Coin Collecting Strategies: Building the Ultimate 20th Century Type Set, Part 2: Nickels and Dimes
By Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker for CoinWeek ………..
Welcome back to the Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker guide to building the ultimate 20th century type set. In our last installment, we spelled out the basic principles of our type set strategy and focused on the most interesting small cent coins of the century. We went from rare doubled dies to early branch mint strikes, including the perennially popular 1909-S V.D.B.
In this installment, we turn our attention to nickels and dimes. And while they may seem to be easy types to collect at first glance, the two denominations can offer the serious collector a host of exciting challenges.
So to recap our basic premise, we’re assembling the 20th century’s greatest coins by type. The goal is to present a challenge to the collector, but not make things impossible to complete. There are no one-off freaks or never-to-be-found rarities, but there are well-known and established collectible varieties, issues with tremendous upside, and surprising conditional rarities that, when assembled, will put your type set over the top.
Remember, just because the 20th century is still in the rearview mirror of most collectors, assembling a set of the century’s type coins doesn’t have to be boring and banal.
Let’s take a look!
Liberty “V” Nickel (1901-1913)
The Scenario: Charles Barber, like his father William, wasn’t too pleased to see outsider George T. Morgan arrive to reshape American coinage in the mid-1870s. Unlike his father, who served as the nation’s Chief Engraver for 10 years and had only two circulating coins to show for it (the withdrawn trade dollar and the reverse of the failed twenty cent piece), Charles, over the course of 38 years at the helm, succeeded in producing a number of coins (including the eponymous Barber type dimes, quarters, and half dollars). From our aesthetic viewpoint, the least successful of the coins he authored was the Liberty Head nickel (1883-1913).
As a coin, Barber’s nickel was an improvement over Longacre’s Shield design. Its full-figured face of Liberty is reminiscent of the Morgan dollar type. The reverse features a vegetal wreath and the bold Roman numeral “V”. Unfortunately, it suffers from a flat appearance, and the hair detail on the so-called “Spaghetti” quarters of the 1990s have a precedent in Miss Liberty’s curly coif.
Guidance: In terms of scarcity, the 1912-S nickel will never get the respect it deserves. Much scarcer than the 1909-S V.D.B. cent in Mint State, this 20th century key date is saddled with a series that has never been a collector favorite. That may not always be the case, however, as the Liberty nickel is one of the last classic series within reach of most intermediate collectors in Mint State.
As a type set collector, the 1912-S is a clear choice over Cameo or Deep Cameo Proofs (most of which have been cleaned over the years), or even the other branch mint issue, the 1912-D. A fresh roll of 1909-S V.D.B. cents was found, slabbed, and (mostly) distributed a few years ago. We can’t fathom a situation where such a concentration of the 1912-S survives unmolested in Mint State.
Indian Head, or Buffalo Nickel Type 1 (1913)
The Scenario: The Indian Head (or as it’s commonly called, the “Buffalo”) nickel debuted in 1913, replacing Barber’s Liberty Head (“V”) type. The new type, designed by Saint-Gaudens acolyte James Earle Fraser, elevated the lowly five cent denomination to the realm of medallic art thanks to a rustic design featuring a realistically rendered Native American figure on the obverse and an impressionistic portrayal of an American bison on the reverse. Unlike many other coins that pre-date this issue, Fraser used every conceivable measure of the canvas for his design. In doing so, he reduced the visual importance of the coin’s statutory inscriptions and mottos.
This proved to be one of the many problems that plagued the series throughout its release. Yet despite its troubled production history, the Indian Head nickel remains the quintessential nickel five cent coin, collected both for its rugged beauty and nostalgia for a time when a nickel could buy you a ticket to see the latest movie by Fatty Arbuckle and Mabel Normand, and when five and dime shops were a ubiquitous mainstay of American life.
The Type 1 nickel was produced in a cloud of controversy, and only for a few months. Die wear was the main issue, but the kicker was that the coin’s two most important features – the date and denomination – quickly rubbed off. According to NGC’s David Lange, Charles Barber’s design changes did little to improve the situation, and further changes were undertaken in 1916. Still, collectors wanting an example that most closely resembles James Earle Fraser’s original vision have but the P-D-S 1913 Type 1 issues to choose from.
