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.
1938 Jefferson Nickel
19,496,000 Jefferson nickels dated 1938 were struck at the Philadelphia Mint, but the coins didn’t enter into circulation until late in the year. And because it was the first year of issue for a new coin type, people set aside several examples from change and some even sought out rolls of Jefferson nickels to accumulate. This means that the 1938 is still a fairly common coin today, in almost all grades, although it’s highly unlikely that you will find one in your pocket change.
In terms of strike characteristics, the United States Mint struck the 1938 Jefferson nickel in a quality that is best described as inconsistent. This is not an issue that is particularly difficult to acquire with Full Steps designation, but fully struck examples are the exception and not the rule. These are coins that were struck from fresh hubs and the true difficulty of finding well-struck examples would not become apparent until the 1950s and ’60s.
What is a 1938 Jefferson nickel worth? In circulated grades, the 1938 is worth about 25 cents. In uncirculated condition, a collector should expect to pay a minimum of $3.00 for an uncirculated example in a 2×2 flip, upwards to $300 to $400 for an example in Superb Gem with Full Steps.
Graded examples are most commonly found in the 64 to 65 range, with 66 also well represented. With Full Steps, PCGS has certified 142 MS-64s, 362 MS-65s, a total of 228 MS-66s, and 34 MS67s. In contrast, NGC reports populations of eight in MS-64, 37 in MS-65, 58 in MS-66, and 12 in MS-67.
In January 2017, Heritage Auctions sold a PCGS MS67+ example in a 30th Anniversary Green Retro Holder for $3,290.00. This coin had pleasing (yet typical) lavender and ice blue toning. Two years prior, Heritage sold another example (though, to our eyes, not as nice), for $4,935. At the time this was the sole example to earn the MS67+FS grade. The 2017 coin is the second to earn this half-step upgrade.
To earn the designation of Full Steps, a Jefferson nickel must meet the following criteria:
In this graphic, you 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.
Jefferson Nickel Design
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 1938 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.
The edge of the 1938 Jefferson nickel is smooth or plain.
|Year Of Issue:||1938|
|Mint Mark:||None (Philadelphia)|
|Alloy:||75% Copper, 25% Nickel|
|OBV Designer||Felix Schlag|
|REV Designer||Felix Schlag|