Buffalo nickels have always been popular. A large part of that popularity has to be traced to the James Earle Fraser design, which was only the second time a coin of the United States was created using a real Native American as the model. Couple that with a large and impressive bison on the reverse and you had a coin that was certain to please many.
Consider the fact that the design was adopted for use on a gold bullion coin and has also been used on the American Buffalo silver dollar and you have a design that has been used more than any other design in American history.
Back in the days when Buffalo nickels were actually in circulation if there was any problem when it came to attracting collectors prior to the 1930s it was that there were no holders for a complete collection. After the 1920s with holders now available the only real negative about a Buffalo nickel collection was the fact that there seemed to be no key dates. There was just no Buffalo nickel that was the equivalent of the 1909-S VDB Lincoln cent, 1916-D Mercury dime or 1916 Standing Liberty quarter.
We would learn later that there were some very difficult Buffalo nickel errors but in terms of the regular dates the only Buffalo nickel that came close to standing out based on mintage was the 1926-S, which had a mintage of 970,000. While that is below 1 million, which to many was the mintage that dictated that a coin would be better, it was not much lower than 1 million so it was not likely to be in the class of the key dates of other types that attracted so much attention.
Of course, now the 1926-S is $125,000 in MS-65 thanks to a lack of saving and the regular poor quality seen in San Francisco dates in the 1920s and that is just a preview of what is an interesting story of the San Francisco Buffalo nickels.
What is easily forgotten today is that we frequently assume that there were waves of collectors ready to start assembling new Buffalo nickel sets back in 1913 when the first Buffalo nickel appeared. Nothing could be further from the truth as there was no history of collecting nickels by date and mint. There was good reason. Until 1912 there had never been a nickel from any facility other than Philadelphia as an old law had prevented the production of any coins not containing gold and silver at any facility other than Philadelphia. The 1912-D and 1912-S Liberty Head nickels had been the first nickels produced outside of Philadelphia. While they were interesting, they hardly created a national wave of nickel collecting by date and mint.
It was a simple case where there not only were no Denver and San Francisco nickels to collect but there was really no collector background for collecting them even if they did exist.
It had only been the 1890s when the first real awareness of collecting by date and mint was seen and even then the lower denominations were made only at Philadelphia while the upper denominations in silver and gold were simply beyond the financial means of many of the younger collectors of the day. It was simply a combination of factors that saw very few even consider the idea of collecting anything by date and mint. When that is the case, people do not suddenly wake up one day and change their approach to collecting in large numbers.
As a result, when the first Buffalo nickel was released in 1913 there were certainly examples saved as is always the case with a new design. That said, the saving was probably not as large as might be assumed as there were not many collectors at the time who would have immediately thought that they needed examples from Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco.
The first San Francisco Buffalo nickel in 1913 had a mintage of 2,105,000 and like the mintages in Philadelphia and Denver it featured the Buffalo standing on a mound. This would be a short-lived design for a very simple reason, which was that the denomination was on the mound. That made “FIVE CENTS” the highest part of the design and consequently the mound was quickly changed to a flat line. The reason was that if “FIVE CENTS” was the highest part of the design it would be the most likely part of the design to disappear first from wear.
We have no actual proof of the way officials were thinking, but it must be remembered that Chief Engraver Charles Barber had been involved in the creation of the Liberty Head nickel back in 1883 and that design had no word “CENTS” on its first version. It took no time at all for some to gold-plate the new Liberty Head nickel and then offer it up as a $5 gold piece as the two denominations had very similar diameters. That produced a rushed design change to add the word “CENTS” to the reverse and while it was a perfectly understandable mistake as three-cent pieces had been produced for decades without “CENTS” Barber probably still remembered the situation as he was very new to the position of Chief Engraver at the time. There is no evidence that someone might have attempted the same trick with the Buffalo nickels, but realistically it seems likely that officials were taking no chances with a repeat of the Liberty Head nickel situation.
The change to placing the buffalo on a flat line would be made in 1913, making the mound type Buffalo nickel a type that lasted for less than one year. That puts the 1913-S mound type at a current price of $43 in G-4 while an MS-60 is at $125 with an MS-65 at $725. To date, the Professional Coin Grading Service reports about 325 examples in MS-65 so the 1913-S mound type exists but the numbers are not unlimited.
