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Item of the Week: 1939-S Jefferson Nickel

1939-S Jefferson nickel. (Images courtesy

1939-S Jefferson nickel. (Images courtesy

The 1939-S Jefferson nickel: Today, it is $1,650 a roll. Back in 1998, it was $630. And who says that Jefferson nickels have done nothing recently?

Even at $1,650, to have an uncirculated roll of 1939-S Jefferson nickels is to have something very special. Many may not realize it today, but the 1939-S has always been one of the better Jefferson nickels. If you think that $1,650 price tag for an uncirculated roll is steep, try to find one at that price – or any price.

Generally speaking, the 1939-S has been one of those coins that seems to find its way deeply into the shadows of other good coins, some of which are not really the equal of the 1939-S but rather are simply better known.

The 1939-S came on the heels of the 1938-D and 1938-S, which happened to have mintages of 5,376,000 and 4,105,000, respectively. Think about those mintages today, and they are not much higher than some yearly mint set sales, yet these were nickels released into circulation. Moreover, back in 1938 and 1939, there were no mint sets to be sold. If you wanted a mint set, you had to make your own, and the idea of make-your-own mint sets was not exactly widely spread. This was especially true as the nation was still emerging from the Great Depression. Things were better than in the darkest days, but there were still not many collectors who would run around saving rolls or making mint sets.

Then along came 1939 and, sure enough, there were once again low-mintage nickels. The 1939-D set a new low at 3,514,000 pieces. The 1939-S was not exactly higher either at 6,630,000, but when you compared the 1939-D and the two branch mint coins of 1938, would you have saved a 1939-S?

The 1939-S was cheerfully parked right in the group of better dates from 1938 and 1939, but somehow at the back of that pack. Then along came the 1950-D, and the 1939-S dropped one notch further, assuming the place as the fifth Jefferson nickel.

If you look at circulated prices over the years, the 1939-S was definitely not getting much respect. Only since 1998 has it managed to top half a dollar in price in G-4.

Top grades in Jefferson nickels are another matter: the 1950-D is available almost solely in top grades. In MS-60 or MS-65 of the regular dates, the 1939-D is among the keys, priced at $55 in MS-60 and $110 in MS-65.

It is in the upper grades where the 1939-S historically has gotten some respect – the very reason why even listing a price for an uncirculated roll is so interesting.

The 1938-D and 1938-S might have lower mintages, but they were the first years of the new Jefferson nickel design. That has always meant heavier than normal saving and generally in top grades as people saw the new design and set aside an example or two. It is really human nature as much as any collecting pattern, but just about any first year of a new design is more available than might normally be the case in upper grades simply because they were saved by collectors and non-collectors alike.

Where things get interesting, if you can find an original roll, is that the 1939-S turned out to be a pretty tough date in top grades. In MS-65 it is currently $250, which is up from $30 in 1998.

What even today’s higher prices do not really reflect is just how tough a truly gem 1939-S can be and how much trouble it would be to find a couple rolls even at $1,650. It was never just another nickel and was never saved in significant numbers. What is holding the price back is simply the lack of significant demand. If that changes, new collectors will find the 1939-S is a lot better than even the prices of today suggest.