Guidance: The 1913-S is easily the most desirable of the three Type I releases. It has the lowest mintage, and the estimated total number of Mint State survivors is a little less than half that of the 1913-D. The coin is easily purchased at MS-66 from all three mints, but an S-Mint example will set you back about $1,000.
Another thing to consider is the luster and color. We’re suckers for nice color, and nickel tones up well – especially after 100 years. A beautiful piece with rich reds, golds, coppers, or blues will look great in your collection and will always find an eager buyer when it’s time to sell. Choose the most unique, high quality example you can find, even if that means selecting a D-Mint or P-Mint over the scarcer S-Mint 1913 Type I.
Indian Head, or Buffalo Nickel Type 2 (1913-1938)
The Scenario: As stated above, due to wear issues on the dies and struck coins, the Mint had to make adjustments to Fraser’s design. The new type added a formal exergue under the bison’s hooves, wherein FIVE CENTS was struck up against the lower relief basined planchet instead of atop a raised relief mound. Because this type was struck for most of the duration of the issue, it’s the Indian Head nickel of record, or at least the type that most of us remember. We have to admit, seeing the Type 1 after studying Type 2 for so long can be jarring.
Guidance: We know it’s tempting, but please, please, please avoid the 1938-D. It’s the 1964-D of Buffalos. Sure it knocks out a coin from the list, but what fun is it to go for the coin that everybody has to sell you? Instead, look for pieces with real potential and a demonstrated history of collector interest.
If money’s no object (ironic pun not intended), then buy one of several five and six figure pieces, like the 1926-S or the 1918/7-D variety. Or you could wait patiently for a 1913 proof to be offered for sale again. Of course, we’re partial to the 1937-D Three Legged Buffalo, which is what PCGS majordomo David Hall calls “the classic Buffalo nickel”.
Quite simply (and with apologies to Raymond Carver), the Type 2 Indian Head nickel is what we talk about when we talk about Indian Head nickels. It’s one of those coins – like the 1909-S V.D.B. cent and the 1916-D Winged Liberty dime – whose legacy extends far beyond numismatics and into the cultural consciousness. It’s the most important Buffalo nickel in the series and a coin you shouldn’t be without when putting together the ultimate type set.
Jefferson Nickel (1938-Present)
(For the purposes of our type set, we put the silver issues of 1942-1945 in their own separate entry)
The Scenario: The Mint, frustrated by wear and die issues related the Indian Head nickel, wasted no time replacing the design once the statutory 25 year production period came to a close. The winning design, featuring President Thomas Jefferson, was chosen after a national competition.
While the production coin differed in significant ways from the artwork, many in the field were not impressed by either Schlag’s work or the finished coin. One point of contention was the head-on architectural motif (Monticello) that served as the reverse design. Some felt that architectural motifs were beneath the dignity of our national coinage.
Still, Monticello remains on the reverse after all these years, and many other buildings and monuments have adorned American coinage since.
Guidance: Once upon a time, the 1950-D nickel was a can’t-miss investment. Collectors and investors were quickly disabused of the notion, however, when roll prices crashed after it was revealed that a majority of the issue was hoarded soon after its release. Because of this, the coin is more readily found in Mint State than Fair, which is the typical grade you’d expect for a circulating coin of this vintage.
Another collector- and dealer-driven phenomenon that affects the collecting of Jefferson nickels, at least on the high end of the modern market, is the strike quality attribution known as Full Steps. Even to the highly trained numismatist, the Full Step Jefferson nickel is a minefield. There is no industry “standard” as to what qualifies as Full Steps. Both PCGS and NGC have had to deal with buybacks from persnickety collectors who paid caviar prices for unicorn Full Step examples of badly struck dates only to find that a third party grading service doesn’t agree with their assessment.
NGC attributes five and six step nickels, where the steps are completely visible, while PCGS awards the attribution for five visible and complete steps. Because of this discrepancy between the two major grading services (and the difficulty that even Jefferson nickel enthusiasts have identifying this feature), we advise that you stay away from any big dollar investment without proper representation by a nationally known dealer or expert in the series.
