Buffalo Nickel Stack

Classic US Coins – Building a Set of Buffalo Nickels at Very Low Cost

Source: Coinweek

With more than two dozen dates costing less than $20 each and a half-dozen costing less than $2 each, a set of Very Fine to Extremely Fine grade ‘Normal Date’ Buffalo nickels can be completed without spending more than $350 on any one coin. Overdates, doubled dates and 3-Legged errors would not be included in such a set. Even so, an essentially complete set would be enjoyable to build and is very much consistent with traditions of coin collecting in the U.S.

From 2004 to 2008, quite a few Buffalo nickels sold for more than $100,000 each and three different coins were auctioned for more than $300,000 each. Collectors should be reminded that VF-20 to EF-45 grade representatives of the vast majority of the dates in the series may be purchased for prices ranging from $1 to $100. Nonetheless, assembling a nice set is not easy.

“If you seek truly original coins, Buffalo Nickels in VF-20 to EF-45 grade, with some better dates in VG-08 to Fine-15, are far more challenging than most collectors know,” asserts Warren Mills, an expert in 20th-century U.S. coins. “Completing an original set could take years, but it would be fun and satisfying. The thrill of the hunt really comes into play in this series.”

Buffalo Nickel

Buffalo Nickels were minted from 1913 to 1938. They succeeded Liberty Head nickels and were followed by Jefferson nickels.

Buffalo nickels were struck at U.S. branch mint facilities in Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco. Before 1942, Philadelphia Mint issues never had mintmarks.

A date refers to the year indicated on the coin and implicitly to the mintmark or absence of a mintmark. During much of the 19th century, collectors in the U.S. tended to ignore mintmarks. So far in the 21st century, PCGS and NGC have referred to a ‘date’ as a year, irrespective of the location of the mint that struck the coin. In my experience, however, collecting ‘by date’ has meant seeking all pertinent year and mintmark combinations.

When I was growing up, 1908, 1908-D, 1908-O and 1908-S Barber dimes were considered four different dates. No one said to me: I am collecting by date and mintmark! Someone collecting Barber dimes ‘by date’ would attempt to acquire four different coins of the year ‘1908’. It was implied that ‘collecting by date’ referred to mint locations and very much apparent overdates.

I have been discussing U.S. coins with collectors since I was five years old, and I have had published more than six hundred numismatic articles. I have never met a collector who was was seeking just one coin of each year in a series that includes coins with mintmarks. Coin enthusiasts in the present and the recent past regard a 1935-D and a 1935-S as two different dates, both of which would be needed for a pertinent set ‘by date’.

An overdate can be a second date of the same type, year and mint. For an overdate to have the status of a distinct date, it must be popular with collectors and the overdate aspect must be readily apparent without magnification.

The “1914/3”, if it really is a 1914/3 overdate, is just too subtle to qualify as a second Philadelphia Mint date of the year 1914. High magnification and considerable concentration are required to identify the anomaly relating to the numeral ‘4’. This is a die variety, not a date.

The 1918/7-D overdate is readily apparent; it is just too expensive for a collector building a set while on a tight budget. Collectors of Buffalo nickels at a very low cost must ignore the 1918/7-D overdate and the 1916/1916 ‘Doubled Date’, which is also called a “Doubled Die”.

A ‘Normal Date’ relates to coins struck from a die where the numerals of the year are clean cut, properly formed, and unambiguous. Although ‘normal numerals’ would be a more logical term, the term ‘Normal Date’ has become widely accepted in the culture of coin collecting. The theme here is assembling a relatively original, complete set of ‘Normal Date’ Buffalo nickels, at a very low cost.

“It is necessary to learn about original coins if you want knowledgeable buyers to be interested in your coins sooner or later,” states Mills. “See coins at coin shows and view auction lots. There are many circulated coins in Internet-only sessions of large auctions.”

