When it first came out in the 1938, the Jefferson nickel could buy a bottle of Pepsi.
Many collectors in the circulation finds era of the 1950s and early 1960s spent a lot of time looking for the elusive key 1950-D.
However, in 1965 when the U.S. government took silver out of the dime and quarter and reduced it in the half dollar, instead of benefiting the nickel, the denomination went to sleep along with the higher denominations.
You might be inclined to say that the removal of mintmarks caused interest to lapse, but that would only be true if every nickel collector of the time had all of the prior issues right back to 1938.
While the set was fairly easy to complete in the 1960s, it wasn’t a gimme and there were many collectors with incomplete sets. Collectors could expect to have to buy the 1950-D and perhaps several of the lesser scarce dates like the 1938-D and 1938-S and the 1939-D and 1939-S. The war nickels containing some silver also got harder to come by as the 1960s came to an end.
But even with the silver coins gone by the end of 1968, collectors who wanted to continue the circulation finds tradition could still regularly encounter Jefferson nickels in their change all the way back to the first few years of issue. In fact, the 1939, 1940 and 1941 Philadelphia coins were downright common in change.
Dates spanning roughly 30 years could regularly be encountered while dimes, quarters and halves could be found only back to 1965. Cents found in change, because the Lincoln Memorial design was introduced in 1959, had roughly 10-years’ worth of dates in widespread use.
Why then did not Jefferson nickels become the center of interest of the circulation finds practitioners? That will be an eternal mystery. The simple fact is, they didn’t. The whole series went to sleep. The circulation finds era came to an end.
In 2004, with the introduction of some new designs, the government gave the nickel another chance.
The arrival of some new collectors since then is already seen in some higher prices, but can they last?
The Westward Journey nickels started in 2004 and were really designed as circulating commemoratives. That produced the Peace Medal and Keelboat reverses. They were followed by even more dramatic changes in 2005 with a new and dramatic obverse inspired by the marble bust of Jefferson done in 1789 by French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon. The dramatic obverse was paired with a bison reverse or an Ocean in View reverse and once again the impact was to create additional interest in a denomination that had not see a design change in over 60 years.
A new obverse design portrait was introduced in 2006 and the traditional Monticello reverse returned, though it was touched up a bit.
All in all, the traditional Jefferson nickel series came to an end in 2003, but where is the clamor by individuals looking to finish their sets?
If there is any current denomination that seems to have more pronounced cycles of popularity than any of the others it would have to be the Jefferson nickel. We can clearly see that the Jefferson nickel was very heavily saved when the Felix Schlag design was introduced in 1938. It was probably a case of good timing as about the time the Jefferson nickel was introduced the nation’s collectors were also acquiring their first real holders to house their collections. That seemed to create a great deal of interest especially in lower denominations as there is evidence of unusual saving even of uncirculated rolls of later date Buffalo nickels and that extended to the new Jefferson nickel as well.
In fact there is evidence of real activity in 1938 as the collectors and dealers appear to have been very busy. Suddenly aware and interested in branch mint coins there was a heavier than normal saving of the low mintage 1938-D Walking Liberty half dollar.
In the case of the new Jefferson nickels there is solid evidence that they were being saved and in some numbers. The mintages of the 1938 Jefferson nickels were actually relatively low with the Philadelphia 1938 having a mintage of less than 20 million while the 1938-D was at 5,376,000 and the 1938-S was at 4,105,000.
The evidence of heavy saving is very clear from current prices. The 1938 Philadelphia Jefferson nickel is still just $7.50 in MS-60 and $18 in MS-65 while the much lower mintage 1938-D and 1938-S still sit at less than $20 each in MS-65. The quality of strike has to play a role in the MS-65 pricing as mintage totals would indicate either the Philadelphia coin should be much cheaper or the branch mint coins should be more expensive.
The prices simply confirm what many have known for years and that is that the collectors and dealers of the day were apparently very interested in the new nickels. Although the numbers are certainly decreasing there have still been appearances of original uncirculated rolls of all the 1938 coins in the past few years and until that supply is completely exhausted it seems unlikely that the 1938 dates no matter how low the mintage will be climbing significantly in price.
It would appear that the following year there was a decline in interest as the novelty of the new design was gone. That decline was also potentially increased by what was a record 1939 Philadelphia mintage. Suddenly the Jefferson nickel, which would have not been all that common in circulation in 1938 would have increased dramatically in numbers.
The Philadelphia mintage of over 120 million might have masked the fact that the Denver and San Francisco totals remained low. The San Francisco 1939 mintage was up slightly to 6,630,000 pieces, but that would still be historically low for a nickel of the past century. The 1939-D, however, actually declined over the already low 1938 mintage with a total of just 3,514,000. The real difference between the situation in 1939 and 1938 is that the low mintages of 1939 were not saved in large numbers and that has produced higher prices than might be expected.
