Dr. Sol Taylor

Collecting Jefferson Nickels

By Dr. Sol Taylor
"Making Cents"
Saturday, August 8, 2009

War Nickel
The mintmark was moved to the back during World War II to distinguish these silver issues from their normal 75-percent copper, 25-percent nickel counterparts.
he Jefferson nickel is now in its 70th year of issue, making it the third longest of our circulating coinage. The Lincoln cent is first and the Washington quarter is second.
    When I started collecting, the Jefferson nickel was brand new and hardly worthy of collecting, much less buying an album for such new coins.
    Contract designer Felix Schlag won the competition for a newly designed nickel to honor Thomas Jefferson's 200th birth year in 1938.
    Although it was generally known during World War II that some of the earliest issues such as the 1938-D, 1938-S, 1939-S and especially the 193-9D were scarce (as compared to all the others), hardly any collectors were trying to isolate these issues to hoard or collect. Many dealers could sell each of these mint-marked coins for less than 25 cents each in mint condition.
    I had coin folders for all of the 20th century issues but did not bother to ever get a Jefferson nickel folder.
    During World War II, a special composition was used to make our five cent coins — a copper, silver and manganese alloy. These "silver" nickels looked very much like the silver coins of the time, but they quickly oxidized to streaky colors, dark shades, and even blackened.
    This alloy was discontinued due to the lack of quality of the coins — often laminated and streaky when minted. The eleven different "wartime silver" nickels (1942-P and –S; 1943-P, -D and –S; 1944-P, -D and -S and 1945-P, -D and -S) were easily distinguished from earlier issues by the large mintmark on the reverse above Monticello.
    This was also the first time a "P" mintmark was used for coins minted in Philadelphia.
    Circulated sets of war nickels sell for a premium — not due to their mintage, but for their 35 percent silver content. Prices are quoted daily based on the spot silver price of the day.
    In the American Numismatic Association's special collection of counterfeit coins, there is one of the very odd 1943 no-mintmark Jefferson nickels. It seems that an enterprising person working in a shop around 1946 made a pair of dies for the 1943 nickel but mated the obverse to a no-mintmark date such as 1946. The resulting "no mintmark" war nickel became a scarce and popular "error" at the time until it was discovered to be a counterfeit.
    Now, who would take the time and energy to counterfeit nickels? Many such "errors" were found in circulation in Pennsylvania.
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    In 1946, the regular cupronickel alloy was put back into use and the Jefferson nickel resumed its production as before the war.
    The next key date to come on the market was the low-mintage 1950-D nickel. It was known at the time that this Denver mintage would be much smaller than usual, at just over 2 million pieces, and as a result most of the newly minted coins were gobbled up by speculators, hoarders and coin dealers.
    As a result, over the years, the only 1950-D nickels offered for sale were mint-condition coins. In all my years of coin hunting, I found only one 1950-D nickel in circulation.
    Brilliant uncirculated (BU) rolls were far more frequently offered for sale than circulated rolls — in fact, I still have never seen a single circulated roll of 1950-D nickels offered for sale in a dealer price list.
    The price difference between the BU and circulated coins has always been small as a result. The 1950-D nickel peaked at about $30 in the 1960s but has tapered off since then as many of the hoarded 1950-D coins have been put up for sale.
    The next major turn for the Jefferson nickel was the four-coin Lewis and Clark series issued in 2004 and 2005.
    Each coin featured an emblem of the famed Lewis and Clark expedition which Thomas Jefferson sanctioned to explore the giant Louisiana Territory that Jefferson had purchased from France in 1804.
    The four coins were minted for general circulation, but it seems a good number were bought up by dealers, hoarders and speculators. They have no special numismatic value, as they were minted for general circulation. Special issues were minted for collectors at a premium.
    The original side view of Jefferson was altered in 2005 to a three-quarter view of Jefferson. The Monticello design was restored on the reverse after the Lewis and Clark issues.
    Other minor changes were made over the years including adding Felix Schlag's initials ("FS") to the obverse and adding the mintmarks to the obverse, including the "P" mintmark.
    Mintage figures remained high for the entire series. No low-mintage coin has lured collectors since the 1950-D. Thus a complete BU set is considered "affordable" as compared to other 20th-century series.
    Since the cost of making a nickel now exceeds five cents, chances are that the nickel may undergo some change in the near future — smaller size, different alloy, or both. Time will tell.