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Buffalo nickel set collected and recollected

This all-American girl wanted to collect the all-American coin, the Buffalo nickel. Buffalo nickels were plentiful in change when I began collecting in the late 1960s. The set wasn’t all that long, spanning the years 1913-1938, and there were no major rarities to stop me. Easy task, right?

Wrong. Collecting Buffalo nickels turned out to be a challenge that is still with me after over 40 years as a numismatist.

Many Buffalo nickels could be found in change, true. But the majority of these poor old coins had the date worn completely off. This made collecting more frustrating. It’s one thing when you can’t find the date you want, but what if you had that date and didn’t know it?

I did find a number of Buffalo nickels from the 1930s, and a few dated in the 1920s, picked out of circulation. But my big hoard of dateless Buffaloes intrigued me, especially those nickels with a mintmark, plainly visible below the words “Five Cents.” I found a date restorer at a local coin shop, and went to work.

Quite a few holes were filled in my Buffalo album that afternoon, but not all. The best restored coin was a 1914-D that had a nice amount of detail remaining  – not bad, considering the date had been worn off. Mintmarked Buffaloes in the 1920s and 1930s made up the bulk of the hoard. I found more than one dated 1928.

There was one old nickel that I didn’t treat to an acid bath – that was a worn specimen with the Type I reverse, made only in 1913. I left it alone, since it was obvious the date was 1913, the first year of the Buffalo nickel. My Buffalo set led off with a dateless coin, but I was happy with it. After all, it was a circulation find, and the oldest nickel I ever got in change.

Many collectors believe that restoring the dates is actually damaging or altering the coins. But when I was young, I concentrated on obtaining each and every date and mintmark, regardless of how I did it. Condition was something to worry about later, when I had accumulated a full set, and perhaps had more money to spend on coins.

I noticed that many of my date-restored coins had good detail, and began studying wear patterns on my Buffalos. Grading guides always mentioned the Indian’s braid, the tail and horn of the buffalo. It took some time to become familiar with the characteristics of these nickels. The first time I ever used a magnifier on a coin, it was on a Buffalo nickel. As my collecting interest grew and I became more of a serious collector, I became picky about grading. The date-restored set was fun to put together, although it was never completed, but the time came to grow up as a numismatist. I upgraded many of my old Buffalos and took the time to examine the details on the coins I purchased.

Professional grading services did not exist then, so it was up to the individual collector to learn all she could about grading, what to look for and what to look out for. Different sets of coins had different problems for the collector to deal with, and this was certainly the case with Buffalo nickels. Pursuit of a nice set of Buffaloes demanded an eye for detail, good eyesight and lots of patience. Perhaps the first set of coins that really made me grow up as a collector was the Buffalo nickel.

There were a few dates, notably in the 1920s, that were known for weak strikes. I remember one 1926-S nickel with ample mint luster, but the buffalo’s horn was barely seen. And then there was the final date, 1938-D, that looked beautiful, with a good strike and luster too. Perhaps no other set of United States coins shows such differences in detail and striking within the series.

Buffalo nickels could still be found in change, almost always without a date. I usually spent these coins. My own Buffalo set was constantly being upgraded.

I saw in my handy Red Book that the 1931-S coin had a low mintage. None had been found in my group of dateless Buffaloes, and I shopped around for a nice one. I found a lovely specimen in a coin shop in downtown Chicago. This coin was housed in an old-fashioned cardboard 2×2, and it looked as if it had been in that holder since the week it was struck. Details were as good as a Buffalo collector could ask for, with good luster, and some gun metal blue toning to make the coin even more desirable to me. Love at first sight! I bought that coin right away.

As I browsed through many different dates of Buffalo nickels and carefully checked the Mint State coins, I noticed that some coins had lovely toning, not as dramatic on you would see on a large silver dollar, but pretty in its own way. I found a 1936-D Buffalo nickel with pink and gold toning that added to the eye appeal, and was available for the same price as a white uncirculated coin.

One of my favorite coin dealers had for sale a full set of Buffalo nickels, complete with a bookshelf album. The coins were circulated, but not heavily; all had full dates, many had surprisingly good details, and the set included a 1937-D three-legged Buffalo. After much study and discussion at the shop, I bought that set as a birthday present to myself.

