How to Determine the Value of Rare Nickels

Close up of 1936 Indian Head Buffalo Nickel. 1936 Indian Head Buffalo Nickel.

The United States nickel, a five-cent coin still in circulation today, is perhaps best-known for bearing the likeness of former U.S. President Thomas Jefferson. There are, however, many different types of nickels collected by numismatists—and not all are alike. Nickels were first minted in the United States in 1866, and nearly all were initially made out of silver and gold. From 1867 to 1868, roughly 30 million nickels were issued, and the coin became wildly popular for its convenience—after all, for 73 years bottles of Coca-Cola only cost five cents.

Today, rare nickels benefit from revived demand among collectors, and though many of the most valuable ones are no longer in circulation, they can be found at auctions, estate sales, yard sales, and antique shops. Learn how to determine the value of rare nickels, the key dates and series to look for in the market, and how to determine a nickel’s worth based on its price and condition.

The Top 10 Most Valuable Nickels

Type Year Estimated Value
1. Liberty Head V Nickel 1913 $3,737,500
2. 7-D Buffalo Nickel 1918 $350,750
3. S Buffalo Nickel 1926 $322,000
4. Buffalo Nickel 1916 $281,750
5. D Buffalo Nickel 1913 $143,750
6. S Buffalo Nickel 1917 $138,000
7. D Buffalo Nickel 1920 $138,000
8. Shield Nickel 1867 $132,250
9. S Buffalo Nickel 1918 $125,350
10. S Buffalo Nickel 1927 $125,350

A Brief History of Nickels

The history of the nickel dates back to the American Civil War. In 1861, when Southern states began seceding from the Union and the Civil War was underway, America and its currency were in crisis. Widespread panic led to the hoarding of money, especially precious metals like gold and silver. Coins nearly vanished overnight, and the Mint didn’t have enough resources in gold and silver to keep up with demand. Without coinage, it was impossible to make simple daily transactions like buying groceries and sending mail.

After the war ended in 1865, it took months for precious metals to file back into circulation. War production, however, had expanded America’s industrial capacity, and more common metals such as nickel were readily available in large quantities. Because nickel wasn’t a precious metal, people weren’t interested in hoarding it. In 1866, President Andrew Johnson approved a bill authorizing the coinage of five-cent pieces composed of nickel and copper.

Shield nickel without rays reverse by Howard Spindel.

Shield nickel by Howard Spindel.

This new coin was decorated with a shield, a prominent “5” surrounded by a star and ray design, and featured the words, “In God We Trust.” This “shield” nickel was produced from 1866 until 1883. That same year, the government produced fifteen million five-cent nickels, more than 100 times the number of silver half-dimes produced in the year prior.

Due to manufacturing issues, the Shield nickel was replaced by what is known as the “Liberty Head.” In fact, in the decades that followed, a number of new designs emerged. In 1913, the Buffalo nickel was created, followed by the first Jefferson nickel in 1938. The most recent update to this one occurred in 2006, when President Jefferson’s image changed from a profile to a frontal portrait. The rise of coin-operated machines like vending machines and jukeboxes further solidified the nickel as an indispensable coin.

Types of Nickels

Shield Nickel Series (1866–1883)

1875 U.S. nickel.

1875 Shield nickel. Sold for $5,175 via Heritage Auctions (November 2006).

Key dates: 1877, 1878, 1879, 1880, 1881

Though Shield nickels are not among the most popular coins collected in the U.S., some of the more rare dated versions can hold significant value. Shield nickels were produced at only one Mint (Philadelphia) and have no mintmark as a result. Therefore, a date set would only consist of sixteen coins. Values of rare Shield nickels start around $18, where this minimum value is assigned to a common date, heavily worn coin. An 1879 or 1880 shield nickel can climb in value, anywhere from $200 to over $1,000 depending on condition.

Liberty Head Series (1883–1912)

Key dates: 1885, 1886, 1912-S

The Liberty Head nickel is often referred to as the “V” nickel because of its reverse design. Its history is rich with production errors and scandals. Chief engraver at the Mint Charles E. Barber was tasked with creating the design, and large quantities were produced for nearly thirty years. The Mint added the word “cents” to the reverse of the coin after some started to gold-plate the coin and pass them off as five dollar gold pieces. This omission led to two varieties in the first year of production.

In 1913, a Mint employee produced five Liberty Head nickels. It is believed that he used coin dies in case the dies for the Buffalo nickel were not ready for production in time. Today, these nickels are worth millions of dollars. Otherwise, the value of a V Nickel depends largely on its scarcity and date—an 1889 V Nickel in good condition can be priced around $10, while fair market value for an 1885 V Nickel in uncirculated condition can be upwards of $1,500.

Buffalo Nickel Series (1913)

1918 nickel with side facing Indian head.

