This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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The 1913-S Buffalo nickel is an extremely interesting coin as there are really two 1913-S Buffalo nickels and both, in very different ways, have become key dates.
The Buffalo nickel was a new coin back in early 1913, but the impact of the James Earle Fraser design was very strong. All the initial 1913 mintages reflect some saving at the time. We know which coins were the first mintage because the first part of the 1913 mintage had the bison on the reverse on a mound. Later in the year that would be changed to a line or plain.
The mound type mintages were fairly large considering they were produced for less than a year. The Philadelphia total was nearly 31 million while Denver was at 5,337,000 and San Francisco was at 2,105,000.
Of the first three with the mound, the San Francisco is naturally the most difficult at prices today of $43 for a G-4, $125 for an MS-60 and $690 for an MS-65. These levels would almost certainly be much higher were it not for some saving at the time they were released.
The mintages of 1913 continued later in the year with the new reverse showing the bison on a line. In this case, however, with over 38 million of the new nickels already in circulation with the bison on a mound, there was no extensive saving.
We see this impact on the 1913-D and 1913-S line type coins. The 1913-S had a mintage of just 1,209,000. Not saved, these coins and the dates that followed were allowed to circulate, which would prove to be a major problem for Buffalo nickel collectors many years later.
The problem centered around the Buffalo nickel’s design. The date was positioned in such a way that it was basically the highest part of the coin. That meant that it would receive quick wear. As years went by, the date became completely worn off.
This cause identification issues for the line type 1913-S. For example, if some of the date had disappeared, it could not be differentiated from a 1923-S. The situation was so bad that collectors could buy dateless rolls of Buffalo nickels. Finding a complete set even in grades like G-4 was, and still is, very tough. The logical reason is that there is very limited supplies in lower grades today.
Back in the late 1990s, the line type 1913-S was $87 in G-4. Its price today is $350, and that is an awfully good price increase over the period. In fact, it has done well in other grades turning its 1998 MS-60 price of $300 into $885 today. Its MS-65 listing in the late 1990s of $2,800 has become $3,850. Those are solid increases, but the largest percentage gain by far for the 1913-S has been in lower circulated grades.
Thanks to the 1913-S, the Buffalo nickel suddenly has a key date and it is no fluke as the 1913-D is also tough as is seen in its $125 price in G-4. That said, it is the 1913-S that is by far the key date in lower grades. With the recent trends, it appears that the supply is very limited. For those who wanted a key date Buffalo nickel for their collection, their wish has been granted in the form of the 1913-S.