After the lukewarm reception that greeted the Shield nickel in 1866, you might think Mint officials would have done everything in their power to get it right in 1883, when the first Liberty Head nickels were released into circulation. Perhaps they did, but the initial version of the coin earned the Mint another black eye, although this time it wasn’t for their new coin’s aesthetics.

Designed by mint engraver Charles E. Barber, the coin’s obverse featured Lady Liberty facing left in profile, with a coronet on her head bearing the word “LIBERTY” and a few sheaves of wheat and cotton bolls tucked behind it. Surrounding Liberty were 13 stars, while the bottom of the coin indicated its year.

So far so good. The coin’s reverse, however, proved a problem. Among other things, it featured an agricultural wreath surrounding a "V," the Roman numeral for five. There was ample precedent for using Roman numerals to designate a coin’s value—for example, three-cent pieces, which were still in circulation at the time, had the Roman numeral “III” on their reverses.

Unfortunately, the coin’s denomination was not explicitly identified by the word “CENTS.” At first this prompted collectors of the day to horde the coins, since many simply assumed that these nickels had to be errors and would one day be valued as such. In fact, this hording assured that plenty of coins would remain in excellent condition, which is one reason why 1883 nickels without the word “CENTS” on them are not especially rare today.

But the coin’s denomination omission also prompted counterfeiters to reed the edges of these new nickels before gold-plating them so they could be passed off as $5 Half Eagles, whose obverses also had Liberty Heads on them. Today these coins are known as “Racketeer” nickels.

More than five-million Liberty Head nickels were minted without the word “CENTS” on them. By the middle of 1883, the Mint had rectified its mistake, and after relocating the phrase “E PLURIBUS UNUM” from the bottom of the coin’s reverse to a strip of blank real estate above the wreath, the word “CENTS” was added.

Liberty Head nickels were minted in plentiful numbers from 1883 until the end of their run in 1912, except in the years 1885 and 1886, when fewer numbers of all minor coinage wer...

Curiously, five 1913 nickels were struck in Philadelphia (one sold at auction in 2001 for $1.84 million) despite direct orders from Mint Director George H. Roberts not to do so. That spurred a race among dealers and collectors to find, possess, and profit from these legendary coins. The search lasted until 1920 and caused many 1903, 1910, and 1912 nickels to be altered by counterfeiters to resemble the five true 1913s.

As for all those Racketeer nickels? Thousands are still around, so these famous fakes can still be acquired, but contemporary collectors should be wary of counterfeit Racketeer nickels (yes, fake fakes) made in the late 20th century out of ordinary, gilded 1883s.

The Liberty Head was discontinued at the end of 1912, when it was replaced in 1913 with the Buffalo or Indian Head nickel.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Liberty Nickel Collector Society

Liberty Nickel Collector Society

Dedicated to liberty nickels, this site features everything from information about grading and identification to ma… [read review or visit site]

Legendary Coins and Currency

Legendary Coins and Currency

This online exhibition from the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History is a great way to get an overview… [read review or visit site]

Society of U.S. Pattern Collectors

Society of U.S. Pattern Collectors

Home to the Society of U.S. Pattern collectors, this well-organized site provides in-depth information on pattern c… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

