The Buffalo nickel came along at an interesting time in American history. Many collectors still remember when it could be found in circulation, but in trying to assemble a set today and finding that coins especially from branch mints like Denver are usually tougher, we can sometimes forget the collection conditions as they existed back in 1913 when the first Buffalo nickel was produced.
First off, the nickel was worth a lot of money. You could get lunch and a beer for a nickel. The five-cent cigar was commonplace, though whether they were good or not is the subject of a famous saying.
If the collectors of 1913 and the years that followed did not save many Buffalo nickels, the situation can be easily understood. First, there were no holders or albums as we know them today to house Buffalo nickel collections. That did not help produce the collecting by date and mint that we know today.
What really did not help when it came to the saving of Buffalo nickels from Denver and San Francisco was the simple fact that the collectors of the day were not used to collecting nickels by date and mintmark at all. In fact, the first nickel to be produced at Denver had just been minted the previous year in 1912 and the same was true with San Francisco. The seemingly odd situation was the result of an old law that did not allow the production of coins containing no gold or silver at any facility other than Philadelphia. That law had been part of the various efforts to use up more gold and silver as apparently the Western mining interests felt that any coins other than gold and silver were taking time away from what they saw as the major purpose of a branch mint, which was to use the metal from their mines to make coins.
The law was finally changed as officials were not willing to ship the needed cents and nickels for commerce all the way from Philadelphia when they had two perfectly good facilities in Denver and San Francisco.
That led to cent production in San Francisco in 1908. Denver, which was still a very new facility having opened in 1906, waited until 1911 to strike cents. In 1912 both branch facilities produced their first nickels. While the 1912-D and 1912-S would have attracted some attention, the fact remains that when the Buffalo nickel was produced the following year, it was still far too early to expect the collectors of the day to start collecting nickels by date and mintmark as they simply had no history of collecting nickels except by date.
As it turned out, it was probably even more confusing as the first 1913-D Buffalo nickel was short-lived. The design, while excellent, had what officials saw as a flaw as the Buffalo was standing on a mound on the reverse and on that mound was the “FIVE CENTS” denomination. In that location the “FIVE CENTS” was the highest part of the design and that meant it could easily disappear with wear.
The same was true of the date on the obverse, but apparently the possibility of having the denomination wear off was troublesome to officials. That may be because back in 1883 when the first Liberty head nickels contained only a large “V” but no “CENTS” some took advantage of the situation to gold plate them and pass them off as $5 gold pieces. It seems unlikely that such a thing would have worked with a worn Buffalo nickel, but they may have been taking no chances. So the mound was quickly changed to a line type, which allowed the “FIVE CENTS” to be in a lower spot.
In all probability, the collectors at the time would have not been that interested in the change as most were still trying to figure out if they should now be collecting the new nickels by date and mint.
That said, the 1913-D mound type is a short-lived type coin. As the first Buffalo nickel from Denver it was, however, possibly saved in some numbers as it is available to collectors today, with a G-4 currently at $16 and an MS-60 is just $62.50. An MS-65 is at $375.
When you realize the mound type 1913-D had a mintage of just 5,337,000, those prices have to be seen as quite reasonable probably primarily because it was saved. The Professional Coin Grading Service totals show the saving level with 500 examples reported in MS-65 and there are another 226 in MS-66, 28 examples in MS-67 and even a single MS-68.
The rest of the 1913-D Buffalo nickel mintage would be 4,156,000 pieces of the line type with the animal standing on a flat line. The line type is much tougher to obtain today, listing for $125 in G-4 $285 in MS-60 and $1,575 in MS-65. PCGS reports 150 examples in MS-65 and higher grades so there was certainly less saving.
Additionally, the mound type can be identified even if the date is gone because of the mound, but the line type is like every other Buffalo nickel and if the date is gone it cannot be identified unless you use a date restoring liquid, which was popular in the late 1950s and early 1960s. That liquid, however, was etching acid and while it makes the date visible it leaves a stain and is damage, so a coin with a date restored will not qualify as anything more than a filler. With years of circulation, a 1913-D line type while keeping it’s “FIVE CENTS” like other dates, would have the date disappear, making a G-4 example more costly than you might expect today.
The 1914-D has a lower mintage of 3,912,000 and is tough. It was not saved in any numbers. A G-4 lists for $92 while an MS-60 is $450 and an MS-65 is $1,850. In fact, its MS-65 totals at PCGS are almost identical to those of the 1913-D line type, with the grading service reporting 153 coins in MS-65 and better.
