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1938-S Jefferson Nickel Enhanced Steps Study Notes

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Theories for the Origen of the Modified Steps
 

The basic facts about the coin.

  • The Reverse and Obverse designs match perfectly to the standard designs for 1938.

  • The mintmark style is accurate for 1938 San Francisco.

  • I place the Reverse in the early mid die state (EMDS) and the Obverse in the mid die state (MDS), so I estimate 100,000 coins have been struck by the die up to this point.

  • The coin appears to be AU-58 with some slight rub on the high points and with a patina consistent with long term storage in an album.

  • There are no obvious die gouges, die scratches, or other diagnostic markers present on either side.

  • Both ends of the steps show an enhanced design, with many fine lines within 3 wider steps, heretofore unknown to the Jefferson nickel or any other US coin design.

  • The central portion of the steps under pillars # 2 and # 3 appear to be unformed from the strike, which is consistent with the known striking problems of the Jefferson nickel.


Theory for a post-mint enhancement.

  • The proliferation of modern hobo nickel carvers in the last 15 years has led to the fact that a lot of coins have been tooled. 

  • Many of these carvers use high speed electric equipment which can produce very intricate work.

  • Modern counterfeiting has seen a substantial increase in quality as well as quantity.

  • But why leave the middle section of the steps untouched?  Perhaps because "perfect, full steps" would have brought a lot of attention to it as an alteration.

  • The change in step style has been the subject of intense search since the coins were produced in 1938-40. 

  • Jefferson nickels have been hunted for high step counts for the last 50+ years.

    • Collectors of the series routinely put a 7x to 10x loupe on every coin they look at.

    • Such a design change would have readily been seen and reported.

    • Why has it taken 79 years to surface?  Perhaps because only 1 was made and it was "lost" in an album.

  • In addition there has been a steady search for varieties.  It is hard to imagine that, if at least 100,000 coins were produced by this die that the design could have been overlooked for so long.

  • Furthermore, how did those fine step lines last 100,000 strikes without showing significant wear.

  • In order for these enhanced steps to have been on the die originally, the engraver would probably have been working with a hub, which was then hardened and used to make a working die.

  • The working die would then have had the mintmark placed on it, while it was still in a softened state. The die was hardened and used to strike coins.

  • Why was the mintmark placed on the die prior to it being used to strike coins, when it was a test die, rather than a production die? 

  • All dies were made in Philadelphia.  Why would Philadelphia be striking coins with an S mintmark, even if it was a test die? 

  • Would Philadelphia send a test die to San Francisco to test a new die design?  And if so, why?

  • It makes sense to conclude that someone has tooled the steps on this one coin.

 

Theory for a mint modified enhancement.

Bernard Nagengast has made the following observations.

  • The coin appears to be original, not altered or re-engraved.

  • If this was some sort of random die with a different design, why San Francisco and not Philadelphia?  Tom DeLorey posits that it could have been accidentally sent to San Francisco.

  • It is documented that the first approved design, after trial production, was modified.  There are no known examples of the first trial production, all examples apparently being destroyed.  Did a trial working die, with [this] step design, survive with a fate as posited by Tom?

  • There were a number of submitted designs for the Jefferson Nickel.  At least two, those submitted by Henry Kreis and Anthony DeFrancisci, had a reverse with 4 thick, straight steps (that count includes the porch and base step).  We know that the mint discarded Schlag's submitted reverse and then apparently screwed around with the other designs resulting in a composite of several designs, giving no credit to the other designs.  We don't know how far the "screwing" process went as far as trial dies and so on.

  • Historically speaking, anything is possible when it comes to the US Mint!  This could even be a hand modification of a working die by someone with engraving expertise and idle time.  After all this was 1938, the height of the secondary depression of 1938-1939.  With the low 1938 mintage, there could have been a lot of idle time at the mints!

Tom DeLorey has made the following follow-up comments.

  • The Buffalo nickel was struck at Denver into April of 1938, but the Jefferson nickel not until October at all three Mints.  They were released on Nov. 15th.

  • In the January, 1939 issue of The Numismatist there is a comment from a member that the new nickels were hard to come by on the west coast.

 

Conclusion:

  • I remain open, but I think probability leans toward post mint damage rather than a design modification.

  • Of course a second copy would add additional information and maybe give us a smoking gun one way or the other.

 

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