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Liberty Head Set Attainable
By Paul M. Green

With each passing year, the famous 1913 Liberty Head nickel seems to grow in stature and popularity.

The popularity is measured by the millions of dollars it commands when an example appears at public auction.

But does the existence of this great rarity as part of the Liberty Head nickel series deter collectors from collecting the much more attainable coins in the series that were struck beginning in 1883 and then concluding its regular circulation run in 1912?

Could be.

It is a shame if it is true.

The Liberty Head nickel remains a set that most collectors can complete with the exception of the 1913 and it is a set that is well worth considering as it features some coins that are much better than many realize.

In fact, a large part of the story of the Liberty Head nickel and the fact that it is underrated today stretches back to the time the coin was in production. It should be remembered that the Liberty Head nickel might well have been one denomination along with Barber dimes, quarters and half dollars that simply had bad timing.

The Liberty Head nickel seemed to have a lot of collector interest when it was first introduced, but within a few years, based on the sales of proofs, we can see a period where collecting activity was relatively slow. That meant that the Liberty Head nickel was not heavily saved with the vast majority going into circulation.

With the next period of real growth in collecting interest not coming until 1909 many potentially better date Liberty Head nickels were already well circulated and most collectors seem to have believed that it was too late to start a collection and so the coins continued to circulate for many years.

This is not just speculation as the famous "New York Subway Hoard" purchased by the Littleton Coin Company in the 1990s was dramatic proof of the fact that even decades after the Liberty Head nickel was released into circulation the best dates were still available in significant numbers in circulation.

In fact, among the dates of Liberty Head nickels seen in the hoard, which was assembled starting in the 1940s from coins received by the New York Transit Authority, the fact is that the key 1912-S (which has the lowest mintage of any nickel of the past century by a wide margin) was still found in the hoard 160 times.

Other better dates were even more numerous, making it very clear that the Liberty Head nickel had never been pulled from circulation in large numbers by either dealers or collectors at least until the 1940s. By the 1940s it was simply too late to find most dates in anything than lower circulated grades as decades of circulation would have dropped any nickel down into the lower grades.

The Liberty Head nickel got off to what might gently be described as an interesting start. It was designed by Charles Barber ,who was relatively new to the position of Mint Chief Engraver at the time. In some ways it was probably a better than average Barber design as he was never known for the quality of his art.

What Barber was noted for was his technical ability as having followed his father to the position of Chief Engraver it can safely be suggested that if anyone in history ever knew what it took to make a coin work well in circulation that person was Charles Barber.

The ironic thing about the Liberty Head nickel is that it had a design flaw. Actually other coins had the same vulnerability, which was that for the denomination Barber had used a large Roman Numeral "V," but no word "Cents" accompanied it. It probably did not seem necessary as three-cent pieces had been produced for years with Roman numerals expressing the denomination without the help of "Cents" to go with them and nothing untoward ever happened as a result.

So, a total of 5,479,510 examples of the 1883 Liberty Head nickel was released and there was an immediate problem.

Without the word "Cents," some were gold plating 1883 nickels and passing them off to unsuspecting people as $5 gold pieces, which was possible as they just had a large "V." Certainly today that would seem unlikely, but it was 1883 and there were remote parts of the country where news of something like a new nickel was not likely to be widespread and apparently the deception worked enough times to cause complaints to quickly reach the Mint.

For comparison the $5 gold piece had a diameter of 21.6mm as compared to 21.2mm, so from that standpoint, the coin was virtually identical in size.

However, for people used to hefting their coins, the nickel weighed only 5 grams to the $5 gold piece's 8.359 grams. Almost anybody should have been able to tell the coins apart based on the weight, but apparently not.

"Cents" was added rapidly to the new coin and there was an additional production of 16,032,983 in 1883.

The with CENTS mintage was larger, but the 1883 without CENTS was one of the most heavily saved coins in history up to that time. In fact, the 1883 without CENTS was saved in extraordinary numbers. The fact was seen for many decades with groups of uncirculated 1883 no CENTS nickels appearing regularly on the market.

There was one original bag of 400 pieces discovered in the holding of an Iowa bank while Q. David Bowers reports in his book American Coin Treasures and Hoards that the Eliasberg sale of 1996 featured over 100 uncirculated examples. As Bowers notes in his book, dozens of pieces in Mint State coming on the market at the same time is not unusual.

