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Item of the Week: Buffalo Nickel Error an Affordable Option

A 1938-D/S Buffalo nickel graded MS-67 by PCGS. (Images courtesy Heritage Auctions)

A 1938-D/S Buffalo nickel graded MS-67 by PCGS. (Images courtesy PCGS)

When you think of errors, you usually think “expensive.” For example, the 1955 doubled die obverse Lincoln cent is not cheap, and with good reason. It was a mistake, and the taxpayers are getting their investment and interest. When you consider the number of coins the Mint produces each year, it makes very few mistakes – and even fewer actually reach circulation.

When Mint errors occur today, it is a big deal, but it hasn’t always been this way. Back in the early days, no one cared. And if they did care, you could not tell it from the coins produced. Doubled dies, inverted dates and just about anything that could possibly go wrong on a coin did go wrong. However, at the time production did not halt. The coins were just released anyway, and there were very few who would spot the error. In fact, things like overdates were not spotted for decades or even centuries.

In modern times, there is pressure on the Mint to avoid errors. It has not always worked though, as things just happen. Late at night, something would happen and an error would occur. By the time the error was discovered, thousands of examples would be mixed in bags with other coins that didn’t have the error. No one was going to dump the coins out and strain their eyesight to find the error, so they simply went out into circulation.

Another rather classic case when it comes to errors is just being thrifty. The Mint has been under budget pressure since the day it opened its doors in 1793. Dies cost money, and if not used to the point of being too worn, they were simply set aside and returned to use at a later time. If that meant the obverse and reverse would not normally be seen together, the use of the old die would change that. Suddenly, there were obverses with a reverse from a few years earlier and the wrong design. No one got in trouble for it as it was just saving money. It was to be encouraged so long as it did not get out of hand.

We like to think that was back in the 1800s or even the 1790s – but it was also apparently true in 1938. It was in 1938 that the last Buffalo nickels were being produced as the new Jefferson nickel was being introduced. Only Denver would make Buffalo nickels in 1938. Apparently, while getting those dies ready at Philadelphia (which produced all the dies), there was some perfectly good unused reverse dies from San Francisco.

They would not be used since San Francisco made no Buffalo nickels in 1938. Rather than throwing them out, it was decided to simply overpunch them with a “D.” This idea saved the Mint money and also created the 1938-D/S Buffalo nickel.

In the early 1800s, such a coin might take 50 years to be discovered, but in 1938 the assumption would be it would have been quickly spotted. It was not. In fact, it took until 1962 when C.G. Langworthy and Robert Kerr noticed the 1938-D that looked to have its “D” hiding an “S.” Experts examined the coin and declared it to be a genuine 1938-D/S. It was thought to be a rare and valuable item. That was before the publicity.

As it turned out, the 1938-D/S was not all that rare or valuable. Actually, there was heavy saving of the 7,020,000 mintage 1938-D at the time. There were legitimately rolls of them, even in the early 1960s. People promptly started searching their 1938-D Buffalo nickels for the treasure, and the 1938-D/S began appearing in significant numbers.

We cannot be sure how many examples really exist today, but its $6.50 in G-4 price, its MS-60 listing of $50, and its MS-65 listing of $100 should tell you something about its difficulty. The prices are more than available dates, but not that much more. Moreover, Professional Coin Grading Service reports almost 2,300 examples in MS-65 or better. That total is not as high as the total for the regular 1938-D Buffalo nickel, but it certainly is not low.

The availability of the 1938-D is nice since it gives everyone a chance to have a true error coin of the past century without having to mortgage a house to afford it. It’s certainly an interesting coin with an interesting story, and that makes it fun. It’s also a perfect coin for someone on a budget who wants something different.