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Buffalo fans should go back to first issue

How many Buffaloes does it take to make collectors happy?

That sounds like a silly question, but considering recent trends, perhaps it is not so silly.

The Buffalo commemorative silver dollar was issued in 2001. A buffalo was put on the nickel again in 2005. Kansas has a single buffalo on its 2005 quarter and North Dakota’s 2006 quarter sports two.

There is even a Buffalo gold coin, which also was created in 2006.

But with all of these choices, collectors may decide that true buffalo happiness lies with the original, the one and only Buffalo nickel series that was issued 1913-1938.

Actually, the Buffalo nickel seems to always have a solid base of interested collectors, but with continuing use of similar designs that base could well grow. Moreover, if for no other reason than buffalo reverses of various types can now be packaged together it seems possible that there will be some additional demand when it comes to top grade Buffalo nickels simply to use in new promotions. With a wealth of possibilities to create new demand, it might well be the time to begin or complete the original Buffalo nickel collection.

The Buffalo nickel makes a good collection. It has gained respect over time as now there are some recognized key dates in all grades. That historically was not always the case. Back in the 1950s at least in circulated grades everyone saw the Buffalo nickel as a set without a key date. Now that perception has changed, but the key to the popularity of the Buffalo nickel set perhaps more than any other U.S. coin has been the design.

When James Earle Fraser set out to design the Buffalo nickel, his goal was to create a truly American design that could come from no other country on earth. He was enormously successful in his effort, drawing as he did on his years in the West. There was no mistaking the Buffalo nickel for a coin from any other nation and it was an immediate hit with the American people.

If anything, the design of the Buffalo nickel was so popular that it touched off a wave of questions about who had been the model for the design. Knowing who the model was for any American coin design is a somewhat interesting matter for numismatic scholars, but in this case everyone wanted to know who was the Native American on the obverse and even where they could go to see the bison on the reverse. Even today the questions are asked as historically the answer has not been perfectly clear.

As it turned out, Fraser who was the only one who truly knew who had been the models, was not a perfect source for the answers. He was better at art than remembering names.
Fraser recalled that the obverse was actually a composite of three different Native Americans. He could remember two of the three. One of them, Two Moons, a Cheyenne certainly had great credentials as he was allegedly involved in the famous Battle of the Little Big Horn against George Armstrong Custer and the 7th Cavalry. As credentials go from the Old West, it was hard to do better than that.

The other model, Iron Tail, a Sioux,  also had his share of accomplishments having been involved with Buffalo Bill Cody and his traveling Wild West show.

The problem was the third model. As it turned out, there was something of a motive to want to be the third model as there was such interest in the design that there were public appearances to be made, autographs to be signed and even TV shows looking to have the famous model of the famous design as a guest. It might not have been the equivalent of being a movie star, but there was a certain amount of fame and potentially income for the third model if he could be identified.

Under the circumstances, a few individuals came forward suggesting that they in fact were that missing third model.

The problem has been that the claims to being that third model tend to fall apart under careful investigation as was done by Coins magazine editor Bob Van Ryzin in his book, Twisted Tails. Van Ryzin carefully considers the assorted people who have claimed to be the missing model and their backgrounds. As it turns out, the most likely real model never made any claim at all. He was the Kiowa chief known as Adoeette. He really wanted no part of publicity as he had had more than enough in his years before converting to Christianity and living out his life on a mission not seeking any potential fame. In fact, Adoeette was lucky to have still been alive to model for anything as he had been sentenced to hang for his part in a raid on an army supply train.

The nickel’s reverse design seemed like a much easier situation to track down as Fraser claimed the animal he used as the model was Black Diamond, who was a rather famous animal at the time. Under closer investigation, however, it was learned that at the time Fraser prepared the nickel design, Black Diamond’s time was past as he was old and probably sick.

Certainly the belief is that the real Black Diamond looked little like the impressive animal seen on the Buffalo nickel. There was another slight problem in that Fraser placed the animal at a zoo where he had never lived or even visited. Van Ryzin traced the story and the likely conclusion is that Fraser remembered the name Black Diamond, but when the made the design he probably used another animal or his own conception of a bison.

