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Nickel proof production

by Mark Benvenuto

Plenty of numismatic literature indicates that the half disme coins of 1792 can be considered the very first official coins to come out of the brand-spankin’ new United States Mint, even before the first act of Congress to deal with the production of coinage was issued. The five-cent piece – the nickel – has come a long way since that time and is one of the real workhorse coins of our modern age. There are certainly plenty of ways for someone to collect them, but one that will make any collector proud is to focus on the very best, the proofs.

Let’s see just what a person might expect if he or she decides to put together an assembly of the best we can hope for when it comes to United States nickels.

 Cameo example of the 1941 proof Jefferson nickel, with pastel toning on obverse and reverse. (Image courtesy Heritage Auctions)

Cameo example of the 1941 proof Jefferson nickel, with pastel toning on obverse and reverse. (Image courtesy Heritage Auctions)

Modern proof program, from 1950 to the present

What can be called the modern proof program for United States coins begins back in 1936, but let’s divide it up into sections, as that might make for some easy lines of division when putting together an entire set of proofs. So first, focusing on the span of 1950 to the present, we find there are nearly 70 years of continuous proofs that have come out of the Mint, first as a trickle, later as a flood, all sporting an image of our third president on the obverse and all but those of 2004 and 2005 with his home at Monticello on the reverse.

As we dive into the more modern proofs, we should perhaps have a bit of background information in place. First, proofs have been sold in special Mint sets for decades now. Second, even those early ones sold in flimsy, bendable plastic cases have often been kept in them for years or decades after they were purchased. And third, the United States Mint has for a very long time been at the top of its game, as it were, when making proofs. This all adds up to some wonderful coins and some equally wonderful prices for those of us assembling sets today.

The first year that proof sets saw over one million produced was 1957. And while the next year dipped below that seven-figure mark, for every year from 1959 to the present, there have been millions of proof sets sold. That translates to some pretty common coins, all of which are beautiful, since very few were broken out of their cases and spent or used in some way.

So, every year from 1957 to the present is one in which a proof Jefferson nickel is very affordable, and in grades such as PF-65 or PF-66, no less. Even the PF-67 grade is not all that expensive. Admittedly, a person will pay a premium for what are called deep cameo examples – often listed in price guides as something like PF-67 DC – but there is no need to feel we must focus on them.

Likewise, some collectors are willing to pay more for what are called “full step” examples, meaning those with all of the central steps on Monticello clearly delineated. But even if we choose to ignore a cameo finish or the tiny extra that would be full steps, there is no way anyone will call a “regular” PF-67 coin a second-rate coin. Importantly, the price tags for proofs in the PF-65 to PF-67 range can be as low as $5 each. Thus, with a bit of patience, a person can put together a truly gorgeous looking set of proofs at a very low price.

It is the early years, 1950 to 1956 to be precise, for which we might have to put out a heftier amount when checking price tags as we go hunting for proof Jefferson nickels. There just were not that many made when the program got on its feet in 1950 (only 51,386 sets got things started that year), and thus a PF-65 example will cost about $70. That’s hardly a bucket of money, but it can be more than some folks are comfortable laying out for a single coin that contains no precious metal. On the other hand, by the time we get to the 1954, the 1955, and the 1956, the output of proofs had risen high enough that these cost only about $15-$20 each, again in a grade like PF-65. Those are not bad prices at all.

Prior to 1950, there are a few proof Jefferson nickels, still in what gets called the modern proof coinage, even though there was a hiatus from 1943 through 1949. From the first year the Jefferson design was unveiled, 1938, up to 1942, there were proofs in a mintage range of 12,535 in the year 1939 up to 29,600, with this latter coming out in 1942. The year 1942 was the first of four in which the Mint changed the metal composition of the nickel because of the demands of the war, and so there are actually some proof nickels made of the “war nickel” copper-silver-manganese alloy.