The rest of the 1913 production in San Francisco would be of the line type and that mintage would be just 1,209,000 and that totals makes the line type 1913-S a better date as by then what saving there was of the new design had finished. That meant that the line type 1913-S would basically be allowed to circulate and there another part of the design would create problems. This explains the $365 G-4 price of the line type 1913-S. The problem with “FIVE CENTS” being the highest part of the design had been fixed but nothing had been done about the highest part of the obverse design and that was the date.
The 1913-S as the first line type Buffalo nickel to reach circulation was a natural to have its date wear off and that appears to be the case as the line type 1913-S is much tougher in a grade like G-4 than its mintage would suggest. There would be other dates as well where the dates disappeared in large numbers while primarily later dates did not circulate long enough to lose their dates. The lower mintage 1926-S for example is just $20 in G-4, but it was released just in time to experience increasing collector interest pulling it from circulation before it was too late, so the matter of G-4 prices is one where you cannot generally rely on mintages as a guide to how available certain dates will be.
In Mint State we see the line type 1913-S may have had some small saving, but not much as many had already encountered a mound type. In MS-60 the line type 1913-S lists for $850 while an MS-65 is at $4,300 and that is supported by the fact that PCGS so far reports just 101 pieces less than one-third the total of the mound type from the same year.
The matter of the disappearing dates was also something that would tend to discourage many who were attempting to assemble Buffalo nickel sets from circulation. The loss of dates from wear was random, but when you started out with already low mintages as was the case with many San Francisco dates, it did not take many losses to make a date very tough.
There was a chemical compound marketed in the late 1950s or early 1960s that would restore dates, but it was etching acid, which left damage so it was only good to fill holes that otherwise could not be filled in a set, leaving everyone frustrated as here was a set with no particularly rare dates but which was far tougher than mintages suggested to complete.
The uneven nature of the lost dates can be seen in the 1914-S, which had a mintage of 3,470,000, which is certainly not a high total. That said, the 1914-S is at $26 in G-4, so its losses must have been far less than the line type 1913-S. In MS-60 the 1914-S is $160, but in MS-65 that price rises to $2,350 and there PCGS reports just 89 examples in MS-65 and up and that is actually a lower total than the more expensive line type 1913-S.
The 1915-S is close to the line type 1913-S in mintage at 1,505,000, but it too appears to have survived in larger numbers than the line type 1913-S as a G-4 is currently priced at $47. That price is higher than most dates, but it is still far from the $300 in the 1913-S. In MS-60 the 1915-S is $625 while an MS-65 is at $3,400. Interestingly enough, the total seen at PCGS in MS-65 or better is 113, which would explain some of the price difference between the line type 1913-S and the 1915-S.
The 1916-S and 1917-S have prices of $11 and $23 in G-4, respectively. In MS-60 the 1916-S is $175 while the 1917-S is at $395. In MS-65 the 1916-S is at $2,650 while the 1917-S continues to be the tougher of the two at $5,250. The price difference is interesting as PCGS reports that the two are very similar in availability in MS-65 or better with one exception and that is MS-67 where the 1916-S had been seen four times while the 1917-S has never had a coin reach MS-67 and that too is something which is regularly seen as the quality of production for Buffalo nickels and especially branch mint dates from the teens and 1920s was simply not very good, so those seeking ultra-grade coins may very well discover that for some dates MS-65 is the ultra grade.
In the case of the 1918-S we see more indication of that. The 1918-S is just $14 in G-4, which is not unusual with a mintage of 4,882,000, but it jumps to $495 in MS-60. In MS-65, however, it is $28,500, making it one of the most expensive Buffalo nickel dates in top grades but that price is justified as PCGS has seen only 23 examples in MS-65 and a single coin in MS-66.
The 1918-S may be the most dramatic case, but the others follow the patterns, with the 1919-S in MS-65 at $19,000 and the 1920-S is $28,500. In circulated grades, they are not tough dates with G-4 prices under $10 while the MS-60 price of either is about $530, but they become nearly impossible in MS-65 with PCGS reporting 26 examples of the 1919-S and 16 of the 1920-S in MS-65 or above and neither have even been seen in a grade above MS-66.
