When many collectors today think of nickels, minds frequently turn to the familiar bust of President Thomas Jefferson seen on the coin since 1938. Older hobbyists or those more attuned to numismatics may conjure up images of the Buffalo nickel or even the Liberty Head ("V") nickel. But it takes a true type specialist to immediately entertain the notions of the Shield nickel at such a mental exercise. And, as hobbyists know, the Shield nickel was the very first five-cent "nickel" series, launching in 1866.
The mid-1860s was also an early high point for United States Mint proof coinage, which had debuted decades earlier but by 1858 had become a regular fixture on the mint's annual production lineup. Proof coinage of the mid-19th century is characteristically mirrorlike, with fantastic, resilient surfaces on the proof coinage and needle-like strike across the devices.
The 1866 Shield nickel was among these proof coins, and during its first year of production the series boasted the "With Rays" reverse, with beams of light emanating outward from the numeral "5" within the wreath; this subtype ended the following year, with 1867 Rays Shield proof nickels proving highly rare. Meanwhile, proof 1866 Shield nickels, all bearing the With Rays reverse, are much more affordable for the typical collector. While the 1866 proof Shield nickel is obtainable for many collectors of middle-income means or higher, this issue is conditionally rare in the higher proof grades.
The 1866 Shield nickel is a very rare coin in the Proof-66 Deep Cameo levels, with only two specimens graded by Professional Coin Grading Service at that level, one in Proof-66+ and just one higher. Heritage Auctions offered the outstanding 1866 Shield nickel graded PCGS Proof-66+ DCAM seen above from the magnificent Bob R. Simpson Collection in November 2020, when it sold for $36,000.
*Images are courtesy Heritage Auctions, www.HA.com.