With these lower official mintage tallies, one might quickly jump to the conclusion that the first few proof Jefferson nickels are going to be expensive propositions, at least in PF-65 or higher. But that would be a rash jump, as these are not actually all that expensive. An outlay of about $100 will land all of these except the silver one. That war nickel will cost about $150, but even that is not too pricey when we consider that it is a five-cent piece that is now over 75 years old.

Before the Buffaloes

We started this discussion by noting that what gets called the modern proof coinage program for the United States Mint has its genesis in 1936, which means there are two years of Buffalo nickels that are also in here under the umbrella, as it were. The numbers here are both low and high – low in terms of proofs and high in terms of price. The number of proofs for 1936 is listed in most references as 4,420 sets, and for 1937, it is 5,769. Any way we count them, these are rarer coins than any of the proof Jefferson nickels.

If we couple this with what we might call a long-term collector love affair with the Buffalo nickel design, the results are prices of about $1,500 for a PF-65 example. That’s nowhere near as high as some of the high-end proof Morgan dollars that we read about when they cross the auction block in some big-name sale, but it does seem to be quite a bit when it comes to a single nickel.

Where to start, or where to stop?

Well, we have just jumped from what can be called common proof nickels with wonderfully low price tags up to rare nickels with price tags high enough that many of us normally do not even consider such a purchase. It may then be a good moment to consider if we have found a start point for our collection of proofs or if we want to go back farther. There is nothing wrong with sticking to the Jefferson proofs and building a collection focused on them. But what if we go back further?

 1867 Shield nickel with rays, Proof-66. Existing specimens of this Proof from 1867 number around 60. The design featuring the rays was only used in 1866 and part of 1867. (Image courtesy Stack’s Bowers)

1867 Shield nickel with rays, Proof-66. Existing specimens of this Proof from 1867 number around 60. The design featuring the rays was only used in 1866 and part of 1867. (Image courtesy Stack’s Bowers)

Early Buffaloes, Liberty Heads, and Shields

Believe it or not, there are a few dates right at the start of the Buffalo nickel series for which proofs are available. There are 1,520 proof Buffalo nickels on the official lists for the year 1913 and for the variety with the words “Five Cents” raised on the mound on which the bison stands. There is almost the exact same number for the variety in which the words are recessed into that mound. And there are even less for the years 1914, ’15, and ’16.

No matter how we look at this, these are rare proofs. Yet in a somewhat surprising twist, they really don’t cost all that much more than their younger siblings. To stay at the price for the younger Buffalo nickels, we might have to drop to grades such as PF-64 or even PF-63, but that’s still rather eye-opening for high-end coins that are really quite rare and that are now more than a century old.

Pushing the envelope even farther, a quick study of the major reference books, including Mr. Bressett’s A Guide Book of United States Coins, indicates that for virtually every year of the Liberty Head nickels and the Shield nickels, there were proofs minted. The numbers are never very high – usually in the low thousands – and these proofs pre-date the idea of selling pre-packaged proof sets to the general public. Indeed, they were issued during a time in which coin collecting was the hobby of only a very few individuals, usually wealthy folks with the means to spend some of their extra cash. But perhaps because the Liberty Head and the Shield nickels have rather staid designs and less of a collector following than do the Buffalo nickels, some of these older proofs might be purchased for only $700-$800 each. That’s really astonishing when we consider how old these pieces are and how rare.

Once again, we’ll caution that these prices may be more than what we are used to, especially if the prices for some of the older proof Jefferson nickels seemed high. But what a journey and what a hunt it could be to try to find and assemble some date run of Liberty Head or Shield nickels as proofs. What a collection we’d have when it was done!

The humble five-cent piece has without a doubt come a very long way since those first few half dismes were produced over two hundred years ago. It looks as if a dedicated collector can go a long way on a relatively tame budget when it comes to collecting the best of our nickel five-cent pieces in the best of conditions. So, the best of luck to those of us who give it a try.

This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine. >> Subscribe today.

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