Designed by Charles E. Barber, the Liberty Head Nickel had a composition of 75% copper and 25% nickel.
The obverse design features an idealized bust of Lady Liberty facing left wearing a coronet with the inscription LIBERTY with wheat and cotton bolls above. Encircling the obverse design are 13 stars with 6 stars to the left and seven to the right (13 stars were representative of the original 13 states of the Union).
The reverse design features a large roman numeral V, due to the large "V" some collectors affectionately refer to this series as V Nickels. Encircling the V is a wreath of various agricultural products tied together at the bottom with a bow. Just above the wreath is the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM. The legend “United States of America” is positioned at the top half of the periphery, with the word “Cents” at the bottom edge. Two dots, one on each side, are equally spaced between the two text legends.
Two varieties exist for the series, the 1883 no cents (variety 1) and 1883-1912 with cents (variety 2) but the variety 1 coins actually come with an interesting (but not validated) story.
Variety 1 coins were very similar in size to a $5 gold coin and without the word cents on the coin many scam artists capitalized on this by gold plating the nickels in an attempt to pass them off as $5 gold coins. This scam quickly dubbed variety 1 issues with the term "Racketeer Nickels". As the story goes, a Boston man named Josh Tatum (who was also a deaf mute) linked up with a friend who gold electroplated thousands of the new “V” nickels. Tatum successfully passed many of these off as five-dollar gold coins, buying small items to receive at least four real dollars in change.
Eventually, the law caught up with Tatum. He was put on trial, but was found not guilty on the major charges. It seems he never told merchants the gold-plated coin was worth five dollars, nor did he ask for any change; he simply presented the coin and happily accepted the money offered in return. The court accepted Tatum’s argument that he did not speak falsely of the coin, for as a deaf mute, he couldn’t talk!
Soon the slang term “joshing” and the phrases "Are you joshing me?" and "I'm only joshing you" became a popular synonym for the word "kidding" all thanks to Josh Tatum.
General Market Notes
There are no extremely rare circulation coins issued and many years had significant mintages making the series readily available and affordable to all types of collectors.
For collectors on a low budget look at the later years of production from 1901 to 1912 for the least expensive examples in a grade of very fine to extra fine.
For investors, the key to the series (excluding proofs) are the 1885 & 1886 issues and the semi-key years are: 1894 and 1912-S issues. If you include proofs then the key is the 1913 proof.
Looking for a sleeper? Look at the 1912-D issue with the fifth lowest mintage of 8,474,000. the 1912-D is the first non-Philadelphia minted nickel and obviously the first Denver minted nickel that attracts the interests of nickel and mint collectors so demand should continue for years to come.