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The Jefferson nickel series

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I’ve been thinking for quite a while about making this post, so I hope that it will reach all of those who care about this issue.

 

Early this year I was bitten by the Jefferson nickel bug. This is a fun and diverse series to collect. It is, perhaps, the most diverse coin still in circulation in terms of varieties and variances of issue. I am also quite taken with its historical and memorial significance. All-in-all, this is a great coin to collect in any grade, raw and slabbed.

 

In recognition of the diversity of the series, I am presenting the information below. Much of what I have to say is about specific issues regarding characteristics of strike and design that can significantly impact how one may consider the quality of a nickel in this series and therefore its desirability. Please note that there are many other factors that may impact quality and desirability, but those spoken of herein are central to how the coins are handled by the major grading services. My diatribe is intended to capture the attention of both collectors and the grading services, particularly NGC.

 

There are some significant problems with the ways that the Jefferson nickel is attributed or designated in terms of strike and variety by the various 3rd party grading services. I intend on discussing these issues fully below. In short, only SEGS (official grading service of the FSNC [Full Step Nickel Club]) has their act together for correctly designating full steps. They are followed by ANACS, then by PCGS and lastly by NGC. SEGS will designate the major reverse varieties of 1939 (1938 and 1940 reverses). They also designate 5 or 6 full steps AND provide the step formula on the label. Moreover, SEGS will indicate if the steps have nicks or other distractions. This is outstanding service. ANACS and PCGS will recognize the reverse of 1938 and the reverse of 1940 for the nickels of 1939. ANACS will designate 5, 5.5, or 6 steps – a step up (so to speak) in terms of understanding at a glance the quality of the coin in question. ANACS is also now providing the step designation for proof Jeffersons, salient primarily to all proof Jeffs prior to 1979. PCGS will not indicate the step completion but will designate full steps for 5 or 6 step nickels. NGC will only provide the full step designation if the nickels have 6 full steps. (By the way, ICG will designate full steps based on 5 steps, but I am unfamiliar with the overall service).

 

So the question arises, what is service here? One has to look at the history of the series in order to adequately answer the question.

 

Full steps first….

 

At first, I smugly thought that NGC was the “only correct service” by applying the full step designation only to 6 step nickels. But with some investigation, I found that when the full step nickel idea reared its head among collectors in the 1970s (but who knows when it really got started), a quorum of collectors agreed that 5 full steps on the porch of Monticello was what constituted “full steps” in the series. There is good reason for this: even though from the inception the design was for 6 steps on Monticello, these were nearly always incomplete due to differences in manufacture from year to year in the series. In fact, there are many years for which 6 step nickels cannot be identified among business strikes and there are five years for which (to my knowledge) there are no known specimens of either 5 or 6 step nickels – 1966, 1967, 1968-D, 1969-D, and 1969-S – and two years .for which there are but one know 5 step specimen – 1960-D and 1961-D (and obviously no 6 steppers). Alas! the Full Step Nickel Club, following tradition, makes it clear that 5 steps makes for a full step nickel.

 

There are many nuances of whether a coin is designated full steps. First, the steps must extend uninterrupted from the left to right buttress of the steps. This means that the steps must not meet anywhere in between nor can they be joined by tags of metal or bag marks. Only minor marks are allowed on the steps and they may not fully break any step so that it is level with the incuse plain of the steps; also, the more central the marks are, the less likely the FS designation will be provided. SEGS has adopted a policy of listing any defects to the steps on the holder. This is important, as it allows for the clear trade of one of their FS designated nickels without the ambiguity of quality in that focal area of the coin. (Granted, this still may not tell a complete story, but it goes a long way toward that end).

 

As mentioned above, SEGS lists the “step formula” on their insert. This is how it works: a full 6 step nickel would be 6-6-6-6, indicating the completeness of the steps by quarter divisions across the steps of Monticello. This is guided by the position of the pillars on the porch, each centering a quarter of the steps. A five step nickel would have the top 5 steps (the topmost being the porch deck) fully formed, with only the lowest step being ambiguous or joined with the step above. Now, a 5 step nickel can be 5-5-5-5, or 5-6-6-6, or anything in between. ANACS recognizes 5-5-5-6 or less as “5 full steps”, anything sufficiently 5-5-6-6 or 5-6-6-6 as “5.5 full steps” and, of course, 6-6-6-6 as 6 full steps. As mentioned, PCGS recognizes 5 full steps as FS but does not provide the designation and NGC recognizes only 6 full steps as FS.

