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The mystery of the 1880 MS shield nickels ...

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Since Arch & Co. were kind enough to give me a really cool new custom title, I thought I should prove my worth by offering a much needed discourse on the situation and die characteristics of 1880 business strike shield nickels -- by far the rarest of any U.S. circulation issue five-cent nickel.


So, here goes: laugh.gif


It's time someone shed some light on the mystery of the circulation strike 1880 shield nickels. Trust me, I have spent years hunting for them, and have studied the situation thoroughly.


The reported mintage was a mere 16,000 business strikes plus 3,955 proofs. This circulation strike mintage of 16,000 is by far the lowest of any regular issue U.S. five-cent nickel. Compare the lowest mintage Liberty nickel (1912-S) at 238,000; the lowest Indian head / bison nickel (1926-S) at 970,000; and the lowest Jefferson nickel (1950-D) at 2,630,030.


Predictably, the 1880 business strike is a difficult coin to find. However, if you look for them as I have, you rapidly discover that the coin is virtually IMPOSSIBLE to locate. This is rather odd. Further, there is a dearth of evidence or consensus as to die characteristics of business strikes versus proofs, and one finds that it may in fact be very difficult to tell whether or not a particular 1880 is a proof or a mint state coin. I hope I can shed some light on this.


Walter Breen, the great numismatist and compiler of encyclopedic data in every area of numismatics, actually made a lot of mistakes. Much of the information in his texts needs to be read with a critical eye, and not taken in blind faith. However, in the case of 1880 shield nickels, he (almost) got it right. Breen reports exactly two obverse dies for the 1880, and I concur that there are no others. In his 1988 Encyclopedia, Breen classifies them as follows:


Breen-2515 1880 [16000+3955P] Normal date. Dull proofs are apt to be miscataloged as rare business strikes. See next.


Breen-2516 1880 "Dropped 8." Proofs only. Second 8 first entered very low, then corrected. Thought to have begun life as a double date, but no specimen shows traces of other extra digits. Forms a large minority of proofs; same comment as to preceding.


In the 1989 revised edition of his 1977 proof encyclopedia, he further describes these two dies (in the context of proofs) as follows: "First die: normal date, first 8 touches ball. Second die: second 8 first cut far too low, then corrected; first 8 about touches ball. Often with partly rounded rims; varies from brilliant to comparatively dull and granular, carelessly made. Many of the latter quality are resold as the very rare business strikes." [Actually, as we will see, these may very well have been business strikes after all !!!]


So from Breen, we have the following two dies: the "normal date" die in which the first 8 touches the ball at the base of the shield, and the "dropped 8" in which the first 8 "about touches" (barely grazes) the ball, and the second 8 is clearly repunched (the first punch being south).


Breen states that the normal date die (Breen-2515) is used on both proofs and business strikes, while the dropped 8 die (Breen-2516) is found on proofs only. However, Fletcher reports business strikes struck from the dropped 8 die; see variety F-02. Therefore, BOTH OBVERSE DIES WERE USED FOR PROOFS AND FOR BUSINESS STRIKES. This means that no obverse die diagnostic will determine the proof status of an 1880.


The Breen-2515 die is identified further by a small spine protruding north from the right side of the ball at the base of the shield; and sometimes by a substantial spine or die chip protruding from the denticles at 7:00 (to the left of the date). This die chip is sometimes thought to represent a later die state, and therefore to be diagnostic of business strikes. NOT TRUE !!! Sunnywood has owned an 1880 PCGS PR67, which was clearly a fully mirrored proof striking in virtually flawless condition. This coin was Breen-2515, with the die chip being quite prominent to the left of the date. There was also some die polish in the lower loop of the second 8, but it was definitely not the dropped 8 die.


There is also a subtle diagnositc characteristic on this "normal date" die, previously unreported: a small raised die line running across the front (large) leaf on the third cluster from the top, on the right side. The raised line runs horizontally, perpendicular to the leaf vein; and starts at the vein and runs right, to the leaf edge. We have verified this die line on several proofs, as well as several circulated coins (some proof, some business strike) from Breen-2515.


Conversely, Breen-2516 ("dropped 8") has no spines on the ball or rising from the denticles, nor does it exhibit the above described raised die line. Sunnywood has owned an NGC PF67 that clearly displayed and verified these die characteristics, including the dropped 8, and the first 8 barely grazing the ball. A PCGS XF40 from Sunnywood also appeared to have been struck from this die, but appeared not to exhibit the dropped 8 (perhaps the die was repolished, and the coin was too worn to see the remnant).


After studying our coins, I do NOT believe that Breen-2515 is a later die state of Breen-2516. They are clearly very distinct dies. This contradicts Bob Julian's archival research which indicated only one obverse die was used.


So, how does one tell a proof from a business strike? Well, since they were all struck from the same two dies, forget about die diagnostics. The fact that our PCGS PR67 Breen-2515 had the large spine (die chip) at the denticles shows that the die was repolished to strike additional proofs, perhaps after business strikes were made. Therefore, even die states won't necessarily yield the answer. The usual assumption that proofs were made first, then the dies were used for business strikes after, is clearly false on Breen-2515.


Also, some business strikes may be prooflike on one or both sides; while some proofs may be somewhat satiny. This is true because the polished proof dies were then used to coin business strikes; and because planchet preparation and quality control was poor for nickel coinage of that era.