It might all seem fairly academic, but there were real financial stakes. Years ago at a Baltimore American Numismatic Association convention a large bison head was on display. The owner claimed it was the head of Black Diamond and when a dealer approached him about the potential sale of the head, the owner quoted a five-figure price that would have been more than enough to buy a complete set of Buffalo nickels at the time in top grade. The dealer opted for the coins and not the head of the famous animal.

While the debates about and interest in the models for the Buffalo nickel continued over the years, the Buffalo nickel set itself has remained popular.

Even when it was replaced in 1938 with the Jefferson nickel, the Buffalo nickel continued in circulation and continued to be popular with new generations of collectors. This was natural. Many collectors of the past two generations were raised on TV Westerns and movies. They have found the Buffalo nickel to be a design they could not resist as a collection.

As beautiful and authentically American as it is, the nickel design actually had a problem that would result in an immediate change in 1913. After the release of 31 million pieces from Philadelphia, 5,337,000 from Denver and 2,105,000 from San Francisco, the buffalo. which at first was standing on a mound, was later in the same year to  stand on a line.

That might seem like an unusually quick design change, but the change was made because the FIVE CENTS on the mound was the highest part of the reverse design and it would have worn off quickly.

Fraser would have never considered that possibility, but Charles Barber was the Chief Engraver and it had been his nickel design back in 1883 that had appeared without the word “CENTS” at all, leading some to gold plate them and try to pass them off as $5 gold pieces.

In all probability, Barber remembered that problem and this might well have been at the root of the decision not to allow the possibility of any Buffalo nickels being in circulation without a proper statement of denomination on them.

The quick design change could have produced some expensive type coins, although the mintages and amount of saving of the new coins were large enough that an example of the mound type 1913 can be found today in the case of the more available Philadelphia coin for $32.50 in MS-60 and $190 in MS-65 while the 1913-D mound type is $62.50 in MS-60 and $310 in MS-65 and the same type of 1913-S is $125 in MS-60 and $690 in MS-65.

While the problem with the FIVE CENTS was fixed, a different problem on the obverse was not. This involved the date. It was the highest part of the design and with time and use the date would start to wear off. That saw by the 1950s many Buffalo nickels having no date at all. In fact, you could buy complete rolls with no dates for a small premium in the late 1950s as there was an etching acid compound that you could use to restore the dates. The problem was the compound left a mark, which was technically damage, but for young collectors at the time it was a quick an inexpensive way to fill a set.

The mintages would suggest that the dates that followed the first year of issue would not be especially tough as only one, the 1926-S would have a mintage below 1 million. It was at 970,000.
But with Buffalo nickels, mintages can be deceptive. Since they were not saved in  any significant numbers, the dates of many coins wore off quickly and that has created a situation where some dates have become much tougher than might be expected in lower circulated grades.

It is strictly hit and miss as the disappearing dates did not by definition follow the mintages or any other pattern that we can study.

The lowest mintage 1926-S is not a key in lower circulated grades. That distinction goes to the line type 1913-S which is now at $350 in G-4 while the line type 1913-D is $125. Other better dates include the 1914-D at $90 while the 1921-S is $64. All of these are well ahead of the low mintage 1926-S, which is just $20 in G-4.

This is ironic as the belief for decades was that no other Buffalo nickels could be better than the 1926-S. Certainly that has not proven to be the case and it is really a simple result of the disappearing dates. Naturally those dates even when partially gone also influence the technical grade so finding some dates in certain grades is very difficult.

In Mint State, the Buffalo nickel is relatively available. There are a few tougher dates and in Mint State the 1926-S moves to the head of the pack of regular circulation strikes. This is interesting, too. As the lowest mintage Buffalo nickel, you might think it would have attracted some collector attention in the years immediately after issue and be more available today.

The 1926-S is simply not readily available in Mint State and the higher the grade the more difficult the problem in finding a 1926-S. In MS-60 it sits at $4,950, which is well ahead of most other regular dates. There are a few others over $1,500 such as the 1921-S, which had a mintage of 1,557,000, and the 1924-S which had a mintage of 1,437,000 and is now at $2,300, making these dates by far the best of the rest as there are many that are under $50 in MS-60 and a couple that are even under $20.

