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Sleepy Jefferson nickels might wake up

The recent design changes in the Jefferson nickel caused what was a previously fairly quiet part of the market to gain a little more attention. With the old Jefferson nickel design first introduced in 1938 seemingly disappearing from circulation, many Americans developed an interest in Jefferson nickel collecting and as that happens it could well create some price changes in what were seemingly ordinary Jefferson nickels.

In any list of what were seen as seemingly ordinary Jefferson nickels the various dates produced at the main facility in Philadelphia would be likely to stand out. There is good reason as the history of the Jefferson nickel shows that more often than not the largest mintages would come from Philadelphia.

While that makes most Philadelphia Jefferson nickels more available than their counterparts from Denver and San Francisco, it has also been a case where the Philadelphia Jefferson nickels have been sometimes overlooked both in terms of careful study as well as in terms of sometimes being potentially good values.

Examining the Philadelphia Jefferson nickel it is hard to dispute that the very first one might well be an excellent example of the situation. Could the 1938 be a sleeper is a very good question as there are a lot of elements to be considered when it comes to the 1938.

To fully appreciate the factors at work we need to consider the state of coin collecting back in 1938. The country was coming out of the Great Depression and while tough economic times normally mean a decrease in coin collecting, the Great Depression had been perilously close to the exception that proves the rule. People viewed saving coins from circulation as a form of savings.

There have been any number of theories as to why coin collecting seemed to flourish and actually all the theories probably have some element of truth. Americans with little money had very little to do. Moreover, the idea that they could find valuable coins in circulating was certainly interesting to those out of work and looking for any way to make extra money. The idea of valuable coins in circulation was being promoted actively for the first time by pioneer dealers like B. Max Mehl who was using the radio and newspapers in way rarely considered before the 1930s.

There were other factors as well as the 1930s would see the first albums or holders to house collections and that seemed to make a major difference. This popularized what modern collectors call circulation finds.

The idea of coins and coin collecting was also never far from anyone as a flood of commemoratives appeared and while they were too many in number they created publicity on a regular basis, meaning many were exposed to the idea of coin collecting through interesting offerings many times related to local events like a state centennial.

Just to help matters along, the 1930s saw a large number of interesting coins that seemed to attract significant attention. The 1931-S Lincoln cent with a mintage of 866,000 was the first Lincoln cent since the 1909-S VDB to have a mintage of less than one million. That was a magic number as any cent with a mintage under one million seemed to command a premium price and that caused many to begin their collections searching for the 1931-S.

The 1938-D Walking Liberty half dollar was also heavily saved, but the period saw any number of dates that fit the profile as a date potentially worth saving.

The real news of 1938 would turn out to be the Felix Schlag-designed Jefferson nickel, which was introduced that year. In fact, the Jefferson nickel was not the only nickel produced that year as in the early months came the release of 7,020,000 Buffalo nickels produced at Denver.

After that, the change in the design of the nickel took place and there is no doubt that there was some saving of not only the 1938 Jefferson nickel produced at Philadelphia, but also the examples produced at Denver and San Francisco.

One of the interesting topics of debate over the years has been whether there was much interest in the new Jefferson nickel. The suggestion has been made that relatively little attention was paid to the new nickel.

Perhaps there was not printed commentary about the new coin, but the fact remains that there were significant numbers of rolls and individual coins saved. Well into the 1990s it was not that unusual to see offerings of original rolls of the 1938 coins from all three mints. Moreover, there is little doubt that their prices today when you consider their mintages suggest that there is a solid supply of the 1938 Jefferson nickels even in a grade like MS-65.

It cannot be ruled out especially in light of the fact that collectors do not usually save rolls that much of the saving at the time was by dealers. That said, the dealers save coins based on what they expect in terms of demand, so if dealers were saving rolls or bags of the 1938 Jefferson nickel they were doing so because they expected a later public demand.

If you look at the 1938 Jefferson nickel today with a mintage of 19,515,365 and see a price of $6 in MS-60 and $12 in MS-65 you have to think immediately that you are getting a good deal for your money.
At the Professional Coin Grading Service they  have seen the 1938 in MS-65 107 times along with 146 in MS-66. In the case of the 1938-D, it has been seen 284 times in MS-65 and 705 in MS-66. At the Numismatic Guaranty Corporation the 1938 has been seen exactly 400 times in MS-65 or better while the total for the 1938-D is over 1,300.

