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Old 1964 Still Most Common Nickel
By Jason Midyette, Numismatic News
March 10, 2014

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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In the Nov. 19, 2013, issue I analyzed the makeup of Lincoln cents presently in circulation. This time I will focus on the Jefferson nickel. As before, the sample consisted of 1,000 coins. The coins were obtained from the Exchange National Bank of Atchison, Kan., Dec. 31, 2013.

The results were as follows:

• Dates ranged between 1904 and 2013. The 1904 Liberty nickel could be considered an anomaly as it was the only non-Jefferson nickel in the group. The earliest Jefferson nickel found was a 1940. No 1942-1945 war nickels were found.

• Of the 170 circulating date and mintmark varieties produced since 1938 (including the four reverse designs produced in 2004 and 2005), 120 or 71 percent were present in the sample.

• Coins from all three mints were found. San Francisco was the scarcest mint with only 9 coins; one 1968-S, two 1969-S, five 1970-S and a stray 2000-S circulated proof. The remaining 991 coins were roughly evenly distributed between Denver and Philadelphia.

• The most “valuable” coin found was a semi-key 1942-D which graded EF-40.

• No coins dated 2009 were found. Otherwise, all dates and mintmarks from 1962 to 2013 were present.

• Average grade of the sample was extremely fine.

• Discounting the 1904 Liberty nickel, which graded G-4, the lowest grade coin found graded VG-8. The coins from the 1940s generally graded VG-8, those from the 1950s were F-12 and above and those from the 1960s onward were at least VF-20.

• The earliest dated uncirculated coin found was a 1947-D. While it technically graded MS-60, it was a fairly ugly specimen, which may indicate that a dealer or collector spent it after determining that it would be hard to sell for more than five cents.

• No non-U.S. coins were found.

Date distribution was as follows:

1900-1910 – 1 (0.1 percent)
1940-1949 – 9 (0.9 percent)
1950-1959 – 14 (1.4 percent)
1960-1969 – 112 (11 percent)
1970-1979 – 173 (17 percent)
1980-1989 – 152 (15 percent)
1990-1999 – 200 (20 percent)
2000-2009 – 239 (24 percent)
2010-2013 – 100 (10 percent)

Of special note is that one date, 1964, made up over 5 percent of the sample, with 55 coins present. This was by far the most common date encountered.

The overall condition and date range of the nickel sample would appear to show that, while the nickel circulates more readily than the cent, it still does not see a great deal of use. (The theory being that wear is an overall indication of use, the more worn a coin is, the more use it has seen, the more worn a sample of a specific denomination is, the more use that denomination sees.)

Based upon today’s abundant supply of dateless Buffalo nickels and AG-3 or worse Liberty nickels, it would seem that 50 years ago, it was somewhat common to find well-worn 50-year old coins in circulation. In contrast, while 50-year-old-coins can be found in circulation today, they are not as worn as their counterparts of half a century ago.

To put it another way, were the Buffalo nickel to be reintroduced today, future collectors would not have nearly the problem with dateless coins as today’s collectors do.

As with the cent, the reason behind the nickel’s overall lack of use can be summed up in one word; inflation. What cost five cents in 1964 costs at least 40 cents in 2014, thus the nickel has just 1/8th the purchasing power that it did 50 years ago. Just since 1990, the nickel has lost half of its purchasing power. (Inflation statistics from www.bls.gov).

Like the cent, the nickel just does not have enough value to matter to most people. Unlike the cent though, the nickel is still accepted by vending machines, parking meters and other machines that accept coins. I believe that this fact alone accounts for the average grade of the nickel sample being lower than that of the cent sample.

While cents only see use as change for retail sales, the nickel also gets used for vending machine purchases. This affords nickels more opportunities to be used and thus more chances to receive wear.

In looking over the date distribution data, there are situations with two dates that demand a closer look; the lack of any coins dated 2009 and the overabundance of coins dated 1964.

The first case is fairly easy to explain as the U.S. Mint ceased production of the nickel in April of 2009, resulting in the lowest mintage in nearly 70 years. Mintage was stopped due to the weak economy following the meltdown of 2008 and the resultant lack of demand for coinage. The same situation has happened in the past, resulting in the semi-key dates of 1921 for Mercury dimes and Walking Liberty halves as well as the Lincoln cents of 1931.

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In addition to the relatively low mintage, the 2009 nickels were not widely distributed and their low mintage was well covered. As a result of these factors, the 2009 coins were almost immediately perceived as rare and any that did make it into circulation were almost immediately set aside, creating the present situation where you have a better chance of finding a 110-year old Liberty nickel, a 2000-S proof (mintage 2 million) or a semi key 1942-D in a collectible grade (mintage just over 13 million) than a five-year-old coin with a total availability of around 84 million. In the near future, I would predict that finding a circulated example of a 2009-dated Jefferson nickel will be hard while uncirculated examples will be plentifully available if one is willing to pay a premium for them. Only time will tell if the 2009 Jefferson nickels are actually enough of a rarity to command a premium in the long term.

