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 being 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.
1950-D Jefferson Nickel
2,630,030 Jefferson nickels were struck at the Denver Mint in 1950, a coinage that was carried out without the expectation of much in the way of public notice. Demand for the new nickel coins in the areas serviced by the Denver Mint was low in this particular year as the American economy was mired in the third year of a post-war recession. The mintage of preceding years was sufficient for most of the year. Because of this, orders for new nickel coinage for the Denver Mint did not come in until summer, and upon delivery, no new coins were ordered for the remainder of the calendar year.
The general public only became aware of this low mintage and the coin’s potential as a collectible and investment item due to the tireless work of coin promoters. Many of these promoters were new to the coin industry, but saw the 1950-D nickel as a means to capitalize on the public’s desire to make a quick buck. As a result, the 1950-D nickel was heavily hoarded, marketed, and promoted… and for years the issue traded freely as a modern “rarity”.
Interest in the coin, which was broad and mainstream, focused new enthusiasm for the collecting of modern coins and brought with it the era of roll collecting and investing.
By the late 1960s, ads in The Numismatist and other numismatic publications offered single examples of the 1950-D for prices approaching $20 per coin. No other coin in the modern series elicited as much excitement about the investment potential as did the 1950-D. The issue served as a model, however, for what other rolls were “worth” to speculators. The investment was premised around the idea that future collectors would come into the market and require past issues for their National or Whitman coin boards and albums.
What developed was a bubble and a marketplace that could not sustain itself, at least not as an investment. Thousands of bags of 1950-D nickels were hoarded by marketers and much of the mintage of the summer of 1950 was forever taken out of circulation.
Today, it is far more unusual to find an example in circulated condition and even rarer to find one still in circulation than it is to find a nice example in choice or gem grades. As a result, the typical gem might sell for $30-$40, if certified by PCGS or NGC.
Of course, Full Steps nickels are about four times rarer than their non-designated uncirculated counterparts. The following graphic provides an easy to understand visual reference on the Full Steps designation.
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.
Mintages Alone Do Not Determine Key Dates
For good and bad, the 1950-D will never shed its notorious reputation as a heavily-hoarded and heavily-promoted coin. For Jefferson nickel collectors, even casual ones, the 1950-D will cost a tidy premium, but is essential for the completion of a full set. Series specialists know that there are far more interesting and much more scarce issues in the series, especially when Full Steps designation and conditional rarity come into play. Still, the 1950-D stands as a helpful lesson in the difference between numismatic fact and numismatic innuendo.
The general public and a whole generation of collectors were led to believe that this was the key date of the Jefferson nickel series. When one thinks of 20th century key dates in the non-gold series, one thinks of the 1909-S VDB cent, the 1916 Mercury dime, and the 1916 Standing Liberty quarter, to name a few. Some of these coins are truly scarce, while others are scarce relative to demand. The 1950-D has neither of these characteristics, but that fact and its history as a heavily promoted coin gives it some charm. And charm is what makes coins so much fun!
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 1964 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. A small mint mark “D” is found to the far right of the mansion.
Interestingly, Felix Schlag’s initials did not appear on a Jefferson nickel until 1966.
|Year Of Issue:||1950|
|Mint Mark:||D (Denver)|
|Alloy:||75% Copper, 25% Nickel|
|OBV Designer||Felix Schlag|
|REV Designer||Felix Schlag|