Luckily, our type set Jefferson nickel doesn’t require Full Steps to be interesting, challenging, or a potentially great investment coin. Our pick is the 1939 Doubled Monticello. The coin exhibits bold, naked eye visible doubling, and is one of but a few notable DDRs in the entire series. Available for under $1,000 in grades up to MS-65, it’s steadily inching its way up in price and could really take off when modern coinage hits its stride over the next couple of decades.
The inclusion of a coin like this in your set will give you clear bragging rights and help others see an all-too-familiar coin in a whole new light.
Jefferson Nickel War Composition (1942-1945)
The Scenario: The need for nickel to produce steel for the war effort led to a change in composition for the “nickel” five cent piece. While the new alloy didn’t perform as well as the metal it replaced, the Jefferson design never looked so striking as it did between 1942 and 1945. Literally; the softer metal made full strikes with minimal marks common. Gems are plentiful, and it’s not uncommon to find examples in MS-66 and MS-67.
For the most part, war nickels were extracted in the 10-15 years after World War II. The coin’s large mint marks aided in their removal. The coins were also heavily hoarded, which means there are no absolute rarities of this type.
Guidance: While the delineation between Full Step and non-Full Step Jefferson nickels becomes much easier during the war years, we still see sidestepping the issue as a possibility when it comes to finding the ultimate example for your set. In this case, we have another doubled die (yes, we realize the set is starting to look esoteric, but bear with us): the 1943-P DDO.
This prominently doubled nickel is naked eye visible – always a plus – and shows dramatic doubling on Jefferson’s eye and in the mottos and inscriptions. Through MS-66, the coin isn’t that big of a deal – an example can had for under $500. If you’re lucky, you might even find an excellent example in the wild for a fraction of that.
If Full Steps is your thing, there are fewer of these known, and the collector premium is certainly in effect, with pieces graded MS-66 selling for upwards of $2,000.
But the coin comes so well struck anyway that paying such a large price difference for such a minimal boost in quality isn’t something we suggest doing without knowing the Jefferson nickel market and its players very well.
Barber Dime (1901-1916)
The Scenario: Charles Barber, like other Chief Engravers before and after, lived to see the day when the Nation felt his coinage was no longer needed. Though they believed him capable, his superiors decided that Barber the younger – like his father before him – lacked the artistic vision necessary to elevate the nation’s coinage. Whereas 1913 (well, technically 1912) saw the end of Barber’s nickel design, 1916 saw the wholesale change of Barber’s signature circulating coins: the dime, quarter, and half dollar.
For what it’s worth, Barber’s coinage might bear his name, but its inspiration comes from George T. Morgan’s dollar design and also borrows from the Variety IV Seated Liberty dime reverse.
Barber died in 1917, after which Morgan took the reins as Chief Engraver.
Guidance: Much maligned over the years, Mint State Barber coinage has seen a resurgence in recent decades. It’s now somewhat scarce in most dates and downright rare in others. Your run-of-the-mill local coin shop isn’t likely to have any examples in Mint State, although they can be tracked down at virtually every larger coin show. Unlike Barber’s Liberty nickel, the Barber dime was produced at regular intervals at the branch mints. This means that besides coins struck in Philadelphia, you have pieces representing New Orleans, San Francisco, and, starting in 1906, Denver.
The most notable 20th century dime from this series is the 1905-O Micro O variety. Discovered by 19th and early 20th century author and die variety expert Howard Newcomb, this dime is widely believed to have been created accidentally using a mintmark punch intended for quarter dies. In Mint State, the variety is extraordinarily rare. In the 1980s, only one example was widely known to exist. Today, it’s estimated that upwards of 20 might exist. PCGS has graded four.
Expect to wait on Mint State specimens.
Also, expect stiff competition from other collectors. In MS-63, the coin should trade between $5,000 to $6,000. In MS-65, that price can double and possibly triple, as noted collector John C. Hugon’s MS-65 example sold at a 2005 Heritage Auction in 2005 for $12,650. PCGS has graded only one coin finer. CoinFacts lists the top pop MS-66 as being worth $20,000, but really, it’s hard to put a number on a coin like that.
If the hunt for a 1905-O Micro O isn’t your bag, consider the 1901-S, the 1903-S, or the 1904-S. All offer a challenge to find nice attractive examples, and all have strong upward potential due to their scarcity and the popularity of classic S-Mint coinage. The 1904-S is the toughest of the three to find in MS-65 or above. The 1901-S has the lowest mintage.