1885 U.s. Proof Liberty "v" Nickel - Better Date - Pcgs Graded Pr 64Nice 1885 Liberty V Nickel1906 Ngc Liberty Nickel, Proof V Nickel, Ngc Pf 64 ** All-around Pleasing Coin! Liberty Nickel Collection 1883-1912 5c 31 Coins - Avg Circ *no Reserve!1895 Liberty Or V Nickel Gem Proof 100% Original Coin 1907 Liberty Nickel, Beautiful V Nickel ** Free Shipping!5c 1883 With Cents Liberty Nickel, Au Details * No Reserve!1885 Liberty Nickel Corroded But Full Date No Reserve1885 Pcgs Genuine Liberty 5c Nickel Id#x4151912-s Liberty Nickel Free Shipping1912-s 5c Liberty Nickel,icg Graded F12 Details,key Date,low Mintage,238,0001883 Liberty V Nickel No Cents (ngc Graded) Stunning In Frosty Mint Luster Ms 651886 Liberty Nickel Free S/h!!1883 - 1912 Liberty Nickel Almost Complete 29 Coins Plus Some Better Grades!1888 Liberty Nickel. Key Date.Lot Of (4) Liberty Head Nickels - 1900, 1902, 1906, 1912 - Unc1892 Ngc Liberty V Nickel Proof Ngc Pf 65 ** Free Shipping!1912-s Liberty Nickel Free S/h!!!Uncirculated 1883 No Cents Liberty Nickel Free ShippingUncirculated 1883 No Cents Liberty Nickel Free Shipping1883 5c No Cents Liberty Nickel Ngc Ms66Rare Very Old Antique Liberty Head Nickel American Us Coin Money Investment LotRare Very Old Antique Liberty Head American Us Collection Investment Coin Lot1907 Liberty V Nickel 107 Years Old***florida Lake Okeechobee Estate Hoard1900 Liberty Nickel ** Free Shipping!1912 S Liberty Nickel Fine1886 Liberty V Nickel Key Date (psUncirculated 1905 Liberty Nickel Free Shipping1883 Ngc Liberty Nickel Proof, "no Cents" V Nickel ** Free Shipping!1886 Liberty Nickel, Well Sought After Key Date V Nickel,24 Different V Nickel Collection Lot Book Coin Album 1889 - 1912d #7 Many Pics!Mixed Date Liberty Head V Nickel 40 Coin Roll R3Roll (40 Coins) Liberty Head "v" Nickels - Full Dates - No ReserveUnited States V Liberty Nickel 1885 As Shown You Do The Grading1885-p U.s. Liberty Nickel Coin ++ngc Slabbed G-4++ RareUs Coins 1912-s Liberty Head Nickel Key Date Nice !!1883 With Cents Liberty "v" Nickel Pcgs Au-58 Beautiful Coin Tougher Date!1883 Liberty Nickel, Nice V Nickel, ** Free Shipping!1912-s 5c Liberty V Nickel, Fine, Key Date 5 Cents 5c San Francisco Coin(121136kRoll (40 Coins) Liberty Head "v" Nickels - Full Dates - No Reserve1886 V Nickel Rare Key Date Coin 1892 Liberty Or V Nickel. Full Liberty.1889 1899 1902 1903 1904 Liberty V Nickels United States Coin Lot No Reserve Nr1883 Liberty Nickel - No Cents - Brilliant Uncirculated - Bu -1910 Liberty Nickel, Nice V Nickel,1883 V ~liberty Head Nickel~ Variety One (without "cents") ~ Nr!1884 Liberty Nickel 5c - Vf Details *no Reserve!1913-s Buffalo Nickel Type 2 Ii Keydate 5 Cent U.s. Coin1912-s W/liberty Key Date Liberty Head Nickel From Big Collection5c 1912-s Liberty Nickel, Good-vg * No Reserve!1886 Liberty V Nickel1885 Liberty V Nickel Key Date (ps1883 Liberty Nickel, No Cents V Nickel, ** Free Shipping!1883 Liberty Nickel, No Cents V Nickel, ** Richly Toned!Lot Of 2 -1883 5c Liberty Nickels , No CentsLot Of 5 Liberty V Nickel 1892 1888 1891 1894 1890 (p1912-s Liberty V Nickel // (vg) Very Good // (v947)Lot Of 100 Circulated Us Liberty Head V Nickels Assorted Condition No Reserve!(2) Liberty Head Nickels 5c 1902 / 1912 - Au / Details *no Reserve!Huge Job Lot (12) Us Liberty V Nickel Coin Set 1901~1912