US Liberty Nickels (1883-1913)

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In 1883 the Liberty Head nickel made its appearance. Designed by Charles E. Barber, the first pieces struck had the denomination on the reverse expressed simply by the Roman numeral V. Unscrupulous individuals gold plated them and passed them off as $5 gold pieces of similar diameter. The government realized its mistake, and the design was corrected to add the word CENTS below the V. A popular speculation arose when the design error was publicized, and 1883 without CENTS nickels were hoarded in large quantities, a situation which resulted in their being common to this day.

In 1913, the first Buffalo Nickel was minted and the Liberty Head Nickel series run was scheduled to end. However, five Liberty Nickels were minted (some think were actually six) which ended up in the hands of one person, the well-known Colonel Green. These coins were never placed into circulation and considered illegal to own for many years because they were not a regular issue. The 1913 Liberty Head Nickel is considered one of the rarest of all United States coins.

While three mints were used to produce the Liberty Head Nickel, the bulk of the workload fell upon the Philadelphia Mint. They minted coins from 1883-1913. The Denver and San Francisco Mints issued coins only in 1912

Diameter: 21.2 millimeters
Weight: 5 grams
Composition: .750 copper, .250 nickel
Edge: Plain

The Shield nickel, introduced in 1866, was the first base-metal five-cent piece in U.S. history; up to then, the half dime, a small silver coin, had filled the nation’s need for that denomination. Though reasonably well accepted, the Shield nickel was hardly untouchable; its stark, bland design made it a prime candidate for remodeling. And its newness didn’t protect it from replacement: At that time, there wasn’t yet a federal law establishing a minimum life expectancy for U.S. coin designs.

Snowden admired Barber’s new design, and he also welcomed the change because it gave him a chance to increase the diameter (and thus reduce the thickness) of the nickel. He believed that this would lengthen die life dramatically. Snowden proudly unveiled the Liberty Head nickel at a special ceremony on Jan. 30, 1883. Dignitaries attended and souvenirs of the first strikes were distributed to the guests. Regular coinage began later that weekthen suddenly, the celebrating stopped.

The first “V nickels” had barely left the Mint when appalled officials found a fundamental flaw in their design: Barber had omitted the word CENTS. His oversight soon created a crisis for Uncle Sam: Confidence artists were plating the nickels with gold and passing them off to unsuspecting merchants as $5 gold pieces. They were, after all, virtually the same size as half eagles. As brand new coins, they were still unfamiliar to the public, and they lacked any statement of value beyond the letter V, which, of course, could represent either five cents or five dollars.

How to grade Liberty Head Nickels?

  • Good has no details in the head. LIBERTY is obliterated. The wreath is worn flat and not completely outlined.
  • Very Good has at least 3 letters visible in LIBERTY. Bottom of coronet and most hair details are worn smooth. The wreath shows only a bold outline.
  • Fine has all letters visible. Some details show in the curls and hair at the top of the head. Some detail in wreath is visible. Letters in motto are worn but clear.
  • Very Fine has a bold LIBERTY, including the letter “I”. ¾ of the hair details will show. Leaves in wreath are worn but ribs are visible.
  • Extremely Fine has LIBERTY showing sharply. There will be slight wear on the high points of the hair from the forehead to the ear. The corn grains at the bottom of the wreath are visible on the reverse. The high points of the wreath are lightly worn.
  • About Uncirculated shows only a trace of wear on the highest points of the hair above the left ear. A trace of wear will show on the corn ears. The lines in the corn will be clearly defined.
  • Uncirculated coins have no trace of wear and only light blemishes. Check the high points of the hair left of the ear and at the forehead. Also check the corn ears for detail.
credit to the National Numismatic CollectionNational Museum of American History.

For the lesser grades.

the focus is on the number of letters visible in “LIBERTY” on the coronet of the obverse and in the hair. In finer grades, the corn grains and wreath are also taken into consideration.

Liberty Head Nickel Obverse – BU

This is a nice example of the 1883 No Cent variety. Notice that the coronet is well defined and all letters in LIBERTY show clearly. The hair shows strong detail from the front of the forehead to the back of the head. The hair left of the ear is strongly detailed and shows no sign of wear.

Liberty Head Nickel Obverse – AU

On this 1907 About Uncirculated example, you should notice the slight wear on the hair above the forehead. Some detail in the hair is also lost in the hair to the left of the ear. There also appears to be some loss of detail in the hair towards the back of head, in the bun. The coronet is still well defined and all letters in LIBERTY are bold.

Liberty Head Nickel Reverse – BU

On the reverse, check for wear on the high points of the wreath, the corn ears and lines in the corn. Notice all details are strong on this example. The corn grains at the bottom of the wreath are clearly defined. The detail in the corn ears strong with the lines showing clearly. The high points of the wreath show no wear.

Liberty Head Nickel  Reverse – AU

Notice the slight amount of wear on the high points of the wreath. The bow has lost a little detail. The corn grains at the bottom of the wreath are clearly defined but the detail in the corn ears are a bit weak with the lines not as clear as the coin above. The high points of the wreath show just a touch of wear.

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