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Philly Buffalo nickels can be overlooked

The Denver Buffaloes were analyzed in the Nov. 11 issue and the San Francisco coins were looked at in the Nov. 4 issue.    

The Buffalo nickels produced at Philadelphia get very little attention. That is because none of the regular dates from Philadelphia are considered to be difficult to find in virtually any grade, putting the main focus on the expensive 1916/1916 doubled-die error and the mound type 1913, which plays an important role as an inexpensive type coin.

Otherwise, however, the Philadelphia Buffalo nickels are generally overlooked by collectors, although they can be tougher than many think in top grades and they do tell an interesting story of the nation and collecting at the time of their release.

The Buffalo nickel made its debut in 1913 and it was an exciting and perhaps confusing time for nickel collectors.

Collectors were excited about the many changes occurring in U.S. coinage. The Saint-Gaudens Indian Head design for the gold $10 and Miss Liberty holding a torch and olive branch on the $20 arrived in 1907. New Indian Head gold $2.50 and $5 coins arrived in 1908. The Lincoln cent appeared in 1909.

In 1912 the first nickels in history to be produced outside the main facility in Philadelphia had been produced at San Francisco and Denver, joining a pattern followed by the cents beginning in 1908.

The confusion might have arisen in determining how one should correctly collect the new nickel design. Prior to 1912, if you had collected Shield or Liberty Head nickels, it was basically a date collection. The nickel, thanks to a law forbidding the production of coins containing no silver or gold at any facility other than Philadelphia, had been produced only at Philadelphia. You could acquire a proof each year as was the practice of many collectors and your collection was up to date.

With the release of the 1912-D and low mintage 1912-S, however, nickel collecting had been forever changed as there were no proofs of either and now suddenly you needed not one, but potentially three nickels each year for a complete set. That seemed expensive.

It would take time and the availability of albums requiring new nickels from all three facilities before nickel collecting by date and mintmark was truly established, but certainly in 1913 had you been assembling a nickel collection of the new Buffalo nickel, you were suddenly confronted with a series of choices unlike any faced in the past by someone collecting nickels.

There is no doubt that the first 1913 Buffalo nickel attracted a great deal of attention. Which Buffalo nickel of 1913 many of the nation’s collectors acquired was probably a matter of convenience, depending on where they lived, although it is certainly likely that the majority of the nation’s collectors would have opted for a 1913 Philadelphia nickel, both because most collectors lived closer to Philadelphia than Denver or San Francisco, but also because the mintage of the 1913 mound type Buffalo nickel was 30,993,520, which was far larger than the numbers for the 1913-D or 1913-S.

Thanks to the larger mintage, the 1913 is available today at prices of $8 in G-4, $32.50 in MS-60 and $200 in MS-65 with a Proof-65 at $3,500. Those are very reasonable prices for a coin that is approaching 100 years of age.

These prices are backed up by the grading service totals. At the Numismatic Guaranty Corporation, they have seen 1,857 examples of the 1913 in MS-65 while the Professional Coin Grading Service reports just under 3,700 examples in MS-65 or better, so there was clearly a good deal of saving as would be expected with a new design.

Collectors should consider the coins to be a bargain, because type demand keeps interest fairly high as the original 1913 Buffalo nickels lasted for less than a year. Initially, the Buffalo was standing on a mound on the reverse and it was decided that it needed to be changed to a flat line.

The reason had nothing to do with the bison, but everything to do with the fact that also on the mound was “FIVE CENTS.” That location made the denomination the highest part of the design on the reverse and that meant that as the coins circulated it would receive the most wear and would possibly wear off.

That might seem like an unusual concern, but it must be remembered that back in 1883 the new Liberty Head nickel had first appeared without a denomination on it. It was not all that unusual as the first gold coins of the country had gone over a decade without a denomination and three-cent pieces also had no CENTS on them, but in 1883 some creative types had gold-plated the first Liberty Head nickels and offered them up for purchases and had received change for $5. The word CENTS was quickly added to the reverse.

While it seems unlikely that in 1913 it would have been possible to do something similar, Charles Barber was still chief engraver and it had been his design back in 1883 where the problem had surfaced and he was not about to suffer the same fate twice. It seems likely that he and others would not have taken any chances with a repeat simply because the denomination wore off quickly.