The two leading grading services are PCGS and NGC, each of which grade coins on a scale from 01 to 70. Very Fine grades are 20, 25, 30 and 35. Extremely Fine grades are 40, 45 and 45+. Grading criteria cannot be entirely explained in words. It is important to view a large number of relevant coins.

“For a set of VF to EF Buffalo nickels, you would be buying a lot of raw coins. But, for Buffalo nickels that cost more than $100, it is a good idea to buy PCGS- or NGC-certified coins, because there are nickels with fake mintmarks around. Coin doctors add ‘D’ or ‘S’ mintmarks to Philadelphia Mint coins. Even though the services grade lots of badly cleaned or colored coins, they do a great job of detecting added mintmarks and authenticating coins,” Mills reveals.

Warren has been trading Buffalo nickels for more than 40 years.

Are Nickels Made of Nickel?

Three Cent Nickels were first minted in 1865 before the first five cent nickels–Shield nickels–were introduced for circulation in 1866. By tradition, though, the term ‘nickel’ refers to five cent coins that consist of an alloy of 25% nickel and 75% copper.

It is curious that such an alloy, which is just 25% nickel, is dominated by the color of nickel. The long-term brown color of copper is usually not noticeable at all – a scientific reality that surprises many people. To someone who is unfamiliar with the relevant chemistry, nickels appear to be much more than 25% nickel.

Nickel in Raw Form
Nickel in Raw Form

Indeed, patterns that were struck in 100% nickel do not appear dramatically different in color than coins that are 25% nickel and 75% copper in composition.

A special World War II era alloy was employed in the production of Jefferson nickels from some point in 1942 to 1945. This alloy is 56% copper, 35% silver, and 9% manganese. Again, the copper majority is dominated by a minority force as ‘war nickels’ tend not to appear at all like coins that are more than 90% copper.

But war nickels are exceptions. Typically, a U.S. nickel coin is 25% nickel in composition, including Three Cent Nickels.

The Design of Buffalo Nickels

The design of the Buffalo nickel features a bison on the reverse (back) and the head of a Native American on the obverse (front). The animals of North America that are typically called ‘buffaloes’ are termed American bisons in the discipline of zoology.

Scientists maintain that true buffaloes never lived in the wild in North America. They are indigenous to Africa and Asia, the African cape buffalo and the Asian water buffalo.

“A small population of bison relatives called the European bison,” states Jeanna Bryner on LiveScience.com, “lives in isolated parts of Poland”!

As so many millions of people, for more than three centuries, have been referring to American bison as buffaloes, it would make sense to rename the American bison the ‘American Buffalo’, especially since the American bison is very much related to Asian and African species of buffaloes. Indeed, more than 90% of all interested people refer to an American bison as a ‘buffalo’. What did the designer of Buffalo nickels call these animals?

Navy Cross Medal - James Earle Fraser

The designer, James Earle Fraser, was a former assistant to Augustus Saint-Gaudens. His works relating to the American West are widely known. Further, Fraser was involved in the design of a few vintage commemorative coins, including the Oregon Trail half dollar. Also, Fraser designed the Navy Cross medal. Other than the Medal of Honor, the Navy Cross is the highest award for valor that may be awarded for actions during service in the U.S. Navy or Marine Corps.

Fraser’s Buffalo nickel design was modified in the middle of 1913. There were thus two “types” of Buffalo nickels minted during 1913, which are not much different; some nickel enthusiasts refer to them as subtypes rather than as separate design types.

Charles Barber smoothed the design, making nickels seem less sculptural, slightly less detailed and simpler, though such differences are subtle. The main difference relates to the fact that, on “Type 1” Buffalo nickels, the denomination in words, “FIVE CENTS,” appears on a mound on the reverse (back of the coin). The letters in the denomination are relatively high. There was concern that the letters would wear down rapidly while these nickels circulated and then the monetary value of each coin would be illegible.

