HomeUS Coins1938 Jefferson Nickel : A Collector's Guide

1938 Jefferson Nickel : A Collector’s Guide

1938 Jefferson Nickel. Image: CoinWeek.
1938 Jefferson Nickel. Image: CoinWeek.

A New Nickel Design Debuts in 1938

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 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?

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 USD 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 MS-67s. 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 MS-67+ 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 MS-67+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.



A left-facing bust of President Thomas Jefferson, including a colonial-era pigtail and strikingly similar in detail to the profile of 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 Old 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 plain or smooth, without reeding or lettering.


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.

Coin Specifications

Country: United States of America
Year Of Issue: 1938
Denomination: Five Cents (USD)
Mint Mark: None (Philadelphia)
Mintage: 19,496,000
Alloy: 75% Copper, 25% Nickel
Weight: 5.00 g
Diameter: 21.21 mm
Edge: Plain
OBV Designer Felix Schlag
REV Designer Felix Schlag
Quality: Uncirculated, Proof


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CoinWeek Notes
CoinWeek Notes
CoinWeek Notes presents expert analysis and insights from Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker, the award-winning editors of CoinWeek.com.

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    • With all due respect, that’s an unbelievably tall order! Hundreds of thousands of different kinds of coins have been struck in this country and elsewhere, so what you’re asking for is better found in various books and online sites. E.g. search for “US coin values” or a similar phrase. There are also a number of well-known printed guidebooks such as those issued by Whitman or Krause.

      Some things to keep in mind:
      – Retail prices prices are going to differ significantly from wholesale prices.
      – A coin’s condition (the amount of wear, any damage, etc.) is usually a major factor in its value.
      – Two otherwise identical coins except for date and/or mint mark can have major differences in their value.
      – Any coin that’s apparently of high value should be examined and graded by a professional.
      – As a corollary, many super-rare coins have been heavily counterfeited. E.g. there are only a handful of genuine 1804 silver dollars but carloads of fakes are out there.
      – As a second corollary, be cautious of coins promoted via TV sales, eBay, and other auction-type sites. Many are legit but a lot aren’t, and it’s hard to tell remotely.
      – In the US and most other major countries, it’s extraordinarily tough (but not impossible) to find very rare coins in circulation. E.g. the chances of finding a 1943 bronze cent in change are about 10^-40.

  1. I have this nickel 1938 Jefferson and 1942 s and much more I been collecting penny dimes nickol quarter for 3 yrs but I never check there vale yet first time

  2. Thanks for running this piece. To the extent I have a real specialty in U.S. coins, it is nickels, 3-cent and 5-cent. I especially like the variations at the beginnings of all the 5-cent nickels – Shield, Liberty, Buffalo, and Jefferson.

  3. The previous commenter Keith’s find is telling. Because of their long production run, mostly unchanged until recently, Jefferson nickels are perhaps the likeliest denomination to find moderately valuable and older dates in one’s pocket change. Pre-’65 silver coinage and older pre-’60 Wheat Cents tend to stand out, while nice older Jefferson nickels sort of blend in. I even caught a ’42 D wartime “silver” one in my change very recently.

    • ??? Do you mean “no mint mark”?

      Also don’t forget that the mint mark position on older Jefferson nickels is on the reverse, to the right of Monticello rather than on the obverse near the date where it’s been located since 1968.

      In any case, as the article notes 1938 Jefferson nickels aren’t rare in circulated condition. Auction prices as of this writing are in the 50¢ range for Philadelphia coins (no mint mark), $1.10 for Denver, and $1.50 for San Francisco.


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