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Buffalo Nickels For Sale

History of the Buffalo Nickel

The buffalo nickel (also known as the Indian head nickel) was produced from 1913 through 1938 and was designed by James Earle Fraser.  It is actually a bison, not a buffalo, on the reverse but more on that later.   

Early in 1911, Treasury Secretary Franklin MacVeagh’s son wrote to him suggesting that there be a new design on the five-cent piece. The son had read the law which stipulated a coin design could not be changed more often than every 25 years.  The 25 year “waiting” period for the Liberty nickel has passed back in February of 1908. MacVeagh had assumed office under President William Howard Taft in March 1909, and missed all the excitement when President Theodore Roosevelt managed to get several top artists to redesign the cent and gold coins.  

Fraser's artistic ability earned the undying respect of a dying Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who recommended Fraser to President Theodore Roosevelt to sculpture the official presidential bust. Roosevelt and Fraser quickly became friends.  Despite the fact that William Howard Taft was president in 1912, Roosevelt recommended that Fraser be chosen to design the copper-nickel 5-cent coin.

It is interesting to note that the Philadelphia mint was kept in the dark for quite some time during the initial design change discussions.  Though not proven, it is widely speculated that this was done because of previous issues with Charles E. Barber over the double eagle design by Augustus Saint-Gaudens in 1908.  Barber was still the chief engraver and believed that he should have all authority of engraving and coin design and since he designed the nickel that was still in production, he was probably not in any big hurry to change it. 

The obverse design for the Indian Head 5-cent coin, commonly called a "Buffalo nickel," depicts a large, powerful portrait of an Indian, facing right. The appearance is rough looking, unlike the smooth cheeks and other facial features that typify the many versions of Lady Liberty that have been on U.S Coins.  The portrait is believed to be a composite of three Indian chiefs, although the identities of the models have been disputed. A few Native Americans laid claim to be the model for the coin. The artist himself identified two of the models as Chief Iron Tail, a Sioux and Chief Two Moons, a Cheyenne. 1913 P Buffalo Nickel Type I Unfortunately, Fraser had trouble remembering the names of his models.  He had been asked the question so many times, that it was evident he was growing tired of the whole issue rather than set the record straight.  In an undated letter to Mint Director George E. Roberts believed to be from 1913, suggests that Fraser considered the Indian design represented a type, rather than a direct portrait.  He said he could recall Two Moons and Iron Tail as having served as his inspiration and possibly “one or two others”.  In alter years he dropped the number of possible “other” models to one.   

The one Indian originally believed to be the third model was Chief Two Guns White Calf, a Blackfoot.  His claim lost a great deal of validity when in 1931, Fraser denied having used him as a model.  In a letter dated June 10, 1931, from Fraser to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs of the U.S. Department of Interior, and later released to the press on July 12, 1931, Fraser is quoted as saying: 

“The Indian head on the Buffalo nickel is not a direct portrait of any particular Indian, but was made from several portrait busts which I did not Indians.  As a matter of fact, I used three different Indian heads; I remember two of the men.  One was Irontail, the best Indian head I can remember; the other one was Two Moons, and the third I cannot recall.  I have never seen Two Guns Whitecalf nor used him in any way, although he has a magnificent head.  I can easily understand how he was mistaken in thinking that he posed for me.  A great many artists have modeled and drawn him, and it was only natural for him to believe that one of them was the designer of the nickel.  I am particularly interested in Indian affairs, having as a boy lived in South Dakota before the Indians were so carefully guarded in their agencies.  Later, the Crow Creek agency was formed at Chamberlain, but I always feel that I have seen the Indian in this natural habitat, with the finest costumes being worn.  I hope their affairs are progressing favorably.” 

Through the years the search for the third model continued although many still believe it was Two Guns.  Another Indian, Chief John Big Tree claimed he was the third model.   There are many inconsistencies in his story/claim as well.  Chief John Big Tree was also an actor.   