 

In the course of my collecting, I indeed look primarily for 6 step nickels and prefer to purchase NGC holdered coins for that reason. However, I have come to realize that NGC has only set its own standard and does not serve the aficionado of the series in a positive way. In fact, NGC is not even serving its own business in a positive way. Herein lies opportunity! If NGC will “ramp up” to the standards that SEGS has embraced, then it will be the only grading service with a full-fledged registry to have such an option offered. How will this affect previously graded NGC coins? Not at all. Those without a step formula would simply be known as they are – 6 full steps! No ambiguity or loss of information, rather a pure gain that would speak to an ever-growing collector community. And it is no mystery that many collectors, myself included, prefer NGC as a grading service. However, I send all of my 5 FS nickels to PCGS. Why? The answer is obvious: the service is in concert with the tradition of the designation and I can build a collection of FS Jeffs that I can also place in the NGC registry. Truthfully, this sucks. NGC could be very competitive business-wise in these regards and simultaneously better serve the art of Jefferson nickel collecting.

 

Now for major varieties….

 

There is almost too much to be said here. However, I will briefly outline the major reverse and obverse varieties that deserve note when holdering coins.

 

The obverse of the Jefferson nickel was first executed in 1938. This obverse held fast until 1957. The reverse, however, was modified in 1939, straightening out the wobbly steps of Monticello and making them deeply incuse. The reverse attended change again in 1942-1945 for all of the silver-manganese-copper issues, where the mint mark (the first for Philadelphia in the history of the Mint) was placed large above Monticello. In 1946 the reverse was restored to the pre-wartime design with the mint mark to the right of Monticello. In 1957 and 1958, minor changes were made to the obverse where the star between LIBERTY and the date was enlarged and sharpened; this change was oddly retracted in 1959. In 1966 Felix Schlag’s initials were added to the obverse below the shoulder of Jeff. (All those years previous, Mr. Schlag’s initials were absent, even though he designed the entire nickel!) The SMS coins of 1967 have a slightly different curvature to the steps, but nothing major. Business strikes remained the same (essentially as in 1940) through 1970. In 1971 the steps were sharpened along with many of the details on Monticello. This was a major design improvement and is noteworthy to the Jefferson specialist. It is relatively easy to find coins of 1971 with 5+ full steps. Dies degraded quickly, however, from the 1971 modifications, steadily worsening through 1976. In 1977 the relief of the obverse was decreased, although the hair details were sharpened. This was a noticeable change that accompanied changes in the details of Monticello and another strengthening of the steps. There are still relatively few 6 step nickels from this time, although 5 steppers can be readily found. This reverse remained until 1982, although it was retooled in 1982 to improve the sharpness of the reverse design. In 1982 there were two obverses produced: the obverse of 1977 and that of 1982. The latter obverse has the lettering distinctly moved away from the rim in order to correct die deterioration that was joining letters with the rim. The obverse and reverse combinations of 1982 make for 4 varieties, all of which are noteworthy. Since 1982, there have been a number of obverse and reverse details sharpened and the relief has been lowered until the coin as currently viewed from an edge is flat as a pancake. The Mint improved striking technology in 1991 and there are bunches of 6 step nickels in the years 1991-date. The nickel now suffers from quality controls of metallic uniformity, now leading to pitted surfaces (especially along flow lines), and the mass production has led to a bunch of banged up nickels. Finding a coin of MS66 or greater quality in recent issues can be a chore, especially given the quantity manufactured.

 

What can the grading services do about variety designation? (1) Note the reverse of 1938 and 1940 (only NGC needs to catch up to this one); (2) All of the services imply the wartime composition changes by noting the mint mark in the issues of 1942; (3) Note the obverse of 1940 for any nickels dated 1957 and 1958 if they exist, and otherwise note the obverse of 1957; (4) Note the obverse and reverse die combinations for 1982 (four of them). All other obverse and reverse design implementations are implicit for the year of manufacture.

 

Taking the opportunities….

 

The opportunities for NGC to become the leader in this growing and somewhat hot field of collecting are obvious. Here is low-hanging fruit. Enough said.

 

Parting comment….

 

As is obvious, there are many ways to consider what I’ve said above, not the least of which is to point out the deficiencies of detail considering the grading of the series. That’s another set of issues, however, and undoubtedly plague all other series. For now, we have acceptable standards of recognizing an important feature of strike: full steps. But the grading services are lost in the mire of their individual histories; I simply suggest a way out – particularly for my favorite service, NGC. What’s more, I suggest that NGC overtakes SEGS by labeling inserts with the major obverse and reverse design notations and potentially also include remarks as to the condition of the step formation as SEGS does. Important and helpful stuff to the collector community and to the fair trade of this important series of coins.

 

Hoot

 

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Aside from the additional record keeping needed in the database, I can't think of a downside to preclude NGC from adopting this idea.

 

Nicely written diatribe, Mark. Being a member of the JRCS, I naturally dispute your claim of this coin's diversity. But, that's a mere side issue that need not dilute the strength of your presentation.

