Liberty Head Nickel Overview
Also known as Liberty nickels or V nickels, the Liberty Head nickel is a classic piece of American coinage that often goes unnoticed by beginning collectors.
First minted in 1883, the Liberty Head nickel was the successor to the Shield nickel, which had been difficult to produce throughout its mintage. The Liberty Head nickel was designed by Charles Barber, one of the most influential figures in the history of American coins.
On the obverse of Barber’s design is a profile bust portrait of Liberty surrounded by a ring of stars. The year of mintage is below her head.
The reverse, scarcely less simple than the obverse, features the roman numeral “V” prominently in the center encircled by a wreath of corn. Along the upper rim is the legend “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA.”
On Type 1 Liberty Head nickels (minted in the first half of 1883), the motto “E PLURIBUS UNUM” is situated along the bottom of the reverse. On Type 2 nickels (minted from the second half of 1883 onward), the motto is in small print above the “V,” and the word “CENTS” is found along the lower rim.
Liberty Head nickels were struck officially until 1912, though five examples mysteriously struck in 1913 have been found. This was the first year of mintage for the new five cent piece, the Buffalo nickel.
Compositionally, the Liberty Head nickel is 75% copper and 25% nickel, with a diameter of 21.2 millimeters and 5 grams.
History of the 1883 Liberty Nickel
1883 was the first issue of the Liberty Head nickel, and as sometimes happens with first issues, there were a few problems which made initial production difficult.
First, the dies for the new coin were not quite ready at the beginning of the year, so to satisfy the demand for nickels, the Mint was forced to strike five cent pieces using the old Shield dies. It wasn’t until the end of January that production of Liberty Head nickels truly began.
As soon as this initial problem was solved, an issue with the design surfaced that necessitated action from the Mint.
Nickels minted early in the year (known as Type 1 nickels or “no cents” nickels) did not feature the word “cents” anywhere on the design. There was effectively no indication of the denomination of the new coin other than the roman numeral on the reverse.
Some clever individuals took advantage of this by plating the coins with gold and passing them off to the unsuspecting public as new five dollar pieces. Such coins are known as “racketeering nickels,” and some still survive today.
To correct this issue, the Mint released a new design (called Type 2 or “with cents” nickels) that included the word “CENTS” on the reverse design.
At this time, nickels were only minted in Philadelphia, and 1883 was a year of relatively high production for the Liberty Head nickel. 5,479,519 “no cents” nickels and 16,032,983 “with cents” nickels were struck, for a total of 21,512,502 coins.
Valuing the 1883 Liberty Nickel
Upon discovering that the Mint had made a mistake on the early “no cents” nickels, people began to hoard them in hopes of possessing what would become a rare and valuable coin.
Instead, the opposite occurred. Because the “no cents” nickels were hoarded, they are more common today in high grades, which drives their value down.
The “with cents” nickels, on the other hand, were not hoarded and saw much wider circulation. As a result, they are much harder to find in good condition and are thus more valuable than the “no cents” pieces.
For “no cents” nickels, Good-4 to Fine-12 grades are worth $7-9. This increases to $11 in Very Fine-20, $15 in Extremely Fine-40, $18 in About Uncirculated-50, $35 in Uncirculated (MS-60) and $50 in Uncirculated (MS-65). Proofs are valued at $309.
“With cents” nickel values are as follows: $18 for Good-4, $28 for Very Good-8, $35 for Fine-12, $57 for Very Fine-20, $85 for Extremely Fine-40, $122 for About Uncirculated-50, $153 for Uncirculated (MS-60), $205 for Uncirculated (MS-65), and $284 for proofs.
Specimens above MS-65 are rare for both types of nickels and are worth thousands. An MS-67 “with cents” nickel even sold for $25,850 at a 2015 auction!