The overabundance of 1964-dated coins in the sample is, at first, harder to explain. With a combined mintage of around 2.8 billion (1 billion from Philadelphia and 1.8 billion from Denver), 1964 is the most produced date in the entire history of the nickel coin. The only other dates that approach 1964’s production are 1999, with a total of 2.2 billion, and 2000 with a total of 2.3 billion. The 1964 mintage was several orders of magnitude larger than any year that came before and most of the 30 years that came after. As such, it is not surprising that 1964 is the most common date in the survey, the surprise is in how plentiful the 1964 still is.

Given the mintage figures, one would expect to fine roughly the same number of coins dated 1964, 1999 and 2000 in a sample. Given the fact that the 1964 coins have spent 50 years in circulation, or over three times longer than the 1999s or 2000s, it would be expected that attrition would have taken its toll and fewer 1964s would be found than either of the newer dates. In actuality, neither expectation comes true as the sample contained 55 1964 dated coins, 36 1999-dated coins and 45 2000 dated coins.

If mathematics is applied to the question, the abundance of 1964s becomes a little less outlandish than it first seems. Dividing the 1964 mintage of 2.8 billion by the 1999 and 2000 mintages respectively gives you a ratio at which you could expect to find 1964-dated coins in relation to the later dates. For 1999, the ratio is 1.23 to 1, for 2000 it is 1.19 to one.

That is to say, based on mintage alone, you would expect to find 123 1964s for every 100 1999s and 119 1964s for every 100 dated 2000. The sample outperformed the expected ratios with 1.53 1964s appearing for every 1999 and 1.22 for every 2000. From the results of this survey, it would seem that the 1964 nickels are not being taken out of circulation at any great rate.

Anecdotal evidence though points to the conclusion that the abundance of 1964-dated coins in the sample is not a freak occurrence but rather a fairly typical result. In the 30 plus years that I have been involved in coin collecting, 1964 has always been the most commonly found date in the Jefferson nickel series. In any group of nickels I have looked through, the 1964s have overwhelmingly been the most plentiful date. Perhaps this long-standing perception helps keep the 1964 dated nickels in circulation as collectors and others who save coins pull other dates aside but pass on the 1964s as they are “common as dirt.”

As common as they are, 1964 Jefferson nickels are a reminder, as well as a result of, a so far, unique time in America’s monetary history. As silver prices rose (or arguably inflation drove the value of the dollar lower) in the 1960s to the point that the precious metal value of the circulating coins was going to exceed their face value, the government sought a solution and in 1965 removed silver from the dime and quarter while cutting the silver content of the half dollar by nearly 60 percent.

In a futile effort to convince the public that there was no difference in value between the new base metal coins and the older silver ones, the mints went into overtime producing 1964 dated silver coins well into 1965 even as they were cranking out large numbers of the new 1965-dated coins. Even though the Jefferson nickel contained no silver and its composition was not changed, it too was produced into 1965 as part of the effort to flood the economy with coins as the silver coins stopped circulating.



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Comments
On March 10, 2014 John F said
Let me give you some more accurate figures on nickels.  Just because I have searched a LOT more than you did, and so my statistics are skewed closer to the probable norm.

"As a result of these factors, the 2009 coins were almost immediately perceived as rare and any that did make it into circulation were almost immediately set aside, creating the present situation where you have a better chance of finding a 110-year old Liberty nickel, a 2000-S proof (mintage 2 million) or a semi key 1942-D in a collectible grade (mintage just over 13 million) than a five-year-old coin with a total availability of around 84 million."

Since 2007, I have found one Liberty Nickel.  I have found 5 proof nickels (Jeffersons).  And I have found 92 buffalo nickels, 114 war nickels, and 246 of the 2009 nickels (Obviously none found in 2007 or 2008)  SO although you found a proof and a liberty (Good find there, by the way) the present situation does not allow the average 1,000 search to find more proofs or liberty's than the 2009.  And I found 3 2009 nickels this week in my latest box.  Three is a box is HIGH, and I have gone 30 boxes at a time without one, but just yesterday finished this specific box off with 3 in it.  Also have 2,754 Jefferson nickels from 1959 or older.  Sorry, I can't tell you the total searched, but the ratios are probably more consistent due to the number searched.  My numbers at least.  :-)  I do a lot more cents than nickels.  

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