The trend for the first half of the 1920s is similar. The 1921-S with a lower mintage of 1,557,000 reflects the fact that at the time the mints were busy making silver dollars at the expense of production of other denominations. The secretary of the Treasury wanted the silver dollars in a hurry so they could be used to back new issues of Silver Certificates and that meant for a few years mintages of other denominations were generally lower as was the case with the 1921-S. Today the 1921-S is at $67.50 in G-4 but even an MS-60 is not available as is seen in a current $1,500 price. This was the trend as there would be no 1922-S and while the 1923-S is somewhat available, the 1924-S is not and it has a $2,300 price just in MS-60. In MS-65, they get much tougher with the 1923-S at $12,500 while the 1924-S is $13,500 and then the 1925-S has an extremely high price of $42,500 in MS-65. For collectors with more modest budgets, the 1925-S is possible in lower Mint State grades at around $440 in MS-60, but in MS-65 and better it is one of the real rarities in the Buffalo nickel set with PCGS reporting just 14 examples in MS-65 and a single MS-66 out of over 630 examples graded. Interestingly, in MS-64 the 1925-S can be found as PCGS reports 214 and another 151 in MS-63, but any higher grades simply do not exist.
The 1925-S is extremely tough in top grades, but the 1926-S is the key. It is ironic as with it’s 970,000 mintage, the 1926-S is not as tough in circulated grades as might be expected, but in MS-65 it is a very different story. It’s a sign of the times that the 1926-S despite a low mintage was not saved in any numbers in Mint State. Proof of that comes in its $5,000 MS-60 price and proof of the lack of quality is found in it’s $125,000 MS-65 price with only 10 being reported by PCGS.
The 1927-S looks common by comparison, but at $22,500 in MS-65 with only 19 graded by PCGS you cannot call the 1927-S common. The 1928-S at $5,350 in MS-65 is much more available but still elusive and it is the final date in the group that is extremely tough to find in top grades as suddenly the 1929-S is just $47.50 in MS-60 and $525 in MS-65 with PCGS reporting over 250 examples in MS-65 as opposed to the 1927-S and 1928-S which combined do not reach 75.
In fact, the 1929-S is the start of a trend as the 1930-S is $550 in MS-65 and it too is available. The mintages, however, were dropping as it was the Great Depression and tough economic times always mean lower mintages.
The 1931-S is typical with a mintage of 1,200,000 making it one of the lowest mintage San Francisco Buffalo nickels. The low mintages makes the 1931-S a little better in G-4 at $16 but in MS-60 it is $65 while an MS-65 is $315 which is lower than almost every date up to that time. The reason is that PCGS reports some 1,275 examples of the 1931-S suggesting something we know to be true, which is that even in the Great Depression there was growing interest in coin collecting.
The Great Depression and declining need for coins was the reason for no San Francisco Buffalo nickel mintages in 1932, 1933 and 1934. When the production resumed in 1935 it would be with a modest mintage for the time of 10,300,000. The saving, however, had never declined and the 1935-S is readily available as is the final San Francisco Buffalo nickel the 1937-S, which is the most available of the San Francisco Buffalo nickels in top grades at a price today of just $70 in MS-65 and there is good reason as PCGS has seen some 887 examples not in MS-65 but rather in MS-66 a grade where dates of the previous decade would show only a few examples. There have even been 59 examples graded MS-67 a grade where some earlier dates are unknown.
With the 1937-S the San Francisco Buffalo nickels came to an end. Their story, however, is timeless as reflected in the various dates are many of the forces at work at the time, such as the Great Depression or the need to make silver dollars. The San Francisco Buffalo nickels also reflect the minting quality or lack thereof at the time making some dates much better than we might expect in top grades. All the factors join together to make San Francisco Buffalo nickels an interesting story and these coins form a great collection by themselves.
With the continuing use of the famous James Earle Fraser Buffalo nickel design on modern issues, it would seem that the future for San Francisco and other Buffalo nickels is likely to be a bright one as officials seem to be unable to get enough of this design and that should keep interest in the San Francisco and other Buffalo nickels high for years to come.
The use of the design in modern times guarantees that there will be a steady flow of collectors who will wish to go back and collect the “real” or the “original” Buffalo design and that means going back to the five-cent piece.
Perhaps with so much attention being focused on coins made of precious metals, now is the time to check out this series in a unrushed manner. Sooner or later, the collecting spotlight will come around to the Buffalo nickel again, and it will be a comfortable feeling for those who got to the series ahead of any new crowd. Buffalo nickels will celebrate their centennial in 2013. It might be a safe guess that that is the year when the crowd will arrive.