 

EVP

 

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Wow. Nicely put. Not that I make any of these decisions, but you do a very professional job of making your point. smile.gif

 

Arch

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  • Member: Seasoned Veteran

Hoot,

 

Well written letter.

 

As I'm not a grader at NGC, I won't comment on the grading issues raised. Perhaps, John Maben may want to address those. As for the varieties, NGC will designate any variety listed in the Cherrypickers's Guide or the Red Book. These include the transitional reverses for the proofs of 1939-40, though not the currency pieces.

 

We do not routinely identify these transitional varieties, but we do it when the customer uses our VarietyPlus service. This costs just $5 for coins submitted raw, and such designations may be added to an already holdered NGC coin for $10, which includes the cost of reholdering.

 

If you want NGC to recognize some of these other varieties you mentioned, the way to go about it is to get them into one or both of the above mentioned books. At that point they become sufficiently well documented to be of interest to the overall hobby.

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Thank you David! Thanks EVP & Arch! How does one go about getting varieties listed in the Cherrypicker's guide? The reference that I use primarily is The Jefferson Nickel Analyst, 2nd ed., by Bernard Nagengast, along with the information I've gathered in collecting the series. The services that I mention above (by SEGS, ANACS, and PCGS) are simply part of their grading a Jefferson nickel and are not a variety attribution service. I think of the latter as more oriented toward the recognition of varieties in the Cherrypicker sense - doubled dies, RPMs, overdates, missing or misplaced mint marks, etc. I would certainly be willing to pay extra to have an improved service if that's how NGC were to see it, but I'm really talking about NGC catching up with and overtaking the current level of service offered elsewhere. Perhaps offer it as a special "Jefferson Nickel Tier" where the cost is $17.00 (or whatever) economy and $30.00 earlybird. Just a thought, but I think that the services I mentioned are simply becoming standard elsewhere. I'd like to see NGC at the forefront.

 

Hoot

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Mark -

Very well written and informative post. I appreciate the time it took you to compose your thoughts and craft your note. You make a number of very good points that I find very hard to argue with. I'll admit that your interest in Jeff's was the spur that goaded me into collecting the wartime set - but, I have lots of catching up to do in the reading department to have the level of understanding and appreciation of the series that you do.

 

What you've said makes sense - at the very least - the manner in which 5 to 6 step examples are noted on the slab. Also, I would hope that this would be part of the service and not something that would have to be paid for incrmentally ala variety attribution.

 

C'mon NGC...it makes sense to do it, it would cause a number of Jefferson's to come your way that have been going elsewhere because of your strict interpretation of 6 steps for the coin to warrant Full Steps designation, and will probably cause a number of re-submits of those coins that have 5 or 5 1/2 steps that someone wants to have indicated as such.

 

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How does one go about getting varieties listed in the Cherrypicker's guide?

 

The Cherrypickers' Guide is co-authored by Bill Fivaz and J. T. Stanton. You could talk to either (Bill attends the ANA shows and larger shows in the Southeast), but the ultimate selection is up to J. T. He may be reached at POB 15477, Savannah, GA 31416. Volume 1, covering half cents through nickels, has already been published in the current edition, but he will still assign Cherrypicker numbers to worth varieties. NGC will recognize these varieties once a number has been assigned.

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Hi Hoot

 

Thank you very much for the in-depth info on FS's. I have been bitten by these coins too. In fact purchased some from you. Keep educating collector's about these super coins. Always looking for more FS Jeffs. Keep up the great work.

TomG tg64155@aol.com

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I love SEG's Jefferson FS designations as well. Although their grading isn't up to par, they've done great stuff with their info. they put on their holders. The only problem I find with listing all the varieties and the such is confusion. Let's be honest, some varieties can be confusing if you have way too many. I don't see a problem listing most major varieties, but sub-varieties and the such is just way too much confusion for the type collector. However, I fully understand Jefferson afficianados' points. I guess it's really up to the person submitting or buying the coins. I'm not exactly fond of the series, but I do enjoy it somewhat. As always, take care. smile.gif

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Yes! cladking. The later date nickels are generally collectable in grades of MS65 and higher. Most can't cut the grade due to the beating they take. They often have prooflike surfaces and can gain some very rich toning in a hurry!

 

Hoot

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Does anyone know what 1990-D PCGS MS65 FS Jeffs are selling for these days? I sold one for $50 a few months ago. I could find no previous precedent for the price, so I wasn't sure if that was the proper price to sell it at. Thanks smile.gif

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Outstanding post. You have really opened my eyes to the complexites of the FS Jeff. I've gotten biten by the FS bug. Now have over 20 of these gems. Seriously, a real educational experience. I look forward to you sharing even more info on this series. TG

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