1867 5C Rays PR66 Cameo. A glittering untoned gem example. About 25 or so Proofs made. Pop 2; 2 finer in 66*.
Introduced in 1866, the Five-cent piece struck in nickel would soon replace the silver Half Dime, whose time ended in 1873. This workhorse denomination has remained an integral part of the United States' circulating coinage ever since. The origins for this denomination can be found in the turmoil of the war between the US and Confederate States. When specie payments were suspended during the early part of that conflict in 1861-62, silver coins rapidly disappeared from circulation in the eastern part of the country. The Half Dime was eventually replaced in circulation not by this Shield Nickel but by Five-Cent Fractional Currency notes. Although widely disliked, these notes kept on circulating after Lee's surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in 1865, because specie payments remained in suspension. In order to provide an increasingly strident public with an alternative to this currency, Congress followed the precedent set by the Three-Cent Nickel in 1865 and authorized a Five-Cent Nickel with the Act of May 16, 1866. (Breen, 1988, goes into great detail to explain how the originally proposed weight for this denomination at 30 grs. was continuously increased until Congress eventually settled on 77.16 grs. The author opines that this increased weight was chosen as a sop to Joseph Wharton, the owner of a monopoly on nickel mines.)
James B. Longacre, the Mint's proficient engraver, readied the first design for the denomination whose name has since been shortened simply to Nickel. The obverse displays a shield with crossed arrows at its base, an inverted laurel wreath around, and a broad cross at the top. For his reverse, Longacre selected a large numeral 5 to form the centerpiece, thereby distinguishing this design from the Roman numeral III on the Three-cent Nickel coin introduced the previous year. Thirteen stars form a circle around this digit, 13 rays interspersed between the stars, all harking back to the original 13 colonies. The legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA is at the top, and the word CENTS is at the bottom.
The reverse rays proved problematic from the start on the production coins, impairing striking quality for many 1866 and early 1867 circulation strikes. This aspect of the design also drew pointed criticism from many who believed that the "stars and bars" reverse of the original Shield Nickel was intended to honor the recently defeated Confederacy. When these complaints, and probably others, reached Treasury Secretary McCulloch, he promptly ordered that the rays be removed from the reverse, this decision coming on January 21, 1867. Production was thus interrupted so that the new design without the rays could be implemented beginning February 1.
Although coming early in the year, Secretary McCulloch's order to drop the rays from the reverse of the Shield Nickel allowed time for a reasonably large mintage for the business strike 1867 Rays Nickel. As such, that issue is usually readily obtainable in today's market. The Proof 1867 Rays Nickel, however, is a different story entirely. Per R.W. Julian, these coins were not officially prepared in January of that year for inclusion in Proof sets because Chief Coiner Snowden would not work with the notoriously troublesome design. Julian (as quoted in Peters and Mohon, The Complete Guide to Shield and Liberty Nickels,1993) further believes that the 1867 Rays Nickels were struck, probably covertly, on the order of Mint Director Henry R. Lindermann for distribution to his collector friends. Given the fact that such practices were quite common during Lindermann's two separate terms as Mint Director, this story seems plausible.
Given the circumstances under which it was probably struck, it should come as no surprise that the original mintage for the Proof 1867 Rays Nickel is not known with certainty. Peters and Mohon (1993) asserts that the total is probably on the order of 15-25 pieces. What we do know for certain is that this issue is the foremost rarity in the Proof Shield Nickel series, as well as one of the rarest Nickels of any type in the history of that denomination.
Despite the above mentioned complaints of Mint personnel, the fully brilliant specimen that we are offering in this lot is a very sharply struck Proof. In fact, there are no ill-defined features on either side, not even the reverse star centers exhibiting any softness in their detail. Mirrored finish in the fields contrasts markedly with a frosty cameo finish over the devices. As is expected for the Proof 66 grade, there are no distracting blemishes, and a complete freedom from carbon spotting. A small strike through (as made) in the obverse field before the date should also help trace the pedigree of this undeniable rarity among US Nickels.
The NGC-certified population for this issue suggests more coins in all grades than were probably struck. This total has probably been inflated by resubmissions -- a common practice -- and it makes estimation of the number of coins extant difficult, if not impossible to resolve. In the case of the present specimen, nevertheless, that certification service has seen a mere two pieces in PR-66 Cameo, and two that are reported slightly finer by use of the Star indicator.
From The Slotkin Family Trust Collection. (Registry values: P6) (#83818).
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