The 1885 Liberty Nickel is the well known key date coin of the series that often stands in the way of assembling a complete collection of circulation strikes. While it does not have the lowest mintage of the series, its low survival rate makes the coin particularly elusive and highly valued across all grades. The scarcity of the circulation strike also results in a premium for the proof version of the coin, which had a fairly typical mintage level for the era.
The Liberty Head Nickel series had been introduced in 1883 to replace the previous Shield Nickel series. The new design featured a bold portrait of Liberty facing to the left. Her hair is bound in a bun and she wears a crown inscribed “LIBERTY” accented with sprigs of cotton and wheat. Thirteen stars surround the image with the date placed below.
The reverse design featured the large Roman Numeral “V” to denote the denomination surrounded by an open wreath composed of ears of corn and wheat and bolls and leaves of cotton. The surrounding inscriptions originally included “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” above and “E PLURIBUS UNUM” below. A well told numismatic tale holds that some of the original Liberty Nickels were gold plated and passed off as $5 gold pieces. This led to the inclusion of the additional inscription “CENTS” below the wreath to clearly define the denomination.
After producing a mintage of more than 20 million coins in the first year of the series and more than 10 million in the second, in 1885 the mintage level fell to just under 1.5 million pieces. In subsequent years, the mintage level rebounded and remained at relatively high levels for the much of the remainder of the series. The low mintage of the 1885 Liberty Nickel was little noted at the time, leading the small original mintage to circulate extensively. Over time some of these pieces were lost or worn beyond recognition, limiting the supply that would be available to future collectors.
Decades after the original distribution when coin collecting came into fashion, collectors building sets of Liberty Nickels by date quickly came to recognize the more elusive dates of the series. Chief among these was the 1885 nickel, which was scarcely encountered. Higher end collectors would also come to recognize the scarcity of uncirculated or mint state examples of the issue.