The 1939-D has historically been the key Jefferson nickel in Mint State followed by the 1939-S and the rising star in the form of the 1942-D, which while having a mintage of nearly 14 million, was simply not saved at the time perhaps because the special war year nickels were introduced that year, taking interest away from a somewhat lower mintage date of the copper-nickel composition.
The big three are interesting and in recent times the 1939-D as is usually the case had been leading the way. The 1939-D in MS-65 was just $42 in 1998 but that price has been steadily increasing going to $75 in 2002 and now to $160 and $105 as collectors now distinguish Type I and Type II reverses. Type I is the reverse of 1938 and Type II is the reverse of 1940. The 1939-D has also increased in MS-60 going from $30 back in 1998 to $75 and $55, respectively, today. The others have followed with the 1939-S now at $45 and $250 for Type I and Type II, respectively, in MS-65 while the 1942-D is at $65.
One of the interesting questions is just how elusive are the three in MS-65. The NGC totals have the 1939-D at 535 pieces in MS-65 followed by the 1942-D at 340 and the 1939-S at 291. At PCGS the totals show the 1939-D at 750 examples while the 1939-S is at 450 and the 1942-D at just 204. Before dashing out and trying to buy the 1942-D or the 1939-S a few factors have to be considered. The first is that the two grading services split as to which date is tougher in MS-65 and that fact alone tends to suggest caution in drawing conclusions.
Another factor has to be considered as well and that is that the totals are likely to be in a state of transition as the Type I and Type II counts mount up. Realistically, the grading services count every coin they have seen, but equally realistically the 1939-S and 1942-D were not expensive enough to justify being graded for many years. As a result, their total numbers graded in all grades are well behind the 1939-D, which for many years was perhaps the only Jefferson nickel most would have sent in for grading. Consequently, with far few coins graded it should not be surprising that there are more MS-65 1939-D Jeffersons than there are of the other dates. That said, if you equalized the total numbers and called all of the added examples of the 1939-S and 1942-D MS-65 in some cases their totals would still be safely below the 1939-D.
It is a complex set of considerations and it really leaves us with no absolutely clear picture. The probability is that the 1942-D and 1939-S in MS-65 are closer in numbers to the 1939-D than their current prices indicate. Whether they are tougher than the 1939-D, however, remains unclear and at least until there are greater numbers graded it seem unlikely that the 1939-D will lose its historic position as the key Mint State Jefferson nickel.
Also nearly lost in the shuffle was the most significant Jefferson nickel error. We must remember the 1939 mintage from Philadelphia was very high and most collectors at the time were not prone to check closely especially when there was a large mintage. In his book American Coin Treasures and Hoards Q. David Bowers recounts the one exception in 1939 which was the 1939 with a doubled MONTICELLO. Bowers explained, “Boston dealer Malcolm O.E. Chell-Frost discovered this dramatic variety about 1939, and forthwith began searching for them in circulation. Others were advised to keep on the lookout, and from these and other sources more were acquired, until he had several hundred pieces. Virtually all of these – 95 percent or more were worn.” Today the 1939 with a doubled MONTICELLO lists for $60 in F-12 but $300 in MS-60 and $1,250 in MS-65.
War nickels soon followed. It is hard to know just how much interest was created in 1942 when a new alloy of 56 percent copper, 35 percent silver and 9 percent manganese was used in an effort to conserve on copper and nickel for the war effort. To mark the new composition the mintmarks were enlarged and moved to a place above Monticello on the reverse. Even Philadelphia for the first time on a U.S. coin would be represented by a large “P.”
The wartime silver composition would continue in use through 1945, creating something of a mini-set of 11 coins within the regular Jefferson nickel set. The war year nickels actually vary widely in mintages, ranging from just over 15 million for the 1943-D to over 271 million for the 1943.
The group, however, is readily available in Mint State with the most expensive non-error date in MS-60 at $14 while the most expensive regular date in MS-65 is at $28. The one exception to generally low prices is the 1943/2-P which is an interesting coin as it may well reflect the pressure of the times as it was allowed to reach circulation in some numbers resulting in prices today ranging from $50 in F-12 to $650 in MS-65.
The next true Jefferson nickel frenzy came around 1950 when the 2,630,030 mintage of the 1950-D was announced. Even today it is hard to truly appreciate or understand the frenzy that followed.
Realistically, the 1950-D was the lowest mintage regular date Jefferson nickel. That said, it was not so low as to potentially create speculation. There had been at least seven regular date Buffalo nickels with lower mintages and all were available back in 1950 at virtually no premium above their face value unless they were uncirculated.
