Assembling a collection of Buffalo nickels years ago was not hard. Many were still found in change. But if you wanted coins with dates, well, that was a bit more difficult.
Buffalo nickels showed up quite regularly in the 1960s. Many had the dates worn off, like their contemporary Standing Liberty quarters. Some of these nickels had mintmarks. Since Buffalo nickels were minted from 1913-1938, there was a variety of them still circulating.
The oldest nickel I ever found in change was a 1913 Type I. Yes, there was no date, but because it was a Type I, minted only in 1913, I was able to figure out the date. I had accumulated a good number of Buffalo nickels by then, a few rolls’ worth, and I wanted to know their dates. Could there be a scarce coin, or even an overdate?
I bought a bottle of Nic-A-Date at the local coin shop and got to work. There were a few 1928 nickels, many with dates in the 1920s. The best coin I had was a 1914-D. Some details could be seen; it wasn’t as worn as the 1913. I’d heard of a collector who assembled a set of Buffalo nickels with all restored dates. I’d also heard of overdates showing up. But this is not something that happened to me.
We were warned about using Nic-A-Date. Once applied to a coin, it was considered noncollectible forever. That did not stop me. I wanted to know what the dates were.
Later I learned that dateless Buffalo nickels are used by artisans in the American Southwest to make belts and hat bands, among other things. They cannot use restored date coins, either.
But in very recent years, there are collectors who do indeed collect Buffalo nickels with restored dates. Naturally, they are priced much lower than untreated coins.
Of course, nothing beats high-grade pieces.
The local coin shop had a nice hoard of 1938-D Buffalo nickels in full Mint State. These coins had good strikes, beaming luster, and were perfect representations of the Buffalo nickel. Ideal for a type set!
Well-struck, high-grade Buffalo nickels were beautiful coins. The worn coins I pulled from change almost looked like completely different designs. I learned that the striking could be weak, very weak, on certain mintmarked coins of the 1920s.
I saw a few coins with that attractive bluish toning seen on nickel coins. Once I spotted a 1931-S in Mint state with shimmering blue toning on the obverse. I also recall a pretty 1935 with pink and yellow toning that offset the rugged design and made this coin more desirable.
And I discovered proofs. Proof Buffalo nickels looked like fine pieces of sculpture. Full rims, the Indian’s braid, the buffalo’s horn, tail and fur ... special proof coins really showed that design the way it was meant to look. And like its contemporary Standing Liberty quarter, this was a classic design that did not wear well.
Three types of proof Buffalo nickels were minted: brilliant, satin, and matte. A set of matte proofs is small, only five coins, but a challenge to put together. A coin dealer showed me a lovely 1913 Type I that was once attributed as a proof, but after professional grading, it was revealed to be Mint State. The previous owner became upset and sold the coin to the dealer.
After a major show, this dealer had a set of matte proofs. The 1915, in particular, was perhaps the finest Buffalo nickel I’d ever seen. Why it wasn’t graded proof 70, I’ll never know, but it certainly came close. The dealer told me that he hoped to sell the coins as a set.
Collectors who admire this coin but cannot afford a complete set can own a short set, 1934-1938. I’ve seen many of these sets housed in custom-made holders. Though perhaps no longer considered common, they are readily available and make a nice set.
One dealer offered a complete set of Buffalo nickels, all circulated, but better than average. The later dates had some luster, and many of the more common dates in the 1920s looked good, too. The three-legged coin was part of this set.
Buffalo nickels are the All-American coin and are always popular with collectors. Whether an old-time set pulled from change, a Mint State set carefully assembled, a whole set bought at once, a special run of proofs, or even a group of date restored coins in an old blue folder, every numismatist who discovers this coin has an historical set with an interesting story behind it.
This article was originally printed in Numismatic News. >> Subscribe today.
If you like what you've read here, we invite you to visit our online bookstore to learn more about 2019 North American Coins & Prices.