This explanation never sounded very convincing. It is hard to imagine many people in 1913 having to read the denomination in order to become aware that a nickel had a face value of five cents and it is unlikely that many people would think that gold-plated worn Buffalo nickels were $5 gold coins.

For whatever reason, the design of Buffalo nickels was modified such that the words in the denomination, ‘FIVE CENTS,’ were no longer on a raised design element. The mound, on which, the Buffalo stands, was shrunk and placed above an area on the lower reverse where the words of the denomination appear by themselves in lower relief. Such an area is formally termed an exergue, a space below and separated from the main elements of the design.

The Toning of Buffalo Nickels

Artificially Toned Buffalo Nickel

Without seeking advice from an expert, Buffalo nickels with bright blue, magenta, rich yellow or rainbow toning should be avoided, as many of these have been deliberately modified. Collectors often spend thousands of dollars for artificially toned Buffalo nickels.

Warren recommends that collectors seek VF to EF grade Buffalo nickels with even gray colors. Post-dip colors are a particular concern of his.

I maintain that, on VF to EF grade Buffalo nickels, natural gray colors may often have blended with natural light brown, mottled green, medium russet and/or tan tones. Small orange-russet patches may sometimes be natural as well.

Collecting ‘By Date’

People who collect business strike Buffalo nickels ‘by date’ (and U.S. Mint location) usually seek six Buffalo nickels of the year 1913, Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco issues of both “Type 1” and “Type 2” nickels. Although extremely popular now and a one-year only design type, 1913 issues with ‘FIVE CENTS’ on a mound (“Type 1”) are not very expensive. These were saved in large quantities.

In Very Fine-20 grade, fair retail prices might be $12.50 for a 1913, $20 for a 1913-D and $45 for a 1913-S. EF-40 grade prices are not be much higher, maybe $20 for a 1913, $40 for a 1913-D, and $60 for a 1913-S. These are market levels for so-called ‘Type 1’ Buffalo nickels, with ‘Five Cents’ on a raised mound.

1913 Buffalo Nickel Reverses, Type I (Left), Type II (Right)
1913 Buffalo Nickel Reverses, Type I (Left), Type II (Right)

Type 2” 1913 Buffalo nickels are scarcer and more expensive in the present. These were made later in the year 1913 and were not saved to the same extent as the earlier issues. I repeat that the ‘Type 2’ pieces are those with the words in the denomination, ‘FIVE CENTS’, below a reduced-size mound, in relatively low relief.

The 1913 ‘Type 2’ Philadelphia Mint nickel retails for less than $20 in VF-20 grade and less than $40 in EF-40 grade. Part-time dealers at small coin shows may sell relatively inexpensive, uncertified coins for a wide range of prices.

Part of the fun of seeking inexpensive Buffalo nickels is that the coins to be found at any one show and their respective asking prices cannot be predicted to a large extent. Trips to coin shows may lead to good deals, bad deals, fair deals, and many surprises. Coins that seem to be good deals should be inspected carefully with a magnifying glass.

The 1913 Denver Mint ‘Type 2’ nickel is a ‘better date’. Over the last six weeks, GreatCollections sold a PCGS-graded VF-35 1913-D and an NGC-graded VF-35 1913-D. The NGC-certified coin brought $119.25 and the PCGS-certified 1913-D went for $118.12. During the same time period, a PCGS-graded EF-40 1913-D brought $137.25. The prices asked by some coin dealers for equivalent coins might be significantly higher. Certainly, if a buyer budgeted $150 for a “Type 2” 1913-D, he or she could be very selective.

The ‘Type 2’ 1913-S is very scarce in relative terms. Here are estimates of retail levels for coins of this date in some circulated grades: Good-04 $195, Fine-12 $280, VF-20 $325, and EF-40 $390. In some cases, coins that sell for unexpectedly weak prices have problems that deterred some prospective buyers.