Somehow that did not seem to matter back in 1950. The 1950-D developed a life of its own. The hoarding was perhaps the highest in U.S. history. In his book Bowers points to A.J. Mitula of Houston, Texas, who apparently acquired over 1 million examples of the 1950-D while a dealer in Milwaukee reportedly had 320,000 pieces. Just those two combined would have been in a position to control nearly one-half of the entire mintage if Bowers is correct. Moreover, there were others involved, making the 2.6 million mintage seem more like 600,000.
The 1950s were a classic time for collectors assembling sets from circulation and the 1950-D emerged as a significant problem as with more than one-half of the mintage sitting in hoards it was far tougher than its mintage suggested.
Frustrated collectors attempting to buy examples found that there were no circulated examples to be had of the 1950-D. One dealer at the time explained to me that they seemingly only came in uncirculated.
Collector demand rose and that caused the price to rise, which simply created even more demand, as everyone wanted to have their one 1950-D or their roll or bag before the price went even higher.
By 1964 it reached about $25 for an uncirculated example and it might have gone even higher were it not for the government stepping in 1965 and eliminating mintmarks. That caused a significant drop in collector interest in coins generally and with it the 1950-D.
In terms of price, the 1950-D went into something perilously close to coma. By 1969 it was $12.50. By the middle 1980s you could get one for $5 or $6. Nowadays a little life has returned, carrying it to $10 in MS-60 and $20 in MS-65.
Perhaps it was disappointment in the 1950-D price that led so many collectors to abandon the series.
There may be no actual relationship, but when the 1950-D is moving, Jefferson nickels in general seem to move in terms of price and we have seen that recently as other dates have also posted gains. The 1951 is now at $18 in MS-65 and the 1951-D is at $14. Those are historically high prices for Jefferson nickels from the 1950s and they may be just the start if the supply of top grade Jefferson nickels is really tested.
We have also seen price movements from more recent dates. As is the case with a number of other denominations the 1982 and 1983 pieces have been especially active as those dates are under strong pressure simply because those were the years of no mint sets. Without the yearly 1 million or so mint sets, the supply of Mint State examples for those years is basically whatever collectors and dealers saved when the coins were issued. With most collectors and dealers at the time concentrating on the new and exciting modern commemoratives that were being introduced, the amount of rolls and bag saving was apparently not good and that has seen the 1982-P jump from $4.50 in MS-65 to $12.50. Others have increased as well with the 1982-D now at $3.50, the 1983-P at $4 and the 1983-D at $2.50.
If the Jefferson nickels follow the trend of some other denominations the 1982 and 1983 dates are far from finished in terms of prices. Moves like that seen in the case of the 1982-P could become fairly commonplace with the dates of the 1982 and 1983 simply because once people realize their prices are rising that creates further supply problems as we have learned that the 1982 and 1983 dates are simply not available in any significant numbers to meet new demand.
Other Jefferson nickels should be watched as well. In 1971 the Jefferson nickel became the fourth denomination to have proof-only San Francisco coins in each year’s proof set. (In the year 1968-1970 there were S-mint coins struck for circulation.
At first collectors were probably uncertain how to treat the new proof-only San Francisco dates, but over the years some collectors have chosen to collector only the proof dates while some have chosen to ignore proofs completely by focusing solely on circulation strikes. Collecting both is something the circulation finds generation would have done without hesitation.
Whatever the approach, it is creating demand and with a supply limited to the number of sets people are willing to break up, the prices have been rising. The key date so far has been the 1986-S, which is now $7 in Proof-65.
Much of the action in recent years in the Jefferson nickel has been in top grade MS-65 with full steps and the market for such top-grade coins has been increasing each year. The 1953-S has emerged as the key date in MS-65 with full steps with a price of $1,750 followed by the 1954-S, which is currently at $1,000.
There are many other interesting and sometimes surprising dates including a number from Denver in the 1960s, which are not normally considered tough, but when you demand MS-65 and/or full steps, those sometimes seemingly ordinary dates can become extraordinary with prices above $500 in MS-65 with full steps. If anything the prices may go higher as grading services right now report relatively few examples of many dates. The grading service totals, however, must in this case be taken with a grain of salt as there is reason to doubt that many coins have been submitted simply because if they do not come back with an MS-65 with full steps designation, the cost of the grading would in many cases be far higher than the value of a regular MS-65 or an MS-64 with full steps, so there is a very large financial risk and that probably keeps the numbers of coins submitted down.
It is risky to predict the future. Jefferson nickels show promise. If enough collectors decide that now is the time to compete or upgrade their Jefferson nickel set, it will then be a matter of a self-fulfilling phenomenon, because supply cannot possible keep up with any significant new demand.
It might be said that the only thing keeping prices down is collector attitudes to the series. Can they be changed? Perhaps not for someone who has waited 40 years for the series to wake up again. But collectors who come to Jeffersons with a fresh approach and no memories of the 1960s might just discover what a pleasure the series can be.