By Mike Thorne, Ph.D.
For historians, 1913 produced a number of momentous events. On the political front, Woodrow Wilson became the 28th president of the United States, and Richard Nixon was born. For U.S. citizens, the 16th amendment introduced the Federal income tax. For psychologists, Sigmund Freud published Totem and Taboo.
For the numismatist, the year brought a change to the design of the nickel: Charles Barber’s Liberty Head (or V) nickel gave way to the Indian Head, or Buffalo, nickel. Designed by James Earle Fraser, Buffalo nickels were produced between 1913 and 1938, with three years of them not being produced (1922, 1932, and 1933).
When I started collecting coins in the 1950s, Buffalo nickels were still relatively common in circulation. And they nearly all had full dates. Think about it: the last Buffaloes were minted in 1938, which was only 20 years in the past in 1958. Check out a roll or two of nickels today, and I can almost guarantee that you’ll find a few that are 20 or more years old.
In the summer of 1960, I went through sacks of either cents or nickels daily. In addition to such keepers as 1939-D and 1950-D Jeffersons, I found a lot of interesting Buffalo nickels and kept large numbers of 1938-Ds and 1937-Ss because I liked the dates.
I also found an XF 1914-D with a large rim dent below the date, a couple of AU 1916-Ds, and some low-grade 1926-Ss, among other interesting coins. Dateless Buffs were only occasionally encountered.
With that experience and my efforts to assemble a complete set, I found that I liked some Buffalo dates better than others. In this article, I’m going to tell you about my ten favorite Buffalo nickels.
#1. 1913-S Type 1 (buffalo on the mound). As often happens with a new coin design, unforeseen problems crop up during the first year of issue. Think of such coins as the 1909 VDB cent, on which the designer’s initials appeared too prominent and were quickly removed. The 1883 Liberty Head (or V) nickel is particularly instructive, as the word CENTS was not included on the reverse, resulting in some trickery when the coins were gold plated and passed as $5 gold pieces of a new design. The missing word was quickly added, creating another design type.
In the case of the Buffalo nickel, the problem was of a similar nature to the V-nickel. The denomination appeared on a raised mound, where it could quickly wear away. Thus, a change was made, placing the denomination into a recessed area and changing the mound to a plain. Unfortunately, no change was made to the date, and it suffered the same fate as the first style of the Standing Liberty quarter, which was to wear away quickly.
At any rate, the first year of issue of the Buffalo nickel experienced two different reverse designs, the buffalo (actually a bison, according to David Bowers in A Guide Book of Buffalo and Jefferson Nickels) on a mound (Type 1) and then, later, on a plain (Type 2). In my opinion, the first design was much more attractive.
As an example of the Type 1 Buffalo nickel, the 1913-(P), the 1913-D, or the 1913-S would do, and most collectors would probably choose the Philadelphia version because of its huge mintage (nearly 31 million) and subsequent low value. I think the 1913-S is a better choice, as the mintage is much lower (2.1 million), but the value is not prohibitive. Numismatic News’ “Coin Market” says it’s worth $50 in F12, $75 in XF40, and $200 in MS63.
About the date, Bowers wrote, “It is also the [Type 1] least likely to be found sharply struck. Although examples are hardly rare in Mint State, finding a truly nice one, from a fresh die pair, will take some looking.” But it’ll be a little treasure if you find one.
#2. 1913-S Type 2 (buffalo on the plain). With just 1.2 million minted, this is the big key to the series and one of my all-time favorites. Bowers wrote, “To many collectors, including myself, this is a favorite among the Buffalo nickel series. Striking can be a problem, though, more so than with any other 1913 Buffalo nickel.”
I fully agree with that comment. I currently own one of this date that PCGS graded XF45. It doesn’t have a full horn, which would seem to be a requirement for a coin at this grade.
When I had a mail-order business many years ago, I bought some 1913-S Type 2 coins from an old-time dealer in Oregon. He was a very conservative grader and believed that a coin had to have a full date in order to be in Good condition. Because the coins he was selling had weakness on the first two digits of the date, he called them AG and priced them accordingly. I resold them as Goods with a weak date, and the buyers were well pleased. Incidentally, the coins had at least half a horn.
Coin Market says that this date is worth $300 in F12, $550 in XF40, and $1,330 in MS63. If you want to buy one, be sure it’s certified by one of the major services (ANACS, NGC, PCGS).
#3. 1914-D. This is considered one of the semi keys to the series. With a mintage of 3.91 million, David Lange (The Complete Guide to Buffalo Nickels) wrote, “Examples are quite difficult to locate in circulated grades, and problem-free coins are scarce.” The XF piece that I found was not problem-free by any stretch of the imagination. I eventually decided that I could make the coin look better by pushing down the rim nick, but all I succeeded in doing was making it look worse. Fortunately, I have forgotten what happened to the piece.
Similarly, Bowers stated, “Higher level circulated specimens of this and other branch mint issues of the era are scarce because by the time such coins were widely sought, in the 1930s, most of the early dates had sustained extensive wear.”
Coin Market values are $150 in F12, $300 in XF40, and $550 in MS63. Be sure to buy certified examples of any better-date Buffaloes, as some very creative fakes have been discovered over the years.
#4. 1915-S. This is one of my favorite Buffaloes for a couple of reasons. For one thing, its mintage of 1.5 million places it 5th out of 64 different date/mintmark combinations. As such, its Coin Market values are relatively high, but perhaps not as high as they should be. Its values are $130 in F12, $375 in XF40, and $1,260 in MS63.
In 2004, I paid $350 for a PCGS-graded AU55, with CAC sticker. As the current Coin Market value in AU50 is $525, I feel like I got a pretty good deal on mine. But this is not the best deal I ever got on a 1915-S. In a small coin shop near Rice University in Houston, I found one in Fine priced at $1!
