This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
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For some coins, it’s not the mintage that results in higher prices, it’s the survival of the coin in a specific grade. On the list of coins where the mintage seems to be out of sync with the price is the Buffalo nickel dated 1913 from San Francisco.
In fact, there were two 1913-S Buffalo nickels, and they have two different stories and price levels. We start with the initial 1913-S Buffalo nickel that had a modest mintage of 2,105,000 pieces. It was designed the way James Earle Fraser had created it, and it was a wildly popular design. The Buffalo nickel design remains popular today as is seen by the selling out of the 500,000 authorization of the American Buffalo commemorative silver dollar and the gold Buffalo.
There was some saving of this first Buffalo nickel, which is evident in the prices of what is called Variety 1. The 1913-S lists for $43 in G-4, $125 in MS-60 and $690 in MS-65.
Even before 1913 had finished, there was a change. The bison initially appeared on a mound on the reverse, but in the later part of the year that was changed to a line. The change was made out of fear that “FIVE CENTS,” which was raised on the mound, would wear off quickly.
Variety 2 with its line instead of mound to protect “FIVE CENTS” was rushed into production. The 1913-S mintage was 1,209,000.
Based on mintage, the second type should be the more expensive of the two. It certainly is with prices of $350 in G-4, $885 in MS-60 and $3,850 in MS-65.
There are a number of factors at work in the much higher prices of the Variety 2 1913-S nickels. We can start with Mint State. The first 1913-S might have been saved in some numbers, but by the time the Variety 2 made its appearance the novelty was gone and the saving would have been vastly reduced.
We might think the mintage would encourage saving, but that too is unlikely as San Francisco nickels were new. People were not too sure about collecting nickels from each facility each year as the potential had only been around a year. Also, the first San Francisco nickel mintage in 1912 was just 238,000, so the Variety 2’s mintage was not likely to impress anyone.
The next problem is that while the “FIVE CENTS” problem had been fixed, the date was still the highest part of the obverse and that meant that it too could quickly wear off. In fact, it did exactly that, leaving millions of Buffalo nickels to ultimately circulate with no visible date.
In the case of the Variety 1, if you could find a mintmark and identify the mound you could tell the date, but in the case of the Variety 2, which would last until the Buffalo nickel was replaced in 1938 by the Jefferson nickel, there was no such opportunity. Because the 1913 Variety 2 would circulate the longest, they were the most subject to losing their dates.
The proof of the matter can be seen in the price of the 1913-S even in G-4. The 1913-D Variety 2 is also expensive even in G-4 at $125 despite a mintage of more than 4.1 million. Even the $8 G-4 price of a Variety 2 from Philadelphia reflects significant losses, but the 1913-S ranks as the most difficult of all and a very surprising coin when you compare its mintage and its price.