Quickly the buffalo was placed on a flat line and that mintage was 29,858,700, which actually was very similar to the initial mound type mintage. The line type 1913 is slightly more expensive in Mint State although the same $8 in G-4. The likely factor in Mint State is simply that such slight differences would not have been of interest to most collectors of the day. They would have obtained a mound type 1913.

We see that lower numbers are available today of the 1913 line type as despite the fact that it does not have the special type demand of the mound type, it is still more expensive at $34 in MS-60 and $375 in MS-65, while a Proof-65 is $2,600. The grading service totals suggest it could be even higher when compared to the mound type as instead of over 1,800 examples seen in MS-65 as was the case with the mound type, the NGC total is just 263 examples of the line type in MS-65.

The next year would see a mintage of 20,665,738, which would result in higher prices for the 1914 as a G-4 is $17, while an MS-60 is $49 and an MS-65 is at $450. The grading services show that saving clearly decreased with the PCGS total in MS-65 or above being just 350, while the NGC total in MS-65 was down to 158.

There was also a lesser known variety in the form of the 1914/3 overdate and it is a difficult coin as can be seen in the fact that PCGS reports just 46 examples in all grades, with 23 being called Mint State and only four of the 23 reaching at least MS-65. This was a classic situation that would be repeated in that the 1914/3 was not discovered for years because collectors were not looking for overdates and other varieties or errors.

The lack of inspection by the collectors and dealers of the day was particularly costly in terms of surviving numbers today simply because while the problem with the denomination on the reverse had been solved, there was a similar problem on the obverse, but on the obverse the high point that might wear off and did wear off on many coins was the date. In a case like a 1914/3 that was particularly damaging to supplies as you cannot identify an overdate if there is no date.

Over the years, the loss of dates has had a major impact on the circulated supplies of any Buffalo nickel and in the case of errors involving dates it has been especially troublesome. That is seen with the 1916/1916. There was a very high mintage in 1916, dwarfing even the 1915 total that had been almost 21 million. In 1916 Philadelphia churned out 63,498,066 nickels.

Ironically, although the mintages are very different, the 1915 and 1916 are fairly close in price and availability as in Mint State it is not the mintage that matters but rather the number saved by collectors at the time.

Moreover, the number saved in 1916 might have been slightly reduced as it was a year of three new designs, which might have caused collectors and dealers to use what limited funds they had for new issues on one or more examples of the new dime, quarter and half dollar designs.

The general lack of saving and study of new issues at the time came to haunt everyone in the form of the 1916/1916. There is no doubt that the 1916/1916 doubled die was not produced in large numbers but our available supply today is probably far less than would have been the case had anyone bothered to examine new 1916 nickels as they were released. Of course, virtually no one did and few were saved as well as from what evidence we have there was very little saving of new issues and that includes dealers putting quantities aside.

Writer and dealer Q. David Bowers did some research into dealer inventories of the 1916 Standing Liberty quarter, which had a mintage of just 52,000, and he could find only a couple dealers with what he calls “working inventories” of the 1916. Certainly if dealers did not stock the 52,000 mintage 1916 Standing Liberty quarter, they were most unlikely to stock a Buffalo nickel with a mintage of over 60 million.

To that factor can be added the easily disappearing dates due to wear, as the 1916/1916 doubled die was simply released into circulation and not discovered for decades. That was more than enough time for the date to wear off.

We see evidence of that in a price of $2,000 today in G-4. In MS-60 the 1916/1916 lists for $55,000 while an MS-65 is at $395,000. In fact, you can save your $395,000 as neither NGC nor PCGS has ever graded an MS-65.

Any Mint State example of the 1916/1916 is extremely tough as of the 135 examples seen by PCGS, only four were called Mint State, with three being MS-62 and the fourth being MS-64. At NGC the Mint State total of the 1916/1916 is only eight out of 74 coins graded and again none topped MS-64. It is a classic case where the collecting pattern of the time and the design itself worked against there being any significant supplies of the 1916/1916 doubled die, making it very tough today.

The rest of the Philadelphia Buffalo nickels from the teens are relatively available thanks to fairly large mintages. They were produced during a booming economy spurred by World War I spending.

The one better date seems to be the 1918 with a mintage of 32,086,314. The 1918 lists today for $5 in G-4, which does not sound like much, but it is more than available date prices, a position it shares with the 1917.

