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Nickel Uses Most American Design
By Paul M. Green, Numismatic News
April 29, 2013

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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Buffalo nickels feature a classic American design from an artist who was perfectly prepared to create it and as a result the Buffalo nickel has long been a collector favorite.

There is no better proof of that than the American Buffalo silver commemorative silver dollar, which sold out its 500,000 authorization in 2001 at a time when commemorative silver dollars were not regularly selling out. This was a case were collectors simply wanted a larger and perhaps nicer version of that classic design that was issued 1913-1938.

In fact, if there has historically been anything that has kept collectors from flocking to the Buffalo nickel in even greater numbers, that reason would probably be – at least back in the 1950s when the Buffalo nickel should have been the darling of a nation of young collectors who were excited by anything from the Old West – that the Buffalo nickel set seemed to have no key date.

There was no 1909-S VDB or 1916-D to really excite collectors about the possibility of a single great date that everyone would recognize. Instead, the Buffalo nickel seemed to be a set of good but not great dates and those wanting one special coin in their set might be disappointed unless they included one of the errors.

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Despite the lack of a great coin, the Buffalo nickel series certainly did not lack a great design. One indication of that fact is that while everyone is basically curious as to who might have been the model for a one specific coin design or another, in the case of the Buffalo nickel, who served as the models for the James Earle Fraser design truly turned into something more than a simple question. In fact, for a few persons, it was something closer to a cottage industry as there was money to be made and fame to be gained by their claiming to have been the model for such a famous coin.

Actually, even today, the matter of who served as the model for the Buffalo nickel remains an interesting question. Unfortunately, the man who could really help would be the artist himself, and the record shows that when questioned about the model he was not precise. According to Fraser, the Native American on the obverse was really a composite of three people. Two he remembered and they were certainly qualified to be representative of Native Americans. Two Moons, a Cheyenne, had reportedly been at the battle of the Little Big Horn in 1876 against Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and the 7th calvary. As credentials go, you could not do much better than that as a piece of genuine American history.

The second model, Iron Tail, was no slouch in the matter of credentials. He had been involved with Buffalo Bill Cody’s traveling Wild West Show.

The problem then, historically, has been the identity of the third model and that is where Fraser’s memory seemed to fail him. Over the years there have been a number of people who have claimed to have been the other model, but realistically their claims are not always the ones that stand up to scrutiny.

In his book, Coins Magazine editor Bob Van Ryzin has done an excellent job in examining the various claims and their strengths and weaknesses as far as who the third model might have been.

Van Ryzin’s book, Twisted Tails, also proves to be an excellent resource when it comes to the reverse design as well. The bison on the tail’s side of the nickel, according to Fraser, was Black Diamond, which was a well known animal in the New York area at the time of the nickel design’s creation. The problem was that once again Fraser’s memory was not perfect as the Black Diamond was not at the zoo Fraser remembered.

There was, however, a Black Diamond at another zoo, but he was aging and in probably poor health. That Black Diamond was certainly not the impressive beast seen on the Buffalo nickel, leading to the possible conclusion that Fraser remember the name and associated it with a different animal who was actually the model.

Once again it might seem fairly academic today, but as recently as the 1980s a large stuffed bison head peered down from the wall on show-goers attending an American Numismatic Association convention. When asked about the head, the owner stated that it was the original Black Diamond.

My suspicion that Black Diamond could be had for a price was confirmed by a dealer friend who made a serious inquiry, but who balked at the five-figure price quoted by the owner.

With all the interest over the years, it would be safe to suggest that the Buffalo nickel was popular while in production and these ongoing historical questions have kept the topic of the Buffalo nickel more livelier than it might have been.

During the first year of issue, the initial saving of the new coin by the public has proven to be important as there was a change in design in that very year. The first version showed a bison on a mound.

The problem was that while popular the design was actually a departure from most other coin designs in that realistically there were basically no fields as the entire coin had design elements. The concern, possibly by those who remembered the “No Cents” nickel of 1883 that had been passed as a $5 gold piece when gold plated, was that the “Five Cents” denomination would quickly wear off.