While we may never know for sure the identity of the third person, we do know a little about the model on the reverse  The American bison serves as the reverse of the coin.  Yes, it is a bison on the nickel, not a buffalo.  Technically, buffaloes are found mostly in India and Africa, not in the United States.  When the first settlers came to America and happened upon the Bison - they did not know what they were.  The only animals they could relate them to were the Asian Water Buffalo.  They started calling them buffalo for lack of a correct name, and the name stuck for many many years.  So, the American Buffalo is not a true buffalo. Its closest relative is the European Bison or Wisent and the Canadian Woods Bison, not the buffalo of Asia or Africa, such as the Cape Buffalo or Water Buffalo. Scientifically, the American Buffalo is named Bison and belongs to Bovidae family of mammals, as do domestic cattle. Because our history has so ingrained in us the name "Buffalo", we still use it, although "Bison" and "Buffalo" are used interchangeably.  As just stated, our American Bison and the Water Buffalos are not even related.  (There are actually two types of Bison as well.  The Plains Bison and the Woods Bison - one being smaller and darker than the other and having populated different regions of the US in the early years)  However, since so many people are familiar with their own learned definition of a "buffalo" you'll find we still sometimes use that term when referring to a bison.  As such, the term buffalo will be used when referring to the reverse of the coin.  Anyway…. 

A buffalo (bison) named Black Diamond, who was a resident of the New York Zoological Park served as the model.  Fraser utilized a little artistic freedom to depict the bison as though he was on the Great Plains.  A few years after the release of the nickel, Black Diamond was sold to a meat packing plant who then sold him as Black Diamond steaks despite numerous attempts to save him.  The stuffed head of Black Diamond was displayed at a major coin convention during the 1980’s.   

The American Indian fascinated Fraser, so much so that it was no surprise he chose an Indian design for the 5-cent coin design.  Fraser, who grew up in the Dakota Territory in the 1880's was a witness to the slaughter of the American buffalo and the destruction of the way of life of Native Americans of the Great Plains. By creating the Buffalo Nickel, Fraser was able to honor and preserve an important part of American history. 

The preliminary sketches were very impressive and Mint Director George E. Roberts, who also had held that post when President Roosevelt revamped the coinage, was highly enthusiastic.  Although the designs were, on general principle, quickly approved by Secretary MacVeagh, quite some time passed while various officials argued among themselves how the details should appear on the coin. By June 26, 1912, Roberts had tentatively approved plaster models of the new five-cent coin—although he did request that Fraser lower the relief somewhat.

During the summer of 1912, all was going well and a finished product was close at hand, or so it seemed.  The Hobbs Company of New York, a manufacturer of coin-operated vending machines,  got wind of the planned design change on the five-cent piece and wanted to review the designs for they feared the new design would not work in their vending machines.

Several months of bickering, changes, etc would ensue between Hobbs, Fraser, MacVeagh, etc. In December of 1912, MacVeagh grew tired of the mess and ordered that Fraser be allowed to complete his work.  In late 1912/early 1913, models went to Chief Engraver Charles Barber, who oversaw the preparation of dies and the striking of pattern coins early in January 1913.  It is known that Barber was cooperative in the effort, which was uncharacteristic of him considering that the coin being replaced was one he designed and he had no or little input into the new design.

All seemed well until, somehow, a pattern coin fell into the hands of one of the Hobbs folks and the design war began once again.  Changes were asked and the Mint Bureau agreed.  The changes were accommodated without sacrificing artistic creativity and once again all seemed well as it seemed the Hobbs folks were content.  Again, so it seemed.  Although the on-site engineer indicated that all seemed fine, once the engineer returned to company headquarters in New York, Hobbs’ officials did an abrupt about-face. The company now wrote the Mint that the latest pattern was totally unacceptable—and produced a long list of additional changes that also would have to be made.

Fraser complained to MacVeagh about the circus-like atmosphere. MacVeagh tended to agree, and asked Mint Director Roberts to settle the matter quietly by not asking the artist to do anything more. Roberts saw the matter differently and ordered Fraser to work on the latest list of Hobbs’ demands. It was now nearly the middle of February 1913, and there was no end in sight.  The artist complained once again to the Treasury.

Finally, on February 15th, MacVeagh set up a final conference that was held with all interested parties with the end result being MacVeagh ordering an end to the matter and that the most recent designs be used.  Production began on February 21, 1913 with  a single coining press at the Philadelphia Mint started turning out the nickels at the rate of 120 a minute.

When the coins reached circulation, public reaction was mixed.  Although MacVeagh promised the nickel would be "immensely interesting and beautiful." the New York Times condemned them as a "travesty on artistic effect."  Other critics said that the coin's "rough" surfaces would encourage counterfeiters (I guess a nickel went a long way back then).  Unfortunately, the biggest complaint, and one that would plague the nickel forever was the complaint about the nickels inability to withstand heavy use. One coin collectors' magazine predicted that the slightest wear would obliterate the date and the inscription Five Cents "beyond understanding."  Sure enough, although now in circulation for only a month it was noticed that the lettering for the words 'FIVE CENTS' on the Buffalo Nickels was wearing away. The words were positioned within the outline of the raised mound on which the buffalo was standing.  The early coins showed the bison standing on a grassy mound. For the new version, engraver Charles Barber cut away the base of the mound to make a straight line. He also lowered the words Five Cents so the rim would protect them from wear.