Winged Liberty (Mercury) Dime (1916-1945)
The Scenario: While there was no Congressional mandate to change coin designs in 1915, plans were underway to change out the dime, quarter, and half dollar – all three designs credited to sitting Chief Engraver Charles Barber. In terms of artistry, Adolph Weinman’s Winged Liberty dime and Walking Liberty half dollar were revelations. The former has long been an icon of American Numismatics, while the latter was repurposed for the American Silver Eagle, the “Morgan dollar” of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Guidance: Adolph Weinman’s popular Winged Liberty Head dime is most widely collected in circulated grades or, in some cases, by date, but sometimes it’s collected by focusing on issues from 1934-1945 (the so-called Late Date Set). The reason for this is because assembling the complete series in Mint State can be prohibitively expensive, especially the 1916-D, the 1921 and 1921-S, and the 1926-S. All four of these coins trade for more than a thousand dollars in MS-63 or better and the 1916-D, being a five figure coin in MS-63, can cost as much as a luxury sedan in MS-65 or better. The popular 1942/1 variety (P & D) are also five figure coins in Mint State due to their elusiveness in uncirculated grades.
If you have bottomless pockets, the 1916-D is the coin to get. Its value has tripled in the past 15 years, while keeping its established and unwavering reputation. In terms of absolute scarcity, the 1916-D dime is one of the rarest 20th century coins in Mint State, and with an estimated uncirculated population of under 100 coins, its future growth potential seems to be wide open. Consider that there are more than two and a half times the number of unimpaired proof 1895 Morgans, and you begin to have an idea of just how few 1916-D uncs are out there.
Roosevelt Dime Silver (1946-1964)
The Scenario: Franklin D. Roosevelt’s memorialization on the dime seems a thing of destiny.
The President was stricken with polio in 1921, and was mostly paralyzed from the waist down for the remainder of his life. Because of this, and more than three decades of widespread hysteria caused by annual summer outbreaks, Roosevelt and his close friend Basil O’Connor established the March of Dimes in January of 1938.
The charity sought small donations from millions of Americans (what today might be called “crowdsourcing”) to fund research to defeat the infectious disease and provide treatment and care for its victims. The organization’s fundraising and awareness campaign eventually paved the way for the development of the Salk vaccine in the early fifties.
So connected was Roosevelt to the charity that his appearance on the dime was all but assured after his death. And while The Numismatist reported in July 1945 that they’d received letters nine to one in support of a new dime design featuring the fallen president, noted numismatist and magazine editor Stuart Mosher felt otherwise, saying, in part:
“The current winged Liberty head dime is one of the most handsome of modern coins, and should not be replaced with a commemorative issue unless the latter has all the good qualities of the first.”
We’ll leave it up to you to decide whether Mosher’s concerns regarding the Roosevelt dime were warranted. One thing we are sure of is that Mosher couldn’t have anticipated that the “new” coin series would continue well into the second decade of the 21st century.
Guidance: As with the clad dime, there are no back-breaking issues in the silver portion of the Roosevelt dime series. Some like to point to the 1949-S as the regular issue “key date” of the series, but that’s just silly. As mintages go, the 1955-P was produced in lower numbers, and neither issue is exactly difficult to come by in Mint State.
There are, of course, innumerable varieties to think about. Prominently featured in the Professional Edition of Whitman’s Guide Book to United States Coins are the 1950-D/S, the 1950-S/D, the ’63 and ’63-D DDRs, and the ’64-DDR. Any of these, or the Cherrypicker’s varieties, would be a more interesting pickup that the 1949-S.
However, the truly desirable coin (to us) is a frosty 1950 or 1951 proof. The latter is spectacularly scarce in DCAM; the former nearly as much. The time will come when cameo coinage from the 1950s will take off in value, and these are two issues with relatively well-established populations. You can’t say that with any certainty about dime varieties, and you can’t say that about conditionally rare business strikes.