“Many collectors think that only uncirculated nickels are subject to being altered or played with for higher certified grades, but that is not true. Some of the circulated early Buffalo nickels have been washed, dipped, harmfully cleaned or colored. You do not know how they will change in the holders over time,” warns Warren Mills.

The late dates are far less likely to be modified than early dates in the series of Buffalo nickels. The 1937-D with just three legs is a mint error and is an anomaly. Beginners and collectors on tight budgets should ignore it.

The most common dates in the series are: 19351935-S19361936-D1936-S19371937-D, and 1937-S.

“You can probably can buy Extremely Fine grade coins for $1 to $2 at shows or from the budget boxes in coin shops,” Mills maintains.

Although the 1938-D is the most common in uncirculated grades, an Extremely Fine grade 1938-D is worth a premium over nickels of the just mentioned dates. An EF-40 grade 1938-D might cost as much as $3!

The 1934-D and the 1935-D are not as common as the most common dates in the series. A VF-20 grade 1935-D would probably cost between $4 and $10. An Extremely Fine-40 grade 1935-D would probably be priced in a range from $13.50 to $22.

The 1934, 1930-S, 1930, 1929-S, 1929, and 1928 only cost slightly more than the most common dates, perhaps retailing for less than $7 in Very Fine grade. In Extremely Fine-40 grade, these might cost from $9 to $15 each, I figured. Warren finds, however, that “real solid Extremely Fine” grade coins of these dates, each “with a full horn,” would only cost “around $10” each in many settings.

1934 Nickel

Prices vary for dates in the 1920s. It is not practical analyze prices for every date here. The 1921-S, 1924-S, and 1926-S are notably better dates and would be among the most expensive acquisitions in a ‘Normal Date’ set.

“The 1926-S in Very Fine would probably cost around $200. They are pretty readily available. The 1926-S is a little overrated,” Warren says.

The media attention received by uncirculated 1926-S nickels may have had an impact on demand for circulated 1926-S nickels. The 1921-S does not receive nearly as much attention.

Warren Mills finds that “many 1921-S nickels were struck on awful planchets [prepared blanks]. The coins look like they are peeling, like skin peels after a bad sunburn. Be careful about buying a 1921-S. A really nice VF-20 would probably cost $250 to $300, for one that is original and struck on a nice planchet.”

About a year ago, Stack’s-Bowers sold a PCGS-graded VF-20 1921-S, with a CAC sticker of approval, for $235. A Very Good grade 1921-S could be found and acquired for less than $100.

The 1918-D, the 1919-D, the 1919-S, the 1920-D, the 1920-S and the 1923-S are all worth around the same amounts in VF to EF grades. They are all relatively scarce dates.

On June 25, 2017, GreatCollections sold a PCGS-graded EF-40 1920-S for $198.00. More recently, the same firm sold a PCGS-graded VG-10 1920-S for $15.47.

On December 3, 2017, GreatCollections sold a PCGS-graded EF-40 1923-S for $175.50. A week earlier, this same firm sold an NGC-graded Fine-15 1923-S for $18.

Although some early dates command substantial premiums, other early dates are available for low amounts. A Very Fine grade 1916 is worth around $10. An Extremely Fine grade 1915 is likely to retail for less than $30.

A complete set of ‘Normal Date’ Buffalo nickels, in which each coin grades at least VF-20, is inexpensive in the framework of classic U.S. coins. A VF-20 1916-D Mercury dime might cost $4,000. A VF grade 1916 Standing Liberty Quarter would probably be priced above $5,000 and a VF-20 1923-S quarter would certainly sell for more than $600. A VF-20 grade 1921 half dollar would retail for more than $500 and a VF-20 1921-S for more than $1,000!

‘Normal Date’ Buffalo Nickels are relatively affordable and have been extremely popular with collectors for more than a half-century. After assembling a set, a collector may start another project. Mercury dimes can be effectively collected at a very low cost as well, as can ‘Normal Date’ Capped Bust half dollars.

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