The Liberty-nickel series can be considered the ugly duckling of the 5-cent denomination. It replaced the Shield nickel, which was the first 5-cent coin that did not contain silver (5-cent pieces, first struck in the 1790’s in the form of half dimes, were originally silver coins), and is the predecessor to the immensely popular Buffalo-nickel series. The final date of the series, 1913, is considered a clandestine issue, with only five pieces known to exist, and is essentially non-collectable. Still, this series is worth taking a closer look at, as it comes with an interesting history, and some pieces are surprisingly scarce. In this article we will discuss five different issues that can be purchased for less than $100 each yet provide truly collectible coins. Perhaps, after taking a look at some of these coins, you might be tempted to assemble a complete 33-piece set, which includes only one rare date and only a few very scarce pieces.
1883, No “Cents”
Introduced in 1883, the Liberty nickel caused quite a stir when it first entered circulation. The original design by Charles E. Barber featured simply a roman numeral V for the denomination, making it unclear whether the piece was valued at 5 cents or 5 dollars. Unscrupulous individuals took this as an opportunity to gold-plate the 5-cent pieces and pass them off as 5 dollars. Some even went so far as to add a reeded edge, further giving the coins the appearance of being gold pieces (nickels traditionally feature a plain edge). This caused the Mint to change the design, and the word CENTS was soon added to the reverse. A total of 5,474,300 pieces of the No “Cents” variety were struck, and many were saved in higher grades, making this an affordable option for a collector on a budget. For $100 you should be able to find a decent piece graded MS-64.
Spend a little more: Collecting type coins in Gem Uncirculated (MS-65) condition is very popular, and this is a popular issue at that grade level. For an 1883, No “Cents” nickel (as they are often called), expect to pay about $150–$180 in Gem Uncirculated condition, which should not be difficult to find. In fact, this is the most affordable Liberty nickel in Gem Uncirculated condition.
1883 With “Cents”
After the Mint realized that people were passing off the new nickels as coins with 100 times their actual value, quick actions were taken to add the word CENTS to the reverse. To make room, the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM was moved from the lower portion of the reverse to the top. Of the new type, a total of 16,026,000 pieces were struck, but despite the fact that the Mint produced almost three times as many With “Cents” pieces as No “Cents” pieces, the 1883 With “Cents” nickel is the scarcer type in higher grades. $100 will buy you a piece in Choice About Uncirculated condition, but even at that level they are quite scarce. Most entered circulation and wore down to lower grades.
Spend a little more: If you want a nice comparison pair of both 1883 varieties in Uncirculated condition, expect to spend about $200 for a piece graded MS-63. If you’d like a pair in Gem Uncirculated condition, you should be able to find an 1883 With “Cents” nickel in MS-65, but it will cost you about $500.
In 1894 the Philadelphia Mint struck a considerably smaller number of nickels than in the years before, creating a scarce date. The issue had a mintage of 5,410,500 pieces, and even though Uncirculated examples are generally available, they tend to be quite expensive. For $100 a collector can only reasonably expect to purchase a Very Fine example of this date, but even at that level I think this is an excellent buy. Most survivors grade Good or Very Good at best; finding a fully original and appealing VF is quite a challenge, yet it won’t break the bank.
Spend a little more: Replace the grades in the paragraph above with Extremely Fine or About Uncirculated and it will read the same, except that the values change a bit. This is one of those coins that is easier to find in Uncirculated condition than it is in original EF or AU. Expect to spend about $200 for an EF and $300 for a decent AU—but don’t think that they are easy to find, as they’re not.
In 1912 nickels were first struck at facilities other than the Philadelphia Mint (half dimes had traditionally been struck at other mints, but nickels had only been produced in Philadelphia up to that point). Both Denver and San Francisco struck Liberty nickels that year, and while both are scarce, the Denver issue is a bit more easy to find. With a mintage of 8,474,000, you would expect it to be common, but the truth is that it is very scarce in higher grades. $100 will buy you a decent EF/AU, but they are not easy to find at that level and in my opinion make for a very good buy.
Spend a little more: The 1912-D is very popular in Uncirculated condition, and prices reflect this. At minimum, expect to pay about $250 to $300 for a piece graded MS-62 or MS-63. Personally, I would try to find a high-end AU-58 with a strong strike and minimal marks (often with better eye-appeal than pieces graded MS-62 or MS-63) and spend about $200.
Sharply Struck, Uncirculated Type Coin
Nickel is a very hard material, and the Mint has traditionally had a very difficult time fully striking all details of the design. Many pieces, even in Gem Uncirculated condition, come weakly struck. Finding a fully struck Uncirculated Liberty nickel is extremely difficult, and I believe they represent tremendous value. Concentrate your search on coins struck at the Philadelphia Mint between 1904 and 1912, and be prepared to look at many weakly struck coins to find that one fully struck one. The stars should show full detail, especially those on the left side, and all other detail should be sharp. $100 buys an MS-63, but if it’s fully struck it is rarer than a weakly struck MS-65.
Spend a little more: A fully struck Gem Uncirculated Liberty nickel with original luster and minimal marks is a very good type coin. Such examples are few and far between, and I believe that only a fraction of all Liberty nickels certified MS-65 display a strike that’s either full or nearly full. With MS-65 type coins selling for about $300 they make for a good buy—but again, don’t expect to find a coin with a full strike very easily. ❑