The Liberty Head Nickel represented the second design for the newly introduced nickel denomination. The new type was introduced in 1883 and struck until 1913. Interestingly, both the first and last years of the series are a source of numismatic intrigue. Liberty Nickels were mostly produced at the Philadelphia Mint with production of the denomination added, for the first time, at the Denver and San Francisco Mints in 1912. Most issues of the series are readily attainable, except for three lower mintage issues, and the final issue, which only has five examples known.
The nickel denomination had been struck together with the half dime from 1866 to 1873. After the Mint Act of February 12, 1873 came into effect, the half dime denomination was discontinued and the nickel remained the only representative of the five cent denomination. The Shield Nickel design ended in 1883, the same year the Liberty Nickel designed by Charles Barber was introduced.
The obverse features a rending of Liberty, with a coronet containing the word LIBERTY and wheat and cotton woven into her hair. There are thirteen stars surrounding the image, with the date below. On the reverse of the coin is a large Roman numeral “V” surrounded by an agricultural wreath composed of ears of corn and wheat, and bolls and leaves of cotton. The legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA is around and E PLURIBUS UNUM is under the wreath. This design, as originally struck in 1883, carried no mention of the denomination.
The unspecified denomination led some of the new nickels to be gold-plated and passed off as $5 gold pieces. Some people accepted these, believing that they were genuine gold coins and worth $5 instead of 5 cents. The Mint soon caught the problem, and later in 1883 the reverse of the Liberty Nickel was changed. The motto E PLURIBUS UNUM was moved above the wreath and in its former place the word CENTS was added. This design was used for the duration of the series.
There are five known 1913 Liberty Nickels, and numismatists have been intrigued with them ever since their discovery. Illegally created either by or for Mint employee William Brown, they were never meant to exist. However, they are now considered by some to be regular issues. In this scenario, only five complete Liberty Head Nickel sets could be completed at the same time. This fact and the special circumstances of the coins creation, make most collectors correctly indicate them as fantasy pieces and not a regular US mint issue.