All the hoarding has resulted in the unusual situation where the lower mintage without CENTS 1883 is more available in most grades than the 1883 with CENTS.

The without CENTS 1883 is found at just $6.50 in G-4, $25 in MS-60 and $260 in MS-65. By comparison, the with CENTS 1883 is $18 in G-4, $160 in MS-60 and $695 in MS-65. Only in proof is the lower mintage no CENTS 1883 more costly as in Proof-65 it is at $1,075 while the with CENTS is just $725.

Actually a set of 1883 nickels is an interesting group as the Shield nickel was also produced in 1883 to the tune of just under 1.5 million pieces. That makes three different 1883 nickels and all three are available at reasonable prices. The 1883 Shield nickel in MS-60 likely to cost just $160.

After the initial saving inspired by the design alteration, interest in the Liberty Head nickel seemed to wane. Mint State examples are available of all dates, but they are not as plentiful as might be expected. Upper circulated grades are also tough, and in fact, many dates in any grade are much more elusive than we might expect based on their mintages.

We see the impact of the lack of saving in a number of the better dates. The 1885 and 1886 had mintages of just under 1.5 million and 3,330,290, respectively, and while we might expect those mintages to result in premium prices, we would not normally expect the 1885 to be at $600 in G-4 with the 1886 being $290 in the same grade. The prices are a clear indication that these dates simply circulated until they were so heavily worn that they were retired and destroyed.

The 1885 and 1886 by a wide margin are the toughest dates of the period, although many of the same factors that influence their prices are present for other dates as well. Only a lack of demand is potentially keeping some dates from higher prices.

It must also be remembered that during the 1880s and 1890s many collectors were still acquiring just proofs for their sets and not business strikes.. We see solid evidence of that in proof mintages between 2,500 and 5,000 each year for the Liberty Head nickel dates.

The collector preference for proofs carries over down to the present day as any look at modern commemorative mintage figures will attest.

Overall sales of the proof Liberty head nickels did decline during the period and that makes many of the later dates suspect in terms of supplies available today, as if collector interest was on the decline, we have to question how many examples of dates like the 1884 with a mintage of 11 million or the 1888 with a mintage of 10.7 million are really available. With prices today of $21 and $30, respectively, in G-4 we have to suspect that they just might be better than those prices. Much the same would apply to the 1894, which had a mintage of just under 5.5 million, but which is priced at $16.50 in G-4.

In MS-60, the Liberty Head nickel is a set many can afford. That is seen in the fact that only the 1885, 1886 and 1912-S currently top $1,000, while in many cases the dates are below $100, making it possible to fill a lot of holes in a set for relatively little expense. The combination of limited demand and the presence of proofs to keep prices in check has made a Mint State set a really great opportunity for those looking for a good buy on a set that seems to be sleeping at least for the time being.

In MS-65 a set is a much more difficult challenge. The 1885, 1886 and 1912-S are all around $8,000 give or take in MS-65 and there are a significant number of others in the $1,000 and higher range. That said, the prices are probably kept lower than they might be otherwise be because of the supply of proofs.

The situation with proofs is interesting as there are only two dates, the 1912-D and 1912-S which are not available as proofs. The only Proof-65 coins currently above $1,000 are the 1883 no CENTS at $1,075, the 1885 at $3,150 and the 1886 at $1,950, with the majority of the dates now pegged at $700 in price.

Certainly at those prices, it is hard to ignore the potential of at least acquiring much of a set in Proof-65 and thank those intrepid collectors of the late 19th century for making such beautiful coins available to us for so little money today.

The two dates that are not available as proofs are important. There had been no nickel production outside Philadelphia for the simple reason that it had not been allowed. The prohibition was changed in the early 1900s and that opened the door to the production of lower denominations containing no gold or silver at the branch mints.

It took some time before the nickel would be produced at other facilities as the first cent produced outside Philadelphia had been the 1908-S. Finally in 1912 the time was right for nickels to also be produced at other facilities and both Denver and San Francisco began nickel production that year.

