Charles Barber’s Liberty Head five cent coin was first produced for circulation in 1883 after two years of development of various patterns for the proposed type, including an 1882 pattern virtually identical to the design actually released. The issued 1883 nickel did not have text indicating the denomination anywhere on the coin, but there was a dominant letter V on the reverse, part of a proposed plan to use Roman numerals on new one cent and three cent coins as well. Whether this plain symbology, minus descriptive text, was an actual blunder or a result of a not too unreasonable assumption that the size, color, and V would be a sufficient indicator of the denomination is unknown.
Photos used with permission and courtesy of Heritage Auction Galleries
However, some individuals saw an opportunity to make a quick profit with the new nickels, albeit through chicanery, reeding the edges and adding a gold plating; and then passing the final product to unsuspecting innocents as a new five dollar gold piece. These “racketeer” nickels naturally caused a sustained protest, and Mint Director A. Loudon Snowden ordered Barber to modify the coin to explicitly specify that the V meant cents, not dollars. The hope for easy money was not limited to the thieves, though, as many people saved the 1883 issue in the hopes that with the corrected version in circulation, the former would be withdrawn from circulation, resulting in a windfall for holders of the “centless” coins. Such was not to happen, and the revised nickel became the third circulating example of the denomination dated 1883.
The Liberty Head nickel design not only started in controversy, but it also ended in controversy. On December 13, 1912, Mint Director George H. Roberts wrote a letter to Philadelphia Mint Superintendent John H. Landis stating that he was to “do nothing” regarding five cent coins for 1913, waiting instead for the new designs (the Indian Head or Buffalo nickel). That order was only partly followed. No official 1913 Liberty Head nickels were produced for general circulation, but someone at the Mint surreptitiously produced five of those coins (rumors persist of a sixth example), whose existence was revealed in 1920 when all five coins were publicly displayed. All have been subsequently sold and resold, often as a complete set in the 1920s and 1930s; one example was thought lost to the numismatic community until its existence was recently reconfirmed. Today the coin is one of the premier U.S. rarities, selling for several million dollars when an example becomes available.
On the obverse a somewhat matronly Liberty faces left, hair swept back and tied in a bun, with a few stray curls dropping down the back of the neck. On her head is a coronet inscribed with LIBERTY, with wheat and cotton clustered at its base. A circle of 13 six-point stars is placed inside the dentilled rim, and the date is at the bottom. A prominent V is located in the center of the reverse, surrounded by a small circle of two arcs of cotton and corn, tied at the bottom with a ribbon and separated at the top. Inside the dentilled rim is a concentric circle of UNITED STATES OF AMERICA around the top and sides, CENTS at the bottom, and two dots, one centered on each side of CENTS. Below STATES OF, above the plant wreath, is E PLURIBUS UNUM. Denver (D) and San Francisco (S) mintmarks for the 1912 issue are placed in the small space below the dot that is to the left of CENTS.
Several hundred business strike Liberty Head nickels have been certified, and prices are moderate up to Gem grades, becoming expensive as Premium Gem and finer for most dates. Key coins, and the most expensive, are the 1885, 1886, and 1912-S, which are generally expensive in Mint State, and very expensive as Gem or finer. A few prooflike examples have been certified. Proof examples are moderately priced up to the Superb Gem grade for most dates, with a few dates becoming expensive as Gem or finer. The 1885 and 1886 dates are more expensive than other dates at all grades, the 1885 more so, though somewhat less than business strike examples for those same two years. Cameo and deep cameo proofs have been certified for most years. All 1913 examples are listed as proofs, and sell for a few million dollars when rarely available.
Designer: Charles E. Barber
Circulation Mintage: high 39,557,639 (1911), low 238,000 (1912-S)
Proof Mintage: 6,783 (1883 With Cents), low 1,475 (1907)
Denomintion: $0.05 Five cents (5/100)
Diameter: ±21.2 mm, plain edge
Metal content: 75% copper, 25% nickel
Weight: ±5 grams
Varieties: Those listed in census/ population reports include Double Die Reverse business strike examples for 1887 and 1900, and a proof 1884/188 date doubling. Several other doubling, repunching, and minor die variations are known, though most are not represented in census/ population reports.
Additional Resources :
Coin Encyclopedia: www.ngccoin.com
The Liberty Nickel Collector Society: www.libertynickels.org
A Guide Book of Shield and Liberty Head Nickels, Q. David Bowers, Whitman Publishing
Million Dollar Nickels: Mysteries of the Illicit 1913 Liberty Head Nickels Revealed. Paul Montgomery, Mark Borckardt, Ray Knight. Zyrus Press.
The Official Red Book: A Guide Book of United States Coins. R.S Yeoman (author), Kenneth Bressett (editor). Whitman Publishing.
A Guide Book of United States Type Coins. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
The Experts Guide to Collecting & Investing in Rare Coins. Q. David Bowers. Whitman Publishing.
The U.S. Mint and Coinage. Don Taxay. Arco Publishing
Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of U.S. Coins. Walter Breen. Doubleday.