1918 Buffalo nickel. Sold for $126,500 via Heritage Auctions (January 2007).

Key dates: 1913-S Variety 2

The Buffalo nickel series was minted for 25 years, and serves as an icon of American coinage. It was one of the first U.S. coins with a design that depicted scenes of the country’s historical roots—one side featured a Native American and the other featured a buffalo standing atop a natural landscape. Today, it is extremely popular amongst collectors.

Those in outstanding condition, naturally, can be worth more than those in poor condition. While, generally speaking, Buffalo nickels tend to be rarer and more valuable the older they are, age is not the singular defining factor of the Buffalo Nickel’s value. Those from the first few years of minting that are carefully preserved are highly sought after. Other key dates for Buffalo nickels include:

  • 1915-S, minted in San Francisco
  • 1913-S Type 2, featuring a distinct line under the artwork on the reverse
  • 1918/7-D, indicated by an “8 over 7” overdate that is clearly visible

Jefferson Nickel Series (1938)

Jefferson nickel with head and words, "In god we trust" on it.

1950 Jefferson nickel. Sold for $17,250 via Heritage Auctions (September 2006).

Key dates: 1938-D, 1939-D, 1939-S, 1950-D

The Jefferson nickel series is the longest running of the five-cent denomination, and the original design remained in use without significant changes for more than six decades. It features a portrait of Thomas Jefferson and is the third series of American coinage to depict a former President. Regardless of its lengthy duration, this series is intriguing to both beginner and advanced collectors alike. Earlier dates of the series are in circulation, but there is an equally challenging component to assembling a set of gem-condition coins with well-defined strikes.

Key Factors in Determining the Value

Collectors can best determine the general value of their nickels by using a magnifying glass to inspect a coin’s condition and mintmarks and to help identify rare varieties. Below are a few key factors to look for when assessing your coins.

Condition

Condition is one of the main determinants of a nickel’s value, and a rigorous system of grading coins is used. Coin grades are as follows:

  • Poor (PO-1): Also known as Basal State, these coins are hardly recognizable and often large parts of the design and/or date are missing.
  • Fair (FR-2): Though enough of the date should be visible to identify the coin, lettering may be completely gone and images are hardly visible.
  • About Good (AG-3): Also referred to as “Almost Good,” most of the design of the coin is outlined; however, rims will have worn far enough into the design to obliterate parts of the lettering.
  • Good (G-4, 6): The general design of the coin is outlined, but some parts are weak. Though non-collectors often refer to their coins as being in “Good” condition, these are still very worn coins.
  • Fine (F-12, 15): All seven letters of the word LIBERTY should be visible with minor wear and tear on the coin.
  • Very Fine (VF-20, 25, 30, 35): All general details are visible, and the coin has medium to light wear. All seven letters of the word LIBERTY are strongly visible.
  • Extremely Fine (XF-40, 45): There may be some traces of mint luster, but the coin has light wear overall.
  • About Uncirculated (AU-50, 53, 55, 58): Extremely light wear with only a trace of friction on the highest points.

These grades are meant as general guidelines, but standards can vary among types and often by date.

Mintmarks and Rarity

Five cent nickel with close up of the "D" in second image.

Jefferson head nickel with “D” mintmark.

Mintmarks help identify coins stamped at each of the United States Mint facilities. The presence or absence of a mintmark can result in a great disparity in the value of your nickel. They’re usually found on the coin itself, and often written in the description of the coin. If it’s written without a mintmark, it was most likely minted in Philadelphia. Below are the mintmarks that can appear on U.S. coins:

  • C: Charlotte (Gold only, 1838–1861)
  • CC: Carson City (1870–1893)
  • D: Dahlonega, Georgia (Gold only, 1838–1861)
  • D: Denver (1906 to date; easily distinguishable from Dahlonega because of the different time frames)
  • O: New Orleans (1838–1909)
  • P: Philadelphia
  • S: San Francisco (1954 to date; now mints collector coins only)
  • W: West Point (1983 to date; now mints collector coins only)

Mintmarks that coincide with rare dates can greatly affect your coin’s value. For example, a 1939 Jefferson nickel isn’t worth much, but one that has a “D” mintmark on the reverse can greatly increase the dollar value. Similarly, those minted between 1942 and 1945 with a large “P,” “D,” or “S” on the reverse contain silver and are rising quickly in price.

Throughout the 20th century, inventions such as mass produced coin boards coupled with the newly presented availability of information about coins’ value to the general public enhanced the appeal of coin collecting greatly. Today, it has become an appealing hobby as new issues are being saved and many coins are available in attractive, uncirculated grades. To best determine the fair market value of your rare nickels, be sure to consult an appraiser.

Sources: CoinStudy | The Spruce Crafts | CoinTrackers | Coin Collecting | Smithsonian