The continuing lack of saving at the time is reflected in the next few dates. The 1915-D is interesting as somehow it seems to have survived better than average in terms of the date. Its mintage was higher at 7,569,500, but the 1915-D is just $21.50 in G-4, suggesting there is a reasonable number of coins out there. In MS-60 the 1915-D is $225 and in MS-65 it is $2,500, which is also the price of the 1916-D, which is slightly less in other grades. The higher prices reflect lower numbers graded in top grades.
That trend would continue with the 1917-D, which lists for $345 in MS-60 and $3,750 in MS-65. The reason for the prices are the numbers seen at grading services. PCGS reports only about 110 examples of the 1917-D in MS-65 and up and it has not been seen in a grade higher than MS-66. When compared to the numbers of the 1913-D of both types, it is clear there had been a sharp reduction in saving.
The 1918-D with a mintage of 8,362,314 is even tougher. With its mintage it should be available, but it is not as is seen in prices of $430 in MS-60 and $5,000 in MS-65. The PCGS total for the 1918-D is just 76 examples in MS-65 or better so clearly the trend of decreasing saving was continuing in 1918. It makes you wonder if many of the nation’s coin collectors were sent to France with Gen. Pershing the American Expeditionary Force.
The Denver production of 1918 did include one very special coin. Not unlike the later 1942/41 Mercury dime overdate, the 1918/17-D was created by punching a die with a 1918 date after it already had a 1917. The reason was probably simply economy as new dies cost money and take time to produce and if there was a 1917 that had not been used, punching a 1918 date on it saved both time and money.
Moreover, at the time little thought was given to errors and overdates even by collectors. The 1918/17-D was simply released into circulation and there it was not noticed for years as the collectors of the time did not examine new coins the way they do today. By the time it was discovered in the 1940s any examples of the 1918/17-D was likely to be well circulated if it still had a visible date. If there were any in Mint State it was because they had been saved as a regular 1918-D and we know that saving was not large.
Today the 1918/17-D ranks behind only the 1916/16 as the toughest Buffalo nickel with a price of $1,150 in G-4 while an MS-60 is $28,500. In MS-65 only a couple examples have been seen by PCGS, which explains the current MS-65 listing of $365,000.
The trend that followed at Denver would be one of suspect quality in terms of most dates. The date will sometimes be available in Mint State, but when you get up to MS-65 or better the lack of quality takes a serious toll, causing many of the dates of the period to be much tougher in MS-65 or better than we might expect based on mintages or even lower grade Mint State supplies. Of the Denver dates of the period, the 1919-D at $15.50 is the most costly in lower circulated grades.
In MS-60 the dates from the 1919-D through the 1927-D tend to be in a range from $300 to $600. The 1927-D is the exception. It has an MS-60 price of $150. The mintages in many cases are lower as it must be remembered this was a period when the mints were busy with silver dollar mintages desired by the Secretary of the Treasury to replace the slightly more than 270 million silver dollars melted as a result of the Pittman Act back in 1918.
Those silver dollars had to be replaced so that a new issues of Silver Certificates, which had silver dollar backing, could be released. To create 270 million silver dollars takes time and it meant the mints were too busy to create normal mintages of other denomination. In fact, at Denver there would be no Buffalo nickel mintages in 1921, 1922 or 1923.
Dates from the period where there was production at Denver tend to have relatively modest mintages below 10 million pieces, but it is the suspect quality that has a major influence on prices as is seen in the MS-65 prices, which show the 1919-D at $7,750, the 1920-D at $7,600, the 1924-D at $5,600, the 1925-D at $6,400, the 1926-D at $6,400 and the 1927-D at $9,000.
The prices are supported by PCGS totals. In MS-65 or better, the 1919-D has been graded just 59 times while the 1927-D with the highest price is at just 51, with the 1925-D possibly being the sleeper at just 53 coins graded MS-65 or better.
Moreover, when there are any coins seen better than MS-65 they are usually just one or two examples in MS-66, so the period really was marked by a lack of quality or simply bad luck in that the coins that were saved as a general rule were not particularly well made.
Things changed significantly starting in 1928. We do not normally think of 1928 as a benchmark year for any U.S. coin except that it would be the final year of Peace dollar production until 1934, but it appears to have been significant for the Buffalo nickel as the 1928-D lists for just $50 in MS-60 while an MS-65 is at $950. The reason is that PCGS has graded a total of 229 examples MS-65 or better.