It could safely be suggested that 1912 was an interesting year. The Red Sox won the World Series, the Titanic disappeared below the waves and Denver produced 8,474,000 nickels. That nickel production along with the mintage in San Francisco is certainly historic and it appears that the people back in 1912 sensed that as solid numbers were pulled from circulation at the time and in the years that followed making the 1912-D just a $2.50 coin in G-4 with an MS-60 at $290 and an MS-65 at $2,600.

Actually the 1912-D has historically probably suffered by comparison with the 1912-S, which is definitely a special coin. With an important role in history and a mintage of just 238,000, the 1912-S ranks as the lowest mintage nickel of the past century and by a wide a margin. The only other nickel with a mintage below 1 million is the 1926-S and it' total was 970,000.

While the 1912-S was probably saved by some, there was still not enough collecting interest in the Liberty Head nickel to keep most examples from becoming heavily circulated. We see that in the presence of so many in the New York Subway Hoard.

Realistically, the 1912-S has been somewhat overlooked until the past few years where its prices have moved solidly higher in all grades. Even so it seems like a good deal at $175 in G-4, which is up from $43 in 1998, $1,550 in MS-60 while an MS-65 is $7,500, and that is about three times the 1998 price. With its low mintage and important place in history, the 1912-S has the potential to continue to climb in price because you are not going to find many more interesting and elusive nickels.

The other Liberty Head nickel is definitely special. The 1913 Liberty Head nickel is not the rarest U.S. coin as there are five known, although a couple are in museums, meaning that realistically there are only three available for private ownership and that number could drop over time. Even so, there are unique U.S. coins, but there are very few coins that are better known or more expensive that the 1913.

The story of the 1913 remains something of a mystery. There has been a suggestion that there were dies for the 1913 in San Francisco before the order was given to change to the Buffalo nickel. That said, the general belief is that the creation of the 1913 was no accident of timing, but rather a deliberate attempt to make a great rarity. The most often mentioned suspect in that activity is a fellow named Samuel Brown who had been a Mint employee and who later advertised to pay $500 for a 1913 in 1919.

The Brown situation is interesting as there is good reason to doubt that he could have made 1913 nickels by himself. Additionally, Samuel Brown otherwise seems to have had a very normal and respected life, making him not seem like the type to be making rarities in the dark of night at the Mint. That said, there is no escaping the fact that he was offering to buy the 1913 before anybody even suspected one existed and he did appear with all five of them at the 1920 American Numismatic Association convention. It cannot be proven he made the coins, but he remains the leading suspect.

A little mystery seems to help produce interest in a great rarity, but the 1913 has also had a dedicated list of owners who in their own ways have helped to promote the nickel and its importance. The list of former owners includes the eccentric Col. E.H.R. Green as well as the lavish former king of Egypt King Farouk. Certainly high on the list of those who have promoted the 1913 is the famous dealer from Texas B. Max Mehl who promoted the 1913 nationally by offering to pay large sums for a 1913 even though he knew where all five were at the time. In fact, Mehl was trying to interest people in coin collecting and in the process he made much of America aware of the 1913 nickel.

The 1913 even appeared on the TV show "Hawaii Five-O."

Probably no one did more to promote the 1913 than J.V. McDermott, a Wisconsin dealer who seemed to go nowhere without his 1913. In fact, McDermott was willing to show his 1913 and let people hold it in any number of locations, including bars. So many actually handled or mishandled the coin that it actually is seen by many as lower grade than the other known examples, but the spirit of McDermott and his willingness to let everyone see his nickel, has left a legacy felt by most owners of the 1913.

Reed Hawn at one point suggested to me that while it is expensive to take a 1913 to a show because of insurance and other concerns that when you own a 1913 you have an obligation to let people see the coin and to tell its story. That sense of obligation saw Hawn take his example, which he purchased in the sale of the collection of Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss, to a Baltimore ANA convention and other owners have taken similar steps, making the 1913 perhaps unique among American coins as it seems to be a coin that comes with a special sense of responsibility for every new owner.

Of course, no one pays $4 million or $5 million for a coin simply because it has an interesting story. The 1913 is a legitimate rarity and with only three potentially available for private ownership, anyone interested in buying a 1913 must approach it like it was their last chance to own the coin as it very well could be. That means prices are always high and the atmosphere exciting when a 1913 sells and that does not change with each new recorded sale and record price.

The rest of the Liberty Head nickels do not receive that sort of attention. In fact, they deserve more attention than they get whether they get it is up to you.


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