Sometimes, it’s a good idea to buy a full set at once. The thrill is in the chase, true; but when a collector has a complete set in front of her, it’s possible to carefully check each date and mintmark, note each coin’s characteristics, and see how the grading standards apply. Grading is all-important to collectors of Buffalo nickels. A collector can own any or all of the grading guides available, but it cannot compare to looking at the real coins, and seeing a number of them at once. Buffalo collectors would do well to examine a great many of coins, and become familiar with the many differences (read that:weaknesses) of the coins in the set.

A Buffalo nickel fan may want to build a grading set, as the professional graders have, for her own personal use. Obtain one nickel in each grade and buy carefully. This set can be used as a kind of “study guide” when grading your own Buffalos. Keep in mind, some dates are notorious for weak strikes. It may be a fun experience, to pick through well-worn coins, after upgrading a set of Buffalo nickels.

That full set purchased at the coin shop included a three-legged Buffalo, but not the famous 1918/7-D overdate; there was a space for it in the album. I wanted to fill the space and have a complete set. It wasn’t that hard to find a specimen that, although worn, had a good date and fit perfectly into the circulated set. I commented to the dealer when I bought the coin that this particular nickel completed a set.

A few years later, I spotted a complete set of Buffalo nickels at the Florida United Numismatists show. The coins were of high grade, Almost Uncirculated or better and were beautifully matched. Yes, the set included both the three-legged and the overdate. Housed in a white plastic holder, the set was proudly displayed, and sold for a high price. What a set to have, and be proud to own. I didn’t buy that set, but I’m sure it was sold very quickly.

A collector could have a set or two of Buffalo nickels, with major varieties. The real fan of this coin will aspire to own the proof specimens. Proof strikings show off the design the way it was meant to look, with full details, and lovely surfaces. Proof Buffaloes are actually miniature pieces of sculpture. And what a way to spice up a set!

The matte proofs were struck from 1913-1916, so a complete set would only include four coins. But what a challenge those four coins could be. Even one of these coins would make a very special addition to a set. Matte proofs, even at the time of issue, were not exactly number one on the collector hit parade, and there was a time when an eagle-eyed Buffalo nickel fan could cherry-pick matte proof coins from groups of uncirculated coins.

I once bought a 1913 Type I Buffalo nickel from a favorite dealer. The coin was of exceptional quality; in fact, a previous owner thought it was a matte proof, and paid a matte proof price for it. When the coin was professionally graded and slabbed, however, it came back Mint State. The collector was upset and unloaded the coin. There’s nothing like a lovely coin with a good story to lead off a set.

That same dealer returned from a major convention with a selection of matte proof Buffalo nickels. The 1915 was especially choice, perhaps the best-looking Buffalo nickel I’ve ever seen. I would have loved to buy all of the coins, but my budget wouldn’t allow it. On my next trip, all of the matte proofs were sold.

Brilliant and satin proof Buffaloes were made in 1936, with brilliant proofs in 1937. These coins are also beautiful and more flashy than the matte proofs, and a bit easier to locate.

A collector can never have enough of her favorite coin and even now, at conventions, I check out the Buffalo nickels. If a coin really catches my eye, I’ll buy it. There is a set-within-a-set, the popular short set from 1934-1938. If the coins are Mint State and well struck, it’s a great set to have. I see a number of these sets offered at coin shops and shows, housed in plastic holders. It’s a good idea to check each coin carefully if you are picky about strike – and what Buffalo collector isn’t?

The Buffalo nickel design made a comeback in 2001 when special silver dollars were struck. Some critics thought the legs of the buffalo were a bit squashed and that the dollar may have been too big a coin for the design, but I liked it. The motto “In God We Trust” appears on this coin, by the way; it did not appear on the original Buffalo nickel. There is no more All-American coin than the Buffalo nickel, and if this design appears again, it’s just proof of its popularity and its enduring meaning.

The design did appear again, with the .999 fine gold Buffalo pieces of 2006 and later. One or more pieces may be desirable for the Buffalo nickel collector. The quarter-ounce gold Buffalo approximates the size of the nickel; a collector could buy one and wear it proudly on a chain, or display it with a set of the original Buffalo nickel.

Whether the design is used again or not, my Buffalo nickel collection may never be completed. There are still a number of well-struck, choice, lovely coins to be found and it could take years to find them all.                 

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