The 1929-D is less available but still shows lower prices and higher numbers available than other earlier dates. At $1,950 in MS-65, the 1929-D is available, with PCGS reporting 130 examples in MS-65 or better and that total is close to two-and-one-half times higher than the 1927-D, so for some reason there was more saving of better quality coins.
The Great Depression would begin to take hold starting in late 1929 and that as usually is the case resulted in lower mintages. In 1930 there would be no Buffalo nickels produced at Denver at all and this suspension in production would continue until 1934. When the Buffalo nickel did return to production at Denver, the trend of greater numbers in higher grades seen first in 1928 and 1929 would continue and grow. It would not, however, be immediately apparent largely because the 1934-D had a mintage of just 7,480,000. In MS-60 the 1934-D is $82.50 while an MS-65 is $1,000, but even with a much lower mintage and a troubled national economy, we see saving as the 1934-D is reported in MS-65 or better more than 250 times by PCGS.
As the economy improved and mintages rose, the amount of saving rose as well. The 1935-D had a mintage that topped 10 million pieces, which was still not high, but in MS-60 the 1935-D is just $75 while an MS-65 is $525 and PCGS shows why as it reports around 950 examples in MS-65 or better.
In the final three years of Buffalo nickel mintages we see much heavier saving. The MS-65 prices of the final three dates can only be called cheap, with the 1936-D reaching $118 and they dip as low as $70 for the 1938-D, which has a remarkable PCGS total in MS-65 of over 18,400 pieces, making it the perfect type coin for someone wanting a nice Denver Buffalo nickel at a low price.
Explaining the huge increases is not easy. Certainly collecting had grown in the latter half of the 1930s, but the advent of albums or holders for a complete collection which came at the time clearly made a significant difference in the amount of saving by collectors, but also probably by dealers, too, who suddenly saw legitimate reasons to set aside a roll or two of a new date.
They probably figured that with growing collector numbers there might actually be a chance to sell the coins in the roll where in the 1920s there was little demand for new dates even if they were in top grades.
The 1938-D has been available literally from 1938 in the form of original rolls. Even today it is not all that surprising to see an original roll of the 1938-D appear at auction.
The large mintages and heavy saving did make a significant difference in the case of one Buffalo nickel that could be much more expensive today were it not for the saving.
In Denver in 1937 one of the most famous error coins of all time was created. It is called the three-legged Buffalo. A leg disappeared in routine die polishing. Nowadays, such a disappearance is better understood and collectors will not chase this type of error.
However, for the time of a young and rapidly growing hobby, it was the case of the right kind of thing turning up at the right time.
The idea of a three-legged buffalo proved to be very popular and many began searching for the novelty. That means far better supplies than in the case of other errors in upper circulated and Mint State. The 1937-D with a three-legged buffalo is still tough at $560 in G-4, $2,650 in MS-60 and $26,500 in MS-65, but at least it is available. The higher grades are a problem as PCGS reports just 37 examples in MS-65 and four more in MS-66.
The transition period to the Jefferson nickel would produce other errors as out in Denver they were attempting to use up remaining dies. In 1938 all the animal’s legs were present, but there was a 1938-D/D and a 1938-D/S. The two are interesting, but relatively inexpensive at just $28 in MS-60 and $125 in MS-65 for the 1938-D/D while the 1938-D/S is $50 in MS-60 and $185 in MS-65. PCGS totals confirm that they are available with the 1938-D/D having appeared about 450 times in MS-65 while the 1938-D/S is just over 1,000. The totals do make it reasonable to question the current prices and they might very well change over time.
As you look at the Denver Buffalo nickels it is logical to come to the conclusion that they are tougher, especially in top grades than many might expect. At the same time in circulated grades virtually all Denver Buffalo nickels are reasonably inexpensive and available. Perhaps that is the key. That makes the circulated Denver coins a collection where virtually everyone has a chance to complete the set if they care to begin to do it. That makes the idea appealing.
Putting such a set together might serve as a reminder that our parents or grandparent’s could get twice as much for a nickel if they drank Pepsi over a Coke, and that a nickel in the 1930s represented a useful coin that was heavily used. That is why so many had their dates worn off. If you are looking for your next challenge, why not give Denver Buffaloes a try?