The problem with these dates and comparing grading service totals is that the totals are far from complete. Even if your 1938 comes back as MS-65 it is still a coin that is worth what it costs to have it graded. Because of that fact we can assume the grading services have only seen some of the best examples but we can also assume that because of the financial situation many examples of all Jefferson nickels have not been graded.

One area where the grading service totals may be helpful is in the case of errors and in 1939 there was perhaps the most significant Jefferson nickel error produced at Philadelphia in the form of a 1939 with a doubled MONTICELLO.

The dramatic error was discovered fairly quickly by Boston dealer Malcolm O.E. Chell-Frost who spread the word to look for the error. In his book, American Coin Treasures and Hoards Q. David Bowers recounts that Chell-Frost was able to acquire “several hundred pieces” most of which were circulated.

The popularity of the doubled MONTICELLO has grown over the years and prices today starting at $60 in F-12 with an MS-60 at $300 and an MS-65 at $1,2500. Such an error is a natural to have graded. PCGS reports about 200 examples with 30 in MS-65, 22 in MS-66 and four in MS-67 while a dozen were MS-65 or better and with full steps. At NGC they have seen 48 with 14 at MS-65, seven in MS-66 and two in MS-67.

The 1940 and 1941 Philadelphia Jefferson nickel mintages would be over 100 million, which were large totals for the time. That makes them relatively available dates, but things changed in 1942 when the concern over supplies of copper and nickel for the war effort caused a change in composition of the nickel.

In the early part of 1942 there was a Philadelphia mintage of 49,818,000 copper-nickel pieces and that was lower than previous years, resulting in a price today of $8.50 in MS-65, but that was only the start of production as later in the year Philadelphia would produce another Jefferson nickel, this time with a composition of 56 percent copper, 35 percent silver and 9 percent manganese. In addition, for the first time on a U.S. coin the examples with the new composition produced in Philadelphia would have a large “P” mintmark.

The special wartime alloy would continue through 1945 and during the period there would be some fascinating coins.

One of those was the proof 1942-P which would be the only proof of the special wartime alloy. As the total proof sets for the year stood at about 22,000 divided fairly equally between five-coin sets without the special 1942-P and six-coin sets with the 1942-P, there really is only a small supply of the 1942-P in proof yet that seems to be generally overlooked as the price in Proof-65 is just $205.

During the period Philadelphia would also produce two doubled dies in the form of the 1943-P and 1945-P. Both are lesser known, but if you check their grading service totals they are both elusive with PCGS reporting about 60 examples of the 1943-P in MS-65 or above while the total for the 1945-P is under 30 in the same grade while NGC  reports 27 examples of the 1943-P in MS-65 or better and 13 of the 1945-P.

There is also a widely recognized 1943/2-P which some suspect may have been a result of wartime frugality using old dies to cut costs. Whatever the reason the 1943/2-P lists for $50 in F-12 with an MS-60 at $250 and an MS-65 at $650, with PCGS reporting about 100 in MS-65 and just under 40 in higher grades while NGC reports 35 in MS-65 and just under 35 in higher grades.

The regular Philadelphia dates of the war years are an interesting group as except for the 1942-P all have mintages of over 100 million. Historically because of the high mintages, the assumption has been that all were common even in top grades, but in recent years with better information as to actual numbers available we have seen dates like the 1942-P and 1944-P climb to $22.50 in MS-65, which makes them the most expensive dates from the period in MS-65 while the 1943-P at $15 and 1945-P at $13.50 remain among the least costly dates of the period, but the days of assuming that all the Philadelphia dates in MS-65 were plentiful appear to have ended permanently.

The regular composition would return in 1946 and the rest of the Philadelphia Jefferson nickels from the 1940s are relatively available, although only the 1946 had a mintage of over 100 million. The sleeper at the moment may be the 1949, which is $6 in MS-65, but which had a mintage of 60,652,000 and which was lower than the others.

