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Proofs Among Under-Collected Shield Nickels

1883 Shield nickel. (Images courtesy usacoinbook.com.)

1883 Shield nickel. (Images courtesy usacoinbook.com.)

We have examined quite a few different series of 5-cent pieces over the past couple of years when it comes to our bargain hunting. But one series we have skipped is the earliest that can actually be called nickels: the Shield nickels. Issued from 1866 up to 1883, the design is one of the works of Mr. James Longacre, and the cynics among us might claim it is one of the least collected, for any number of reasons. Yet this coin has a place in our history, as it marks the point at which 5-cent coins stopped being small silver disks and became the base metal coins they still are today.

The Regular Issues

The most brutal war the United States had ever seen had just ended when the first Shield nickels came out of the gate. That first year saw over 14 million coined, which certainly makes them a common enough item today, especially if we are willing to put together a collection of dates that have a bit of wear on them. Many of the common dates will run about $100, perhaps a bit more, if we focus on pieces in Extra Fine, or EF-40, condition. The jump in price seems to be between that grade and the low end of Mint State. The reason for this is probably the collector love for all things mint state – a trend that has been with us now for a couple of decades.

Let’s focus for a moment on that mint total we just mentioned. By any stretch, a tally of over 14 million will define a coin as pretty common. But that 1866 number would not stand as the highest in this series. The next three years all saw much higher outputs, although the 1867 does have two varieties, one of them being less common, though it still had a pretty high number. Yet the series would go on to see some pretty tiny mintages as well. Because of that, a person will have a tough time gathering together a complete date collection for this series.

The Proofs

But we want to look at the proof issues when it comes to the Shield nickels. The proofs of this era are quite different from those made today, in that they were never made in sets and then marketed for some wider public audience. Also, and very importantly, they were made in numbers we consider absolutely tiny. For example, the final year of the entire series, the 1883, saw the highest number of proofs made for any year in the series, and that total was only 5,419. Again, that’s tiny.

When we look into a series and the possibility of some bargain collecting, we always look at two specifics. We look at the mint totals, and we look at the price tags. When it comes to these Shield nickel proofs, we have noted that 5,419 is the highest number we will get – the lowest being about 600 for each of the first four years. And yes, we will note that there are a mere 25 of the 1867 proofs in the “with rays” variety, which makes this one a rarity we’ll simply avoid. But we also need that price point. For that just-mentioned 1883 proof, it is $325 as a PF-63 coin, and about $500 up at the PF-65 grade. This is definitely more than the $100 expense we as bargain collectors normally find to be a comfortable one. But still, we need to consider this for a moment.

First, any coin that only was made to the tune of 5,419 is going to qualify as astonishingly rare. Usually a coin like this would simply be out of reach for us mere mortals; its price would be through the roof. The fact that it is this low indicates how few collectors gravitate to the Shield nickels.

Second, this price is not out of line with several of the other proof Shield nickels. There are two that end up being very expensive – those being the 1877 and 1878, which were only made as proofs. That duet is always expensive because all collectors of the series need them to get to a full set. But taking them and that rare variety of 1867 out of the equation still leaves us with plenty of years for which a proof costs about $300 to $350.

Third, because these proof Shield nickels are undervalued as severely as they are, we might actually be able to consider some short date run of them. A person could conceivably land three of these classic gems for less than $1,000. That’s worth thinking about.

Overall

The Shield nickel series is less than two decades long, has some amazingly common mintages in that time, and in the middle of it has two dates that were made only in proof condition. There’s some irony there, in that a lot of the other proofs within this series are far more affordable than a person might expect. Simply because the entire Shield nickel series is one that most collectors do not really feel all that passionate about, there are several bargains squirreled away among the proof offerings from which a bargain hunter can find some beautiful coins at beautiful prices.