Of course in G-4, mintage totals are not always a good guide to likely prices today because of the disappearing dates. In MS-60 the 1918 is at $110, which definitely is higher than some other dates of the period, while an MS-65 at $1,700 is also higher than the closest date from the period, which is the 1917 at $60 in MS-60 and $580 in MS-65.

The reason for the higher prices is seen easily in the grading service totals where PCGS has seen the 1918 in MS-65 just 160 times, while most Philadelphia dates of the period tend to be at about twice that total.

Another large mintage of more than 63 million came in 1920, but after the 1920 mintage, the Buffalo nickel totals produced at Philadelphia would drop significantly as would those of other facilities.

The wartime boom broke and the demand for coins dropped with the economy. The 1921 total would be just 10,663,000 and there would be no mintage at all of Buffalo nickels in Philadelphia in 1922, while the totals were relatively modest in 1923 and again in 1924.

The other reason for the low totals was simply that Philadelphia and the other facilities had higher priorities, which were specifically to produce silver dollars as fast as was possible. The reason was that the secretary of the Treasury wanted to create a new issue of Silver Certificates that had to be backed by silver dollars. The silver dollars had to be produced as their supply was low with just over 270 million having been melted as a result of the Pittman Act of 1918. That meant with no silver dollars there could be no Silver Certificates and instead there had to be other types of notes, which were backed by notes paying 2 percent interest. The Secretary of the Treasury desperately wanted to stop paying that interest so he wanted silver dollars in a hurry.

With the lower mintages, the Philadelphia dates from the period are better even in G-4 where the 1921 is $3.75 while the 1923 is $1.70.

The situation is less obvious in Mint State as there it is the saving and not the mintages that matters. The low mintage 1921 at $125 in MS-60 is about twice the price of the high mintage 1920, but in MS-65 the two are the same at $850. In fact, the grading services show why as PCGS in MS-65 reports 190 examples of the 1920 and 200 of the 1921 while NGC has 83 examples of the 1920 and 121 of the 1921.

The 1923 is actually a little more available, while the most expensive Philadelphia MS-65 Buffalo nickel of the period turns out to be the 1924, which is currently at $950 in MS-65 and with 180 examples seen at PCGS and 82 at NGC we can see why the 1924 is a little more costly.

The Philadelphia Buffalo nickels that would follow are unusual as they tend to run counter to a trend of other Buffalo nickels from the same period. The nation starting in 1929 was falling into terrible economic times and that would suggest relatively little collecting as people were too worried about simply meeting their regular expenses. In the case of the Philadelphia Buffalo nickels, however, we see clear evidence of increased saving, with Philadelphia dates from the period generally at MS-60 levels of less than $50 while the MS-65 prices tend to be in the  $200-$500 range.

Of the dates of the period, the 1934 is the most expensive in MS-60 at $48.50 followed by the 1925 at $44 while the 1926 at $31.50 is the most available. The higher numbers are also reflected in MS-65 where the 1925 priced at $525 is the most expensive with a PCGS total of roughly 440, while the 1926 at $200 is the most available with a total of nearly 1,000 examples graded.

After 1934 and the heart of the Great Depression, the mintages of Philadelphia Buffalo nickels would increase. In fact, there would only be three more years of Buffalo nickel mintages from 1935-1937 and the lowest mintage of the three would be the 1935 at 58,264,000 pieces. In addition, any of the three would have far less time in circulation to have their dates wear off than earlier dates, making all available with even MS-60 prices being less than $20, while the 1935 is the most costly in MS-65 at $145.

The 1935 in MS-65 is actually followed fairly closely by the $110 1936. What is interesting in this case is that the 1936 had a mintage of 119,001,420 – by far a record at the time. Just looking at PCGS totals we can see why the prices are so reasonable as the MS-65 total for the 1936 is 2,100 pieces, although here with a large mintage and a reputation as available date coupled with low prices it is possible that significant numbers of the 1936 and the other dates have not even been sent in for grading.

That said, in the case of the 1937, the PCGS total in MS-65 is close to 6,400 and the NGC total in MS-66 is 3,553, with another 1,405 in MS-65, which explains why at $74 the 1937 is the least expensive Philly Buffalo nickel in MS-65.

Certainly, with the exception of the errors, the Philadelphia Buffalo nickels are a relatively available group in any grade. There are some dates that are tougher than many think and all dates together form an interesting story of the Buffalo nickel and collecting at the time. u

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