Background and History
The 1885 Liberty Nickel is the well known key date coin of the series that often stands in the way of assembling a complete collection of circulation strikes. While it does not have the lowest mintage of the series, its low survival rate makes the coin particularly elusive and highly valued across all grades. The scarcity of the circulation strike also results in a premium for the proof version of the coin, which had a fairly typical mintage level for the era.
The Liberty Head Nickel series had been introduced in 1883 to replace the previous Shield Nickel series. The new design featured a bold portrait of Liberty facing to the left. Her hair is bound in a bun and she wears a crown inscribed “LIBERTY” accented with sprigs of cotton and wheat. Thirteen stars surround the image with the date placed below.
The reverse design featured the large Roman Numeral “V” to denote the denomination surrounded by an open wreath composed of ears of corn and wheat and bolls and leaves of cotton. The surrounding inscriptions originally included “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” above and “E PLURIBUS UNUM” below. A well told numismatic tale holds that some of the original Liberty Nickels were gold plated and passed off as $5 gold pieces. This led to the inclusion of the additional inscription “CENTS” below the wreath to clearly define the denomination.
After producing a mintage of more than 20 million coins in the first year of the series and more than 10 million in the second, in 1885 the mintage level fell to just under 1.5 million pieces. In subsequent years, the mintage level rebounded and remained at relatively high levels for the much of the remainder of the series. The low mintage of the 1885 Liberty Nickel was little noted at the time, leading the small original mintage to circulate extensively. Over time some of these pieces were lost or worn beyond recognition, limiting the supply that would be available to future collectors.
Decades after the original distribution when coin collecting came into fashion, collectors building sets of Liberty Nickels by date quickly came to recognize the more elusive dates of the series. Chief among these was the 1885 nickel, which was scarcely encountered. Higher end collectors would also come to recognize the scarcity of uncirculated or mint state examples of the issue.
Throughout the 19th century, the Philadelphia Mint was responsible for producing all small circulating coinage, initially cents and half cents and later nickels. As such, for nearly the entire Liberty Nickel series, the Philadelphia Mint exclusively handled production. It was only in the final year that the Denver and San Francisco Mint facilities struck a limited number of pieces before engaging in higher production for subsequent series.
The original mintage for the circulation strike 1885 Liberty Nickel was 1,472,700 pieces at the Philadelphia Mint. This was considerably lower than the mintage levels for the previous two years of the series due to the impact of an economic slow down. In 1883, production had reached 5,474,300 pieces for the “without CENTS” variety and 16,026,200 pieces for the “with CENTS” variety. This was followed by a mintage of 11,270,000 pieces in 1884. The years after 1885 saw mintage levels rebound. In 1886, a year still considered to be a semi-key date, production reached 3,326,000. This was followed by production of 15,260,692 in 1887 and then several more years of production above the 10 million mark.
As noted, the low mintage of the 1885 nickel was compounded by the extensive original circulation of the issue. At the time, coin collecting was not widespread so the lower mintage was not noted and very few pieces were put aside. Only decades later when collecting became more widespread would collectors put the issue aside and by this time many examples had been well worn or lost.
The Philadelphia Mint also struck proof examples of the 1885 nickel. The total production in proof format was 3,790 pieces. Although this figure is far below the circulation strike mintage, it is important to note that these early proof coins were minted and directly distributed to coin collectors and dealers of the day. The coins would then be held in collections and treated carefully. As such, the survival rate for these pieces was high, leaving ample supply for future collecting generations.
Nonetheless, there is a still a premium attached to the 1885 Proof Liberty Nickel. This stems not from its mintage but from the scarcity of the circulation strike issue, which creates additional demand for the proof. Especially in earlier years, collectors who could not acquire or afford a mint state proof example would opt for a proof coin, creating additional demand for the issue compared to other proofs with comparable mintages.
Finest Known and Values
The circulation strike 1885 Liberty Nickel is the primary key date of the series and commands a premium across all grade levels. The issue becomes particularly scarce at the gem level and higher. The major grading services PCGS and NGC have certified fewer than 200 pieces at grades MS65 and higher. Most of these are at the gem level, with about three dozen pieces graded MS66, only four pieces receiving a grade of MS67, and no examples graded higher. These figures may be inflated by resubmissions.
The few pieces at the MS67 grade level have not been offered at auction in the recent past.
A handful of pieces graded MS66 tend to be offered at public auction each year. The prices for these examples tend to be around the $15,000 level with superior examples for the grade often achieving higher prices. During 2013, an example graded PCGS MS66 with a green CAC sticker realized $22,325, representing the upper price threshold in recent years. Further back in 2008, an example graded PCGS MS66 realized $25,300.
The 1885 Proof Liberty Nickel shows about 1,800 examples certified by the major grading services . The majority of grades fall into the PR64 to PR65 range. Across the major grading services PCGS and NGC, approximately 300 pieces have been graded PR66, about 50 pieces graded PR67, and only four pieces graded PR68. Once again, the figures may be inflated due to the impact of resubmissions.
Of particular importance for these early proof issues is the degree of cameo contrast present. Examples which have been designated cameo or deep cameo command premiums above examples of comparable grades without the designation. Of the total 1,800 examples graded, approximately 300 have received the cameo designation with the highest numerical grade at PR67. Approximately a dozen examples have received the DCAM designation, with the highest numerical graded at PR66+.
An example graded PCGS PR68 realized a price of $12,650 at an auction held in 2011. Examples graded PR67 with the cameo designation have reached prices around the $5,000 level. The highest graded example with the Deep Cameo designation graded PCGS PR66+DCAM with a green CAC sticker realized a price of $6,498 at an auction held in 2014.