In MS-65 there is a definite pattern that the branch mint dates tend to be much tougher than those from Philadelphia. It starts with the 1926-S, which lists for $125,000 in MS-65 and that price has more than doubled recently thanks perhaps in part to the 2003 sale of an MS-65 for $103,500. The buyer at that price was probably aware of the fact that PCGS had only graded 10 examples on MS-65 while NGC reported five in MS-65 and one in MS-66.

The other tougher dates are also from branch mints reflecting a situation where Q. David Bowers suggested that the branch mint strikings especially in the 1920s were frequently “miserable.” The group at $10,000 or more in MS-65 includes the 1914-S, 1918-S, 1919-S, 1920-S, 1923-S, 1924-S, 1925-S and 1927-S, with the 1925-S being especially tough as is seen in a current MS-65 listing of $28,500. Like the 1926-S, the 1925-S is rarely encountered with PCGS showing 14 examples in MS-65 and one in MS-66 while NGC reports none better than the 14 it has graded MS-65.
The regular dates are one part of a Buffalo nickel collection, but there are also some very popular and very scarce errors. The most expensive of the group is the 1916 doubled die. There is no doubt that the total number of 1916/16 coins produced was small, but that was compounded by the fact that the regular 1916 had a mintage of 63.5 million. Under the circumstances, no one was going to save any extra 1916 nickels. When the error was discovered, there were simply no Mint State supplies to examine. Moreover, the error was in the date, which was prone to have the problem of wearing off. That made the situation in terms of finding examples even more difficult.

Also making the situation more difficult was the fact that the 1916/16 was not discovered quickly as collectors at the time did not examine new issues the way we do today. It was only a matter of luck if anyone could find examples in better grades. In fact, there was not much luck as the 1916/16 today is $1,800 in G-4 but $49,500 in MS-60 and $375,000 in MS-65. That MS-65 may well be just an estimate as the grading services report no examples in MS-65 and just a couple in MS-64.

A similar thing happened with the 1918/17-D when a die maker punched an “8” over a “7” before the die went into the furnace for hardening. That resulted in a 1918/17-D, which like the 1916/16 was not discovered quickly. By the time the 1918/17-D was discovered, most of the potential examples had been in circulation for some time, dropping them to lower grades if they could be identified at all.

The 1918/17-D is actually slightly more available than the 1916/16. In G-4 the 1918/17-D lists for $1,075 but the Mint State situation is similar to the 1916/16 with an MS-60 listing for $27,500 and an MS-65 is at $350,000. In this case, there are a couple reported examples in MS-65 as both PCGS and NGC report two. It is also a case where there are greater numbers available in other Mint State grades like MS-63 but do not be misled, the 1918/17-D is a very tough coin in any grade.

The third famous error is not as tough as the other two, but it was perhaps the most popular. Back in 1937 in Denver something must have jammed in the feeder providing planchets and preventing them from going to the dies and causing the dies clash together without anything between them.

It was apparently decided to simply remove the clash marks. The clash marks were removed by polishing, but so was the bison’s foreleg and other details were weakened. It was either not noticed or was simply allowed to reach circulation.

This time, collectors noticed that the bison had only three legs quickly and the notion of a three-legged buffalo was very popular. The search was on and some numbers have been discovered over the years. Even though some have been found, the 1937-D with a three-legged bison is still not common. That means a price of $535 in G-4, an MS-60 price of  $2,375 and an MS-65 is $37,000. The grading services report a small number in MS-65 and even a couple in higher grades, but the supply of the 1937-D with a three-legged bison is never equal to the demand.

There are actually a couple other much more available Buffalo nickel errors in the form of a 1938-D/D and a 1938-D/S,  which can be purchased for just $32 and $50, respectively in MS-60 and $125 and $185 in MS-65. In fact, they are excellent prices for companion errors.

Whatever you decide to do with the errors, the Buffalo nickel remains an interesting set. Is a great deal of fun to assemble. It has a timeless design that seems to have a way of popping up again and again. The more recent versions help to call attention to the old. The fact remains that the Buffalo nickel is a classic collection and always will be as long as Americans remember and are interested in the Old West.

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