A quick change was made, so the second design of 1913 put the bison on a flat line. This lowered the relief of this portion of the design to afford the “Five Cents” statement some protection from the friction of daily use.

After the initial mintage of 31 million pieces at Philadelphia, 5,337,000 at Denver and 2,105,000 in San Francisco collectors found themselves with a one-year type, or design variety. Those first one-year types are fortunately available in some numbers with a Philadelphia 1913 mound type being $32.50 in MS-60 and $190 in MS-65.

A 1913-D mound type is $62.50 in MS-60 and $310 in MS-65. The 1913-S mound type is the most difficult at $125 in MS-60 and $690 in MS-65.

This relationship is reassuring to collectors because the prices and availability follow the pattern of the mintage.

However, the demand for the mound type in the ultra grades can produce surprising prices as was seen by a Professional Coin Grading Service MS-68 that brought $19,550 in 2003.

The dates that follow are not a problem in terms of great rarity, but as many have learned over the years, Buffalo nickels in any grade can prove to be far tougher than might be expected.

Historically, there has been no key date in circulated grades as only the 1926-S at 970,000 had a mintage below one million. That does not, however, make the 1926-S the most expensive circulated date in G-4 as that distinction falls to the line type 1913-S, which is now $350 while the 1913-D of the line type is $125 and the 1914-D is $90 in G-4 while the 1921-S is at $64. All of these are far more expensive in G-4 than the $20 price of the 1926-S.

The prices might seem high for coins of the past century with mintages in the millions, but there is a good reason as in the original design it was not just the denomination that was in fairly high relief and subject to wearing off quickly. Once the date started to disappear any number of problems from a collecting standpoint could begin.

With a partial date it might not be possible to tell a 1916-S from a 1926-S or a 1936-S, which have G-4 prices of $11, $20 and $1.35, respectively.

Of course, not being able to determine the date pushes any coin below the G-4 grade, but that didn’t stop us in the 1950s from trying to figure it out.

With millions of Buffalo nickels in circulation having no dates on them at all, partial dates seemed something of a triumph and finding full dates for some issues was maddeningly difficult.

There was an etching compound that when applied to the date area allowed you to make out a date, but doing this produced a coin that is technically damaged. The simple fact is that Buffalo nickel dates vanished by the millions and that has resulted in larger premiums for coins with full dates even though their mintage numbers might at first lead you to believe that prices should be lower.

In Mint State, the Buffalo nickel is relatively available. There are a few dates like the 1926-S that are tougher. The 1926-S is priced at more than $1,000 in M-60 and it is joined over the $1,000 value by the 1921-S and 1924-S. The latter two have mintages of 1,557,000 and 1,437,000, respectively.

Most other dates are reasonable, with many being below $50. Looking at these lower prices makes the 1926-S MS-60 price of $4,950 stand out all the more. It is by far the highest price for all of the regular issues in MS-60 grade. This statement puts the errors aside until further along in this article.

Generally speaking, the collector or public saving patterns of the period make the branch mint coins more expensive today in MS-60 than Philadelphia issues.

In MS-65, the Buffalo nickel becomes a much more difficult set. It must be pointed out that striking was many times poor and in the case of branch mint dates from the 1920s, Q. David Bowers described the striking as “miserable.” The 1926-S again leads the way with an MS-65 price of $125,000.

In recent years, the 1926-S has more than doubled in price in this grade, probably sparked in part by the 2003 sale of an MS-65 for $103,500. That price is backed up by a PCGS total of just 10 examples in MS-65 while Numismatic Guaranty Corporation reports seven in MS-65 and three in MS-66.

There are other tough dates that follow the pattern of branch mints from the teens and 1920s. In the group of MS-65 coins at $10,000 to $25,000 are dates like 1918-S, 1919-S, 1920-S, 1923-S, 1924-S and 1927-S, with the 1925-S topping this group at $28,500 as it too is rarely seen with PCGS showing 14 in MS-65 and one in MS-66 while NGC reports 21 in MS-65 and two in MS-66.

There are a number of other dates that while under $10,000 are also tough. The 1927-D is now at $7,950. At PCGS the 1927-D has been graded 50 times, but just once in a higher grade, but while more available in MS-65, the potential for a significantly higher price should not be dampened in the long run by hardly more than a roll of MS-65 coins.