Collectors noticed right away that the inscription was clearer. But the changes did not help the date on the other side of the coin. Excessive wear of the numerals continued to plague Buffalo nickels.  Barber again made minor modifications in 1916 by lowering the relief of the head and strengthening several details, including the nose. In addition, the lettering of the word LIBERTY was made heavier.  Although the date problem was now well known, with all the modifications Barber made, he never addressed the problem of the date wearing down too rapidly. That was unfortunate as now we see all the games being played with acid, etc., in order to restore dates.  More on acid date recovery later.  By the end of 1937 planning for the Buffalo nickel's successor was well under way, as the design's required 25 years would end the following year. It was to be replaced by the third coin to bear a likeness of one of our presidents, Thomas Jefferson. The Jefferson nickel continues in production to this day.  

Buffalo Nickel Collectibility

 General

The Buffalo Nickel series makes a wonderful series to start with for the beginning collector as most coins in low grades are easily affordable.  A complete set in at least good condition or better with mostly 4 digit dates, not including errors could cost you up to $1000.00.  Many dates are readily available by buying rolls and searching them to fill common dates in your Buffalo Nickel folder/album.  A roll of common date buffalo nickels can be had relatively inexpensively.  The most important thing to clarify if purchasing rolls of Buffalo nickels is the readability of the dates.  If you recall from the discussion above, the dates on these nickels wore off easily.  Confirm with your supplier the grade, condition and readability of dates.  Are they FULL 4 digit dates or are they less than 4 digits?  Many nickels sell with just the last two dates of the date showing.  This is commonly referred to as "two digit date" Buffalo Nickels or "partial date".  When completing a collection of these nickels, strive for FULL four digit date examples.  Another thing to look out for, are nickels that have been treated with acid to restore the date.  During the 1950’s, there was increased interest in rare date Buffalo nickels.  Some companies began selling a special type of acid (ferric chloride) which ate away the metal around the missing date.  Due to die pressure during the minting process, the area surrounding where the date was is a little softer where as the metal where the date was is a little more dense.  Applying the acid treatment will eat away the softer metal quicker leaving a faint image of the original date.  As always, this should be left up to professionals.  Also, please note, acid treated nickels are worth FAR LESS than originals.  Acid treated nickels typically will be discolored around the date area due to the acid treatment. 

Key/Semi Key Dates

 While a vast majority of Buffalo Nickels can be purchased at reasonable prices, there are several key and semi-key dates that will set you back $100 or more if you want them in decent condition.  The 1913 Type 2 is the most expensive (not counting errors).  As was typical for new coin releases, collectors and the general public would hoard and put away first year coins when issued.  Consequently, there is a larger supply of all Type 1 nickels.  The general public, not noticing, or caring, did not hoard as many of the Type 2 nickels.  Recall from our discussion above that Barber made a modification after a month or so after the original issue to fix the problem of the wording of “FIVE CENTS” from wearing so fast.  The 1915-s is an interesting date as well.  It is tough to find but is not priced as such.  The 1915-s, with a mintage of only 1.5 million is priced well below the 1914-d, yet the 1914-d had a mintage of 3.9 million. 

Nickel production in the 1920’s hovered around 23-63 million per year at Philadelphia with much lower numbers at Denver and San Francisco.  In 1922, there were no nickels struck at any mint.   The rarest nickel of the decade is the 1926-s with a mintage of 970,000.  Two other nickels of the decade also have very low mintages (1921-s1919 P Buffalo Nickel PCGS MS64+ 1,557,000, 1924-s 1,437,000) making them quite expensive to acquire in higher grades where you can appreciate the details of the coin.  The 1921-s in XF lists for over $50 while the 1926 in XF lists for $970 but only $35 in VG-8.  As you can see, quality is expensive.

Making a top grade collection more difficult is that many nickels of the 1920’s are poorly struck.  Apparently, Mint technicians were ordered to make dies last as long as possible in order to save money. For this reason, the obverse and reverse dies were set a bit further apart than usual and many weak strikes resulted. Well-struck Buffalo nickels of some issues (such as the 1925–D) are very difficult to locate.

