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Rays proved too difficult to keep

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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There may be only one story of the 1867 Shield nickel but there are two coins as it was produced with either rays between the stars on the reverse or without them. The rays’ presence or lack thereof can make a substantial difference in price, especially if you are talking examples in proof.

The story of the 1867 Shield nickels goes back to the Civil War when a fellow by the name of Joseph Wharton was pestering members of the administration and Congress. Wharton was a one-man lobby for the use of nickel as he just happened to own the only operating nickel mine in the nation at that time. In Wharton’s world, any coin using nickel had to be good and he had over time convinced lawmakers of the benefits of using nickel. He had not, however, been successful in convincing officials to make all the coins from copper-nickel although heaven knows he tried. In fact, he had lost a battle when the copper-nickel cent was changed to bronze and the new 2-cent piece was also authorized in bronze.

While Wharton lost some battles, he won others. In the assorted dealings involving the change in the cent and new 2-cent piece, he managed to gain approval for a new copper-nickel 3-cent piece and a copper-nickel 5-cent piece. The idea of a different alloy was important at the time as specie payments were suspended and silver coins could not circulate as the metal, along with gold and even copper-nickel, was quickly hoarded.

2011 U.S. Coin Digest: Nickels
2011 U.S. Coin Digest: Nickels

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If there was a negative to the copper-nickel alloy, it is that except for cents dating back to 1856, no one really had much experience in using the alloy for coins. The new Shield nickel that was introduced in 1866 with a mintage of 14,742,500 might not have been an artistic success, but it worked in circulation. The design, however, appeared to have problems and that was seen in the alternating ray and star reverse, where it was felt that the rays prevented an even metal flow and that shortened die life. That prompted a decision to remove the rays.

In 1867 the first production of just 2,019,000 was still with the rays but was followed by a production of 28,890,500 without the rays. That change must have worked as it would be the design of the Shield nickel reverse until it was replaced with the Liberty Head design in 1883.

The two very different mintages in 1867 were certain to produce a couple coins that are quite different in terms of their availability and price today. In fact, that mintage by a narrow margin would prove to be the highest Shield nickel total, just edging out the mintage of the following year.

The result is that the 1867 without rays is quite available, especially in lower grades. It is priced at $18 in G-4 with an MS-60 at just $160. An MS-65 is $900, which actually is not an available date price. The 1867 without rays is also not an average date in proof as it is estimated that 600 or more proofs were made that year and realistically that is a low total as the final years of Shield nickel proofs saw totals in excess of 3,000. That explains the higher price of $3,450.

In the case of the much lower mintage 1867 with rays, a G-4 lists for $27.50. In MS-60 it is $260, which is $100 more than the without-rays level. In MS-65, the with-rays version is $2,700, considerably more than the no-rays type.

It is the Proof-65 1867 with rays is currently priced at $3,850. While $400 more than the no-rays type, it is not as high as would be expected considering that the 1867 with rays was not even supposed to be made in proof. Obviously, someone created some examples. The estimate historically has been 25 or more pieces. But it was probably more as Professional Coin Grading Service has seen 43, and 25 were Proof-65 or better.

Even if there are doubts about the proof, at least at today’s price the 1867 with rays is a very good nickel in any grade, including Proof-65.

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