Roosevelt Dime Clad (1965-Present)
The Scenario: Clad Roosevelt dimes went into production in 1965, and were produced side-by-side with 90% silver dimes through the year 1966. In 1968, after a three year moratorium mandated by the Coinage Act of 1965, the Mint began mint marking dimes again in 1968. Your typical clad dime set resides in a coin folder or album, and relatively few collectors actively seek out top-shelf, fully struck clad dimes.
But this, too, will change. We’ve already seen increased demand for 1965 Full Band dimes in gem plus grades. Other dates remain elusive.
Still, the Roosevelt dime at the top level is not being sold in a free and competitive market. The best coins have been offered time and time again by the same seller via Teletrade for what we believe are exorbitant prices – “exorbitant” because nobody is buying them. Of course, the seller disagrees with us on how best to distribute this fine material, feeling that his ultra high-end coins will eventually find the right buyer.
The question remains: is that potential buyer being held hostage by a coin seller who has all the time in the world to wait for that one big fish to bite the numismatic hook?
But we digress.
Truth is, there are interesting issues in the Roosevelt dime clad period, and if you’re willing to do a little legwork, you might save some money in the process.
Guidance: We wrote in our May 30, 2012 piece on clad dimes that the dust has yet to settle on the clad Roosevelt series, in part because there’s a thin market for ultra-premium coinage of the type and also due to misperceptions related to the relationship between mintage and value. Specifically, we cite what we call the Low Mintage / Low Value Paradox that hangs over the head of the 1996-W, an issue produced solely to create buzz for that year’s mint set.
We set our stakes around five possible periods where a key date dime would emerge. We focused on the 1969 and 1975 Philly strikes, the 1965 to 1967 Special Mint Set era business strikes, the 1982 and 1983 non-mint set business strikes (specifically the 1982 “No P”), and the 2005-2010 business strikes.
For the sake of the article, we omitted proof issues, particularly the “No S” varieties, but we must consider them here. While the 1968 and 1975 “No S” proofs can be relegated to the pipe dream category due to their ultimate rarity, the 1970 and 1983 “No S” dimes have known populations of approximately 500 coins each. If considering the older 1970, you have to pay extra attention to the presence or absence of cameo frosting. Most examples will be brilliant, or lack sufficient frosting to earn PCGS or NGC’s Cameo designation. Deep or Ultra Cameos are rare. The ’83, on the other hand, should be a better struck and fully frosted coin.
In terms of telling the “story” of the clad Roosevelt period, the 1982 “No P” stands out as the most compelling choice. Again, it’s a non-mint set year, which means most 1982 dimes have been spent or lost. It also benefits from being a variety coin, one that’s about as scarce as the 1955 Doubled Die cent. Will the 1982 “No P” ever climb to the triumphant heights of the 1955 cent? Not likely, unless dimes supplant cents as the most popularly collected denomination in U.S. coinage.
If it were our set, we’d go with the “No P”, but any of these three accidental releases are worth your consideration and collector dollars.
At any rate, be sure to join us next time, when we continue our quest by focusing on quarters.
Flip of a Coin:
- Why Do They Hate Us?: The 1955 Franklin half dollar was struck, not to fill demand (there was none, as the Treasury had sufficient stores on hand), but to ensure that the 1955 would not be a proof only issue. Growth in demand for proofs was exploding year after year, and Mint officials were concerned that a proof only half dollar would spur even higher collector and speculator demand for proof sets.
- Yeah, But How Do You Say It?: One of the more difficult terms in numismatics to spell is “Akcidefect”. The term was coined by M. L. Beistle in the late 1920s to describe clash image marks in his groundbreaking book The Register of Half Dollar Die Varieties and Sub-Varieties (1929).
- No study of the New Orleans Mint is complete without some attention paid to a man named John Leonard Riddell (1807-1865). Riddell was a Renaissance man in every sense of the word except literally; he was an inventor of note, a duty-bound and effective public official, and a scholar. His A Monograph on the Silver Dollar (1845) remains essential reading to this day, due to its first-hand account of the widespread circulation of Mexican counterfeits of United States coins, a key issue leading to the creation of the Coinage Act of 1857.
© 2013 Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker
 Mosher, Stuart. “The Editor’s Corner”, Numismatist July 1945: 732. Print.
 Yeoman, R. S. A Guide Book of United States Coins Professional Edition: 4th Edition. Whitman. Atlanta, Georgia. 2012. 138. Print.