collector when considering the lightly circulated grades (a typical XF40 costs $700) and certainly pieces in Mint State, the latter being where strike weakness can be what stands between a coin grading MS65 versus MS64.

The collector will definitely pay up for an 1886 in Mint State grades, with an MS62 setting buyers back $1,750 and an MS65 commanding $5,500. The aforementioned strike issues preclude the vast majority of uncirculated specimens from ever reaching the rare MS66 or elusive MS67, where prices range from $12,500 for the former to $75,000 for the latter. The auction record for this coin currently stands at $64,625, the amount realized in 2018 for a PCGS MS67 specimen.

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