Further, die cracks - which are usually diagnostic of business strikes - seem to be completely absent on 1880 nickels. If anyone can show me an 1880 with die cracks, I will offer a generous sum to buy it !!! That would be a "no-questions" business strike, and I have NEVER seen one. The small mintage seems to have resulted in the dies being able to produce the requisite number of coins without cracking.


The key, then, is to look at the EDGE of the coin (which cannot be seen in an encapsulated slab). This is clearly demonstrated in the Peters & Mohon book on Shield & Liberty nickels. You must look for the presence or absence of the vertical striations on the edge that are characteristic of the proof collar. However, we have seen a number of AU coins that exhibit these lines. Could they all be proofs? One begins to think that the coiners may have left the proof collar on, and just kept going !!!


So: one possible answer to the mystery of the 1880 nickel, is that some business strikes may be out there right under our noses, but they are mistakenly classified as proofs !!! This is ironic, as Breen states that a usual dealer tactic is to try and pass off a poorly manufactured proof as the rare business strike !!!


Where does this leave us? If you seek an MS 1880: Beware of prooflike surfaces, but they are not necessarily ruled out. Beware of the vertical striations and square edges associated with the proof collar, but I am not sure they are ruled out. Keep searching for a really satiny, lustrous, not-quite-fully-struck coin, preferably with die cracks to confirm its circulation strike status, and then CALL ME AND I WILL BUY IT !!!!!


According to Gary Carlson, he and Sil have seen only 2-3 MS63+ 1880 shield nickels in 20 years, and only one (an NGC MS65) was truly "mint-statey" as he put it ... with no-questions MS appearance on both sides !!!! Whoever owns this coin, please contact me for a large profit !!!





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Information like this ought to be shared to a wider audience.


Absolutely! Excellent research and write-up Sunnywood! Please share with a wider audience! When's that book coming out?



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Here are two photos of Breen-2515 ("normal date"), followed by one of Breen-2516 ("dropped 8"):


PCGS AU55 - notice the spine at 1:00 on the right side of the ball, and the first 8 actually touching the ball. There is some green PVC residue visible in the first 8 of the date and to the left of the ball in the shield edges.




SEGS MS64 - again notice the spine at 1:00 on the right side of the ball, and the first 8 actually touching the ball. Here you can also see the spine or die chip at the far left, protruding from the denticles. I was never 100% sure, but I believe this coin could be a proof. Look at the strong impression of the date. Conversely, a die flaw seems to be developing under the first 8 ... could it be a business strike?




ANACS MS62 - This coin was encapsulated as MS by ANACS and auctioned on Teletrade several years ago. The obverse die is Breen-2516, with the second 8 repunched (sadly, not clearly visible in this photo). Notice the first 8 barely grazes the ball. Look at the superbly formed denticles and the frosty devices. Mint state ??? Hmmmmmmm. I don't THINK so !!! Probably one of those coins Breen was referring to that gets passed off as an MS ... but then, I never saw the edges !!!







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It is at least passingly ironic that this EXCELLENT post got as many replies from someone other than the author on the PCGS board as it got here. For whatever reason, the PCGS board still seems to be busier than this board. But regardless of where we choose to post, I think EVERYONE recognizes the quality of Sunnywood's post!



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Excellent post, Sunnywood. Very informative!


Considering how difficult it is to distinguish between the MS and proof versions when they are both in nice condition, do you think it's possible that some of the less-than-MS coins out there are actually impaired proofs?

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Yes that is quite possible. I'm still not 100% sure of the situation, but I own two AU Breen-2515 coins with honest light wear, yet they both have the square edges and vertical striations on the edges that are indicative of the proof collar. Therefore, they would normally be attributed as circulated proofs. However, I purchased both of these coins out of Stack's auctions, where they were catalogued as "AU".


In my opinion, it is possible that since there were so few business strikes being made that year, the manufacturing technique was not that distinct from the proofs ... in other words, perhaps the coiners continued using the proof collar to strike additional coins that became part of the 16,000 business strikes. This might account for the fact that some circulated coins such as the two I described have the edges of proofs.


The reason I suggest this is that I have NOT seen this phenomenon on AU coins of other dates. There is no reason why 1880 PROOFS would have had a higher likelihood of seeing circulation than other proofs. Why would so many 1880 proofs have found their way into circulation?


Another possible answer to this, which disputes my own hypothesis, is that since the proofs made up such an unusually large percentage of the total mintage, if some proofs found their way into circulation every year, you would be much more likely to find them among the 1880's. Also, we spend more time looking at 1880's than other years ... so maybe it is not unreasonable that we find so many possible circulated proofs.


So, regarding the two AU coins referenced above, I would have to say that they have the characteristics of circulated proofs, but there is in my opinion a very good chance that these were in fact business strikes, and that the coiners did not follow normal procedures on account of the low mintage.


If anyone would like to purchase one of these coins to fill a hole in a nice XF/AU date set, let me know ... I can provide the provenance information to substantiate the Stack's cataloguing.






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Just read this for the first time. Quite interesting and I agree that more of these discussions are highly desirable.


I have had discussions with Ed Hipps, now of Dallas, but previously a national dealer with a lot of experience in nickel coinage. He felt that if there were not any evidence of multiple striking, then it was a business strike.


I have had a few of these over the years and they have always found appreciative buyers.


I agree that the examination of the edge is very valuable, as well. Nickel coinage of the 1880's are extremely difficult to categorize. Additionally, proof coinage of the 1880's got a bit sloppy, as well.

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