The 1896 Liberty Head nickel is not a great rarity. It is, however, one of the last better Liberty Head nickel dates and it also tells us a great deal about collecting during the period. That makes it an interesting coin to own and to study.
Coin collecting was having trouble in 1896 simply because the nation’s economy was having trouble. The impact of the Panic of 1893 was still being felt, and people were simply not feeling comfortable spending what little money they had on coin collecting.
The troubled economy was having an impact on coin production as well. The nickel was a heavily used denomination in circulation as had been seen with mintages above 10 million for the years from 1887 through 1893. The impact of the economic troubles was first seen in 1894 when the mintage was just 5,410,500. It got better the following year but was still below 10 million. Then in 1896 the total decreased again but this time to 8,841,058.
It was not out of the question at the time to see unusual saving of coins if dealers and collectors thought that they might prove to be better. That, however, was not the case with the 1896, as its low mintage was still higher than the 1894 as well as dates from the 1880s.
A large percentage of the saving of new dates by collectors, especially in the case of cents and nickels, was in the form of proofs. There was a good reason, as the cent and nickel were only produced at Philadelphia. This was because of a law that did not allow the production of coins containing no silver or gold at any facility other than Philadelphia. That meant all a collector needed for a nickel collection each year was a coin from Philadelphia, and many opted for that coin to be a proof.
The weakening coin market was seen in the fact that the 1896 proof total stood at 1,862, the first time in the history of the Liberty Head nickel that the proof total was under 2,000. The $750 Prf-65 price of the 1896 does not stand out simply because the other dates that followed would also have lower mintages.
The 1896 is tougher in MS-65, where the current listing is $2,500. It is the last Philadelphia MS-65 to be priced at $2,000 or more, and that reflects the fact that top Mint State grade examples are scarce. The proofs are less expensive, more available and are usually quite nice, making them a good option for those who want quality at a lower price.
In circulated grades, the 1896 is not that easy simply because it was never saved. During the course of the Liberty Head nickel, there were relatively few new collectors. It is likely that many examples of the 1896 were ultimately retired and destroyed. The result is seen in a $9.50 G-4 price, making the 1896 certainly not a key but at least a better date in G-4 and all other grades today.