The regular dates are one aspect of collecting Buffalo nickels, but there is another aspect and that is to add the errors. In fact, there are probably no more spectacular and difficult errors to be found in any set than the 1916 doubled-die nickel.

A key point to remember is the 1916 doubled die was not discovered for many years after its release. That is critical as the regular 1916 issue was not saved in any extra numbers as it had a record mintage of nearly 63.5 million pieces. Remember as well the date would wear off quickly. By being discovered many years after issue, some of the doubled dies were probably lost due to normal wear in circulation.

These factors help explain why the 1916 doubled die is $1,800 just in G-4. It is nearly impossible in Mint State. No one was looking for it at the time of issue and so an MS-60 today is $49,500. It is even more difficult to afford in MS-65 where the current price is $375,000. This figure is up from $100,000 in 1998.

The real question regarding the doubled die is whether it even exists in MS-65 as both NGC and PCGS call the best one MS-64. Realistically, even in AU-50 the doubled die is tough as there was no one around in 1917 or 1918 rushing around trying to find one among the 63.5 million in circulation. That’s a shame, but that’s the way it was.

The story is similar with the 1918 “8 over 7” overdate from Denver. This overdate was created by a die maker overpunching a “7.” At the time no one would have given the matter a second thought. As was the case with the doubled die of 1916, the overdate was not discovered right away. When it was, it was far too late to find Mint State examples and even circulated examples are few and far between.

It was probably fortunate that any of the 1918/7-D overdates were discovered at all. The price in G-4 is $1,000. In MS-60 it is $36,500. The Coin Market price guide price for an MS-65 is $350,000. In 1998 the MS-65 price was $210,000.

Once again the grading service totals support the prices as at PCGS they have seen two examples of the overdate in MS-65 and the NGC total is identical. In addition to the fact that at least there are a few coins graded MS-65, we see that in the grade of MS-63 there are a few more. This supply is somewhat better than the supply of the 1916 doubled die as the doubled die survivors are generally in even lower Mint State grades.

The third Buffalo nickel error is probably the one most collectors learned about first. It is not as tough as the other two and it has been enormously popular over the years. The error is the three-legged buffalo of 1937-D.

The story of the three-legged bison is interesting as sometime back in 1937 an obverse and reverse die in a coining press clashed together without a planchet being fed into them first.

This damaged the dies, and normally, this would have resulted in them being replaced, but probably in the interests of time and ease it was apparently decided to remove the clash marks.

In the process of removing the marks by polishing the affected area to remove the marks the bison’s foreleg was also removed. Other details were weakened, but it might well not have been noticed at the time.

The coin was released, but the problem was quickly noticed and a 1937-D with a three-legged buffalo was considered interesting. It was saved, especially because there were many more collectors in the United States in the late 1930s than one or two decades earlier.

Of course, being noticed quickly is not the same thing as being common, but it is more available than the previously mentioned errors. In G-4, it is priced at $535. In MS-60 it is $2,375. A coin that is MS-65 is valued at $37,000.

Several examples exist in even higher grades and this opens the door to truly spectacular prices when the are traded in the marketplace.

Collectors of the time also saved the regular 1937-D, allowing today’s collectors to be able to buy one in MS-60 for $29, or one in MS-65 for $73.

There are other more minor errors that do not get the same level of attention. There is the 1938-D/S over-mintmark where a “D” was punched over the “S.” This is priced at $4.50 in G-4, $50 in MS-60 and $185 in MS-65.

Another over-mintmark, but in this case a “D” over a “D,” also from 1938 is priced at $4 in G-4, $32 in MS-60 and $125 in MS-65. These definitely are the more affordable errors.

Whatever your choice is in terms of grade, the Buffalo nickel regular dates are an available set and this has pleased generations of collectors. The errors add an extra dimension, but also significant cost to the set, but they too can delight the true specialist.

The real attraction of the Buffalo nickel might simply be that it is great art. The classic design by James Earle Fraser has provided many with a sense of being in touch with the Old West, which is something that no other circulating coin design can evoke as well.

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