The Great Depression put a sudden halt to the minting of nickels, as well as many other coins.  Some of those that were produced, were produced in low numbers (1931 s cent, 1932 D quarter, 1932 S quarter) creating key dates in other denominations.  The only nickels struck from 1931 through 1933 were 1.2 million nickels produced at San Francisco (1931-S).  These nickels were heavily saved by collectors and dealers resulting in a decent supply of high grade coins.  The number of nickels struck in 1931 would have been even smaller but the Bureau of the Mint notified San Francisco Mint officials that not enough pieces had been made so the mint churned out more coins during the last few weeks of the year.  It was thought that collectors would complain that too few coins of this year and mint had been produced.  

Errors

 Like all denominations of US Coins, the Buffalo Nickel had a few interesting errors during its run.  The most notable of all Buffalo Nickel errors is of course the 3-legged nickel.  During the year 1937, it is believed the dies came together without a planchet in between, causing what are called clash marks.  When this happens an impression of the obverse (hammer) die will show up on the reverse (anvil) die and vice versa. If a coin is struck with these dies, the coin may show the clash marks. To fix this problem, a Mint employee must polish the dies, removing the evidence of the clash.  On this variety the employee may have gotten a little overzealous with his polishing and polished the right foreleg away!   While not as scare as other errors, the popularity of this one is enormous and you can expect to pay well over $500 for a low grade example.  Many collectors consider this coin to be part of a regular set.  Because of its popularity and demand, this is one coin that you will want to examine closely to make sure the leg was not removed after the fact.  There should be no file marks, scratches, etc in the area of the leg.  This is one coin that would be worth to have certified by a professional grading service.   

The 1914/3 overdate is a recent discovery.  It was first reported in 2000.  It is also difficult to see with the naked eye, which explains why it took so long to be noticed.  The 1914/3 overdate will have a slight horizontal line extending to the left of the top of the 4 in the date.  Examples have been graded from both Denver and San Francisco mints.  PCGS has graded 53 examples of this error.  Because of its rarity and recent discovery and verification, many coin books do not even list it. 

The 1916 double die is indeed a rarity.  As of Jan 1, 2006, PCGS has certified a meager 115 coins compared to 3,900 3 legged buffaloes.  This error was first publicized in the July 1962 edition of The Numismatic Scrapbook Magazine. By the time most collectors set about searching for the 1916 Doubled Die Obverse during the following decade, most examples had been lost or worn out in circulation. As such, even marginal uncirculated examples of this important 20th century error are seldom offered in today's market.  Out of the 115 coins certified by PCGS, only 5 are mint state (MS60+) coins. An impressive 1916 Double Die Buffalo Nickel graded AU55 by NGC sold for $36,800 while in March of 2005, a MS-63 example sold for $161,000.

The 1918/7D overdate is more well know than the 1914/3 and is also more prevalent with PCGS certifying 504 examples of this error (as ofJan 2006). This coin can be identified by the number 7 within the 8.   

Some nickels minted in 1935 exhibited doubling on the reverse.   As of January 2006 PCGS has certified 115 examples of this error.    

Around 1965, someone discovered that some of the 1938-D Buffalo nickels showed a "D" mint mark over an "S" mint mark. How this occurred is strange, since no 1938-S Buffalo nickels were made.  This variety is not as rare as the above rarities, and there is more than one variation of this error.  There is also a 1938-D/D mint mark known as an "RPM" or repunched mint mark. Again, it not rare as the errors above.  PCGS has certified 967 D over D and 2851 D over S specimens  

Proofs

 As was typical of other coins of the era, the first few years of Buffalo Nickel production  included proof coins.  Unlike many proofs of the day however, Buffalo Nickel proofs from 1913 to 1916 were produced with a matte finish called “matte proofs”.  They were sold by subscription and over the counter at the Philadelphia Mint.  They were produced in very low numbers with only a total of 5,959 dated from 1913 to 1916.  Examples with a date of 1917 have been reported.  Although at first popular with collectors, due to the dull finish, collector interest waned and the mint just stopped producing them.  It is highly suggested that if you are purchasing an early proof that you have the coin authenticated.   

In 1936, the mint once again began producing proof Buffalo Nickels.  This time around, they were produced with the more brilliant mirror like finish displaying the true beauty of the coin.  Unfortunately, total production was very low with only 4,420 examples of the 1936 nickel and 5,769 examples from 1937 being produced.  These coins are in high demand, and as such, demand a premium. 

Vital Statistics Summary

 Key Coin Info

 

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