The 1950s started out with a very low mintage date from Philadelphia in the form of the 1950, which had a mintage of just 9,847,386. This made it the lowest mintage Philadelphia Jefferson nickel in history. In fact, to find a lower mintage Philadelphia Jefferson nickel you need to go all the way back to the Liberty Head nickel in the 1890s, but the 1950 never received the attention it should have gotten because 1950 was also the year when Denver produced just 2,630,030 Jefferson nickels and that record low total made the 1950-D a sensation unlike few others in history.

There was some saving of the 1950, which would explain its price of just $4.75 in MS-65 today, but it is really hard to evaluate just how much saving there was. We know that the numbers of the 1950-D ending up in hoards were staggering, representing very possibly more than 50 percent of the entire mintage. The hoards of the 1950 were not even remotely similar in size, but the assumption has always been that it is available. The question, however, is whether the numbers really are as large as expected as because of its low price there is no good way to determine numbers available from the grading services.

With the 1950-D recently rising in price, but little movement from the 1950, it will be an interesting time to see if the 1950 is really available in large numbers or whether that is a myth that might be exposed if greater demand develops.

Another interesting date from the 1950s is the 1951, which with a mintage of 28,609,500, would be lower mintage although not in the class of the 1950. With the excitement over the 1950-D taking hold and the 1951 looking common by comparison, it probably did not have the sort of saving that might have been expected and that puts it at $9 in MS-65.

The 1950 would not keep it’ place long as the lowest mintage Philadelphia Jefferson nickel as in 1955 the mintage was just 8,266,200. This was another case of a Philadelphia Jefferson nickel having a mintage that should have created interest, but again the 1955 was somewhat lost in a wave of low mintage dates that year as well as a spectacular error in the form of the 1955 doubled-die obverse Lincoln cent.

There was, however, a wave of saving and hoarding in 1955 sparked by the final mintages of cents and dimes at San Francisco. It is possible that with so many low mintage dates in one year people were motivated to save examples of as many as possible and that might have seen the 1955 set aside in some numbers, which would be the only way of explaining its currently low $2 MS-65 price.

To a lesser degree the same could probably be said of the 1958, which had a mintage of 17,963,652. There were not as many other big stories in 1958 although it was a year when mintages tended to be low, but at least for now the 1958 is seen as available.

Unlike other denominations where you can point to a design or composition change there is no easy dividing line where you can describe a Jefferson nickel as modern or recent. The best line might well be 1980 when the “P” mintmark returned.

If we use 1980 there have been a few surprises. The most surprising Philadelphia nickels in terms of price would probably have to be the 1994-P and 1997-P with matte finishes. Admittedly the two were special creations and did not circulate, but at the time few were certain just what sort of interest there might be and they have proven to be popular as is seen in the $75 price of the 1994-P, which had a mintage of 167,703 as part of a special Thomas Jefferson commemorative set. In the case of the 1997-P, which was part of a special Botanic Gardens commemorative set, the mintage was just 25,000 and that results in a $200 price today.

The other Philadelphia dates since 1980 that deserve special recognition would have to include the 1982-P and 1983-P,  which were  two years when there were no yearly mint sets. The 1982-P and 1983-P have not attracted as much attention as some of the other denominations from those two years, but the fact remains there were no mint sets and if there are additional supplies of Mint State examples of these two dates needed there is literally nowhere to begin a search.

The lack of one million or more examples in the yearly mint sets has already been felt as the 1982-P is currently at $12.50 while the 1983-P is at $4.

There are some other recent Philadelphia Jefferson nickels that are commanding small premiums that could get larger. The 1984-P at $3 in MS-65 is somewhat surprising, but the 1992-P at $2 in MS-65 and the 1986-P at $1 in MS-65 both appear to have potential to go even higher and there could very easily be other dates waiting to be discovered. The process will continue for some time as additional demand is really needed to test the supply of many dates.

While the Philadelphia Jefferson nickel may not have had much interest in the past, they include a number of surprising and very interesting issues.

The design changes of 2004-2006 effectively ended the run of the old design, but it may take collectors awhile to realize this.

In the years ahead, if we see additional interest it would not be at all surprising to see the Philadelphia Jefferson nickels receive a lot of the attention that has seemingly been lacking for many years.
Prices taken from the September Coin Market.

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