The 1880 Shield Nickel is the undisputed key date of the series as well as one of the rarest circulation strike nickels ever made. Its mintage was a scant 16,000 pieces and attrition from circulation was very high, leaving few surviving examples. The coins are difficult to find in any grade and particularly in uncirculated condition. The Philadelphia Mint had also produced 3,955 proofs for the year, but due to the much higher survival rate, this version remains much more available.
Originally, the five cent pieces produced for circulation within the United States were struck from silver and referred to as half dimes. However, rising silver prices eventually made the half dime no longer profitable for the Mint to produce, and additionally there had been complaints for many years that the coins were too small and were easily lost.
In 1866 the nickel was introduced, which was struck from a composition of copper and nickel. Nickel had been used since ancient times and was known for its hardness. Widespread use, however, did not come until the early 19th century when nickel was discovered to be a byproduct of cobalt blue production. The United States Mint started using nickel in their coins in 1857, when the first small cents were produced for circulation. The coins, which a distinctive color, where soon called “nickels” in circulation. However, due to difficulties in striking the coins, the alloy for cents was soon replaced with a bronze composition.
The Shield Nickel was the first series for the new five cent coins. The obverse design featured a large shield with the reverse carrying the denomination. As with the cents, the coins were difficult to strike up fully and many of the coins feature incomplete strikes. Additionally, production was very hard on the dies and many show die cracks or breaks. The Mint, however, continued production and by the mid 1870′s they were turning out a steady supply of nickels each year. Mintages, however, soon dropped to minimal levels resulting in two years or proof only strikings and the creation of the extremely low mintage circulation strike 1880 Shield Nickel.
After striking more than 2.5 million Shield Nickels in 1876, for the following two years the coins were only struck in proof format. Production for circulation resumed in 1879 with a limited mintage of 25,900 pieces. For the 1880 Shield Nickel, the mintage would decline further, with just 16,000 pieces struck for circulation. Surprisingly, the Proofs saw a record production that year, with a total of 3,955 pieces struck and sold to collectors.
The proof nickels of 1880 are now considerably easier to find than the circulation strikes. This is influenced by the higher survival rate of proofs compared to circulation strikes and likely other factors. Although the mintage for circulation was 16,000 pieces, it is doubtful that all of these pieces were actually released. Current population reports and auction appearance indicate an extremely small number of known examples.
Coin grading companies PCGS and NGC have certified fewer than 100 examples of the circulation strike 1880 Shield Nickel across all grades. It is even believed that some of these circulated examples may in fact be circulated proofs. With so few examples known, it leads to the possible conclusion that most of the original mintage of circulation strike coins was never released. These pieces may have been later melted with the material reused to strike other nickels, such as the common 1882 Shield Nickel, which had a mintage of more than 11 million pieces.
The total number of surviving circulation strike 1880 Shield Nickels has been estimated to be in the low hundreds to a little more. Conservative estimates suggest that perhaps no more than 125 pieces are known to exist in all grades. As for the proofs, which were usually carefully saved, around 2,000 examples may remain in existence across all grades. This is one of those coins that some experienced collectors even choose to include a proof striking in their rarity thanks to the rarity of the circulation strike!
Finest Known and Values
The finest known 1880 Shield Nickel is a single piece graded by PCGS as MS66, which does not seem to have been offered for sale in recent times. Previously, there was an example graded MS66 listed in NGC population reports up to circa 2007, however this coin is no longer listed. It may be the case that the coin was crossed over to a PCGS holder at the same grade and the listing removed from the NGC reports.
Gems are extremely rare for this issue as well. PCGS has graded three coins as MS65, while NGC’s population reports shows a total of five pieces graded as such. One of the examples graded MS65 sold for $40,250 at auction in June 2010.
The auction record for this issue is held by a PCGS MS65 graded example which sold for $60,375 in April 2006. Judging from these numbers it is believed that the sole PCGS MS-66 could easily sell at auction for over $100,000, if it were offered for sale. It appears to be currently locked up in a high-grade specialized collection and it seems unlikely that it will appear at auction soon.
The Proof 1880 Shield Nickels are much more affordable. A proof example with good eye appeal in PR65 condition can be bought for less than $2,000. Examples which have been given the cameo or deep cameo designation by grading companies are scarce to very rare and represent only a minority of all certified examples. An exampled graded NGC PF 66 Ultra Cameo sold for $4,025 in October 2009.