#5. 1916-D. In the part of the country where I grew up, coins minted in Denver were much easier to find than those struck in San Francisco. For example, although I found several 1932-D quarters, I had to buy my first 1932-S. Similarly, 1931-D Lincolns were more frequently encountered than 1926-Ss, even though the two coins had quite similar mintages.
By the same token, 1916-D Buffaloes were more likely to be found than 1916-Ss. As I mentioned above, I found more than one high-grade, circulated 1916-D. With a mintage of 13.3 million, Lange commented about the date, “1916-D is not particularly scarce in all grades short of gem. The latter are rare.” Bowers noted, “Finding an MS-65 coin will be easy; finding one with Full Details will not be!”
Coin Market values are $43 in F12, $80 in XF40, and $285 in MS63. The AU nickels I found are worth about $105 today. When I found them, my 1961 Red Book (A Guide Book of United States Coins) tells me they were worth somewhere between $9 (XF) and $27.50 (uncirculated).
#6. 1921-S. With a mintage slightly below 1.6 million, which gives it a ranking of 6/64, the 1921-S has always been one of the semi key dates. Lange wrote, “1921-S is one of the scarcest Buffaloes in all grades, and its rarity in problem-free condition is compounded by the flaws described below [e .g., laminations, toning streaks, multiple die cracks].”
According to Lange, the date is also hard to grade because of “. . . weak strikes and worn dies. Although better struck than most S-Mint nickels of the 1920s, many coins of this date offered as VF-AU may be lacking a complete horn.” I currently own one 1921-S, which PCGS certified as being in F15 condition. Mine has a strong obverse but less than half a horn on the reverse. Coin Market says its value is $210 (F12). Other values for the date are $900 in XF40 and $2,600 in MS63.
#7. 1924-S. This is another low-mintage date that often has weakness on the reverse, and coins have been certified in recent years as VF and XF that lack a complete horn. According to Bowers, “Striking is usually light in some areas, so Full Details coins are few. (Although some may exist, I have never seen one.)” This comes from a man with more than 60 years of numismatic experience!
About the 1924-S, Lange commented: “Caution should be exercised when purchasing one of the many examples that are offered as Very Fine or even Extremely Fine but that lack the full length of the bison’s horn. . . . Determining the value of hornless VF-XF-AU nickels is a guessing game.” Coin Market guesses that the 1924-S is worth $280 in F12, $310 in VF20, and $875 in XF40.
#8. 1926-D. I’m including this date as one of my favorites because of my experience at the coin shop in Houston that I mentioned earlier. In addition to selling me a 1915-S for a ridiculously low price, the proprietor took me into a back room to show me a full roll of Brilliant Uncirculated 1926-D Buffalo nickels. We’re talking about coins with full mint luster and no hint of any wear on them. If graded by the extent of the horn, however, these coins would have been hard pressed to receive a grade of VG!
The mintage of this date was a little more than 5.6 million pieces, so the 1926-D is not a rare nickel by any means. However, as Lange put it, “Although not particularly scarce in most grades, the majority are so poorly struck as to render them undesirable to collectors.” Coin Market values it at $35 in F12, $210 in XF40, and $650 in MS63. I wonder what the ones I saw in Houston would be worth today. Also, I wonder what grade they would receive from one of the major services.
#9. 1926-S. With just 970,000 coins produced, this is the only regularly-issued Buffalo with a mintage below a million, which gives it the rank of 1st out of 64 date/mintmark combinations. In addition to its relatively small mintage, poor strikes are the norm. As Bowers put it, “The striking is unremarkable; the result of inaccurate die spacing and, perhaps, keeping dies in the press too long. The result is that neither I, nor any contributor to this work, have seen a Full Details coin.”
This is another Buffalo that’s often graded VF or better without a full horn on the buffalo. Lange wrote, “Weakness in the bison’s head is common enough that many examples offered as VF and XF do not meet the criteria for these grades and have been assigned them simply on the basis of overall wear.” If you find one graded VF or XF with a full horn, it’s a keeper if you can afford it.
Coin Market values are $175 in F12, $350 in VF20, and $825 in XF40. In higher grades, the 1926-S reveals why it’s considered a conditional rarity, relatively common in low grades but decidedly uncommon in higher grades. In MS65, Coin Market assigns it a value of $90,000!
I once tried to find a VF 1926-S with a full horn but eventually gave up and purchased an NGC-graded VF25 without a complete horn. I paid $253 for it in 2010. As you can see from the Coin Market value in VF20, if I can sell it as a true VF25, I can probably make money on it. But that’s a big “if.”
#10. 1931-S. Like the 1926-S Buffalo, this is another nickel with a low mintage. With only 1.2 million produced, it ranks 2nd out of 64. However, like the 1931-S Lincoln cent, its low mintage was recognized at the time, and many were saved in Mint State condition. Thus, it’s not nearly as valuable as you might expect.
Coin Market values are $21 in VF20, $40 in XF40, and just $150 in MS63. If you want a really nice coin, the Coin Market value for an MS65 is only $375. Lange noted, “1931-S is to the Buffalo Nickel series what 1950-D is to the Jefferson Nickels. It seems to be at least as common in mint state as it is in lesser grades, possibly more so. As a low mintage date, speculators were attracted to it from the outset.”
I currently own a 1931-S graded MS65 by PCGS that I purchased for $223.50 in 2003. I wish I had bought more at the time.
* * *
Well, that’s my list of my ten favorite Buffalo nickels. The coin has an iconic design featuring a genuine Native American on the obverse and a buffalo/bison on the reverse. If you like the series as much as I do, write down your ten-best list and buy the coins if you don’t already own them. I think you’ll be glad you did.
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