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The Most Valuable Buffalo Nickels: A Collector‘s Guide to Rarity, Grading and Prices

As a longtime collector and student of numismatics, I‘ve always been fascinated by the Buffalo nickel series. These coins, minted from 1913 to 1938, feature one of the most iconic and quintessentially American designs ever to grace a circulating coin. On the obverse is a striking portrait of a Native American chief, said to be a composite of three different models. The reverse depicts a mighty bison, or buffalo, standing on a raised mound.

Designed by renowned sculptor James Earle Fraser, the Buffalo nickel was a radical departure from previous U.S. coins. Its bold, naturalistic style captured the spirit of the American West and the ideals of the early 20th century. Today, it remains a favorite of collectors, investors and history buffs alike.

But what makes certain Buffalo nickels more valuable than others? How can you build a collection that‘s both personally meaningful and financially rewarding? In this in-depth guide, I‘ll share my expertise on grading, rarity, prices and more. Whether you‘re a seasoned numismatist or just starting out, I hope you‘ll find it informative and inspiring.

Buffalo Nickel Basics: History, Design and Key Dates

First, a quick review of the background and significance of the series. In 1911, the U.S. Mint held a design competition to replace the unpopular Liberty Head nickel, which had been in use since 1883. The winning entry was submitted by James Earle Fraser, a prolific sculptor and student of the great Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

Fraser‘s design was a bold departure from previous coins. The obverse featured a realistic portrait of a Native American man, facing right, with windblown hair and strong, chiseled features. Fraser later stated that the portrait was a composite of three chiefs from different tribes: Iron Tail of the Lakota, Two Moons of the Cheyenne, and John Big Tree of the Seneca.

The reverse depicted an American bison standing on a raised mound, with the motto "FIVE CENTS" below. Fraser had grown up in the Dakota Territory and witnessed the near-extinction of the once-mighty buffalo herds. His design was a tribute to this iconic animal and its importance in Native American culture.

The first Buffalo nickels were struck in February 1913, with two distinct varieties. The Type 1 coins, minted only in the early part of the year, featured the bison on a raised mound. But the high relief proved difficult to strike fully, so Chief Engraver Charles Barber modified the design to a flatter Type 2, which continued through the end of the series in 1938.

Over the course of 25 years, the U.S. Mint produced Buffalo nickels at three facilities: Philadelphia (no mint mark), San Francisco (S) and Denver (D). While some years saw mintages in the tens of millions, others are much scarcer, especially in higher grades. Some of the key dates that collectors pursue include:

  • 1913-S Type 2 (mintage: 1,209,000)
  • 1914/3 (mintage: unknown)
  • 1918/7-D (mintage: unknown)
  • 1921-S (mintage: 1,557,000)
  • 1924-S (mintage: 1,437,000)
  • 1926-S (mintage: 970,000)
  • 1931-S (mintage: 1,200,000)

These dates are challenging to find in any condition, let alone in the gem uncirculated grades that command the highest prices. But they‘re not the only Buffalo nickels that can be valuable, as we‘ll see in the next section.

Grading and Condition: The Key to Value

One of the most important factors in determining a Buffalo nickel‘s value is its condition, or grade. Like most U.S. coins, Buffalos are graded on the 70-point Sheldon scale, with "1" being a barely identifiable piece of metal and "70" being absolute perfection.

In practice, nearly all Buffalo nickels fall somewhere between these two extremes. Because they circulated heavily during their 25-year run, many surviving examples are well-worn, with grades like Good (G-4), Very Good (VG-8) or Fine (F-12). These coins may have significant wear, but they‘re still recognizable as Buffalo nickels and can be acquired for a reasonable price.

As you move up the grading scale, Buffalo nickels become exponentially scarcer and more valuable. A coin graded Very Fine (VF-20) will show moderate wear but still have clear details in the Indian‘s hair and the buffalo‘s hide. Extremely Fine (EF-40) examples are even sharper, with just traces of wear on the high points.

The real prizes for collectors are Buffalo nickels in uncirculated condition, meaning they never entered circulation and still have their original mint luster. These coins are graded on a scale from MS-60 to MS-70, with "MS" standing for "Mint State."

An MS-60 Buffalo nickel may have a few small marks or blemishes, but it will be free of wear and have a nice overall appearance. Coins graded MS-63 or higher are considered "choice" quality, with minimal marks and strong luster. Anything MS-65 or better is "gem" quality, representing the finest known examples of the issue.

As you might expect, gem uncirculated Buffalo nickels are extremely rare and highly sought-after by collectors and investors. In some cases, they may be the only known specimens of a particular date or variety in that grade. That‘s why they can sell for five-, six- or even seven-figure prices at auction.

To give you a sense of how grade affects value, let‘s look at some recent auction results for the 1926-S Buffalo nickel, one of the series key dates:

  • Good (G-4) – $100-$200
  • Very Good (VG-8) – $200-$400
  • Fine (F-12) – $500-$1,000
  • Very Fine (VF-20) – $1,500-$3,000
  • Extremely Fine (EF-40) – $5,000-$10,000
  • About Uncirculated (AU-50) – $15,000-$30,000
  • Mint State-60 (MS-60) – $50,000-$75,000
  • Mint State-63 (MS-63) – $100,000-$150,000
  • Mint State-65 (MS-65) – $250,000-$500,000
  • Mint State-66 (MS-66) – $1,000,000+

As you can see, there‘s an exponential jump in value as you move up the grading scale. A 1926-S in G-4 might be a nice collectible, but it‘s not going to fund your retirement. On the other hand, an MS-66 example could be a life-changing asset, if you‘re lucky enough to own one.

Of course, these are just general ranges, and actual prices can vary depending on market conditions, provenance and other factors. But they illustrate the importance of seeking out the highest grade you can afford, especially for the key dates.

Varieties and Errors: The Spice of Collecting

Another factor that can make a Buffalo nickel valuable is the presence of a significant die variety or error. These are coins that were struck from dies that had been modified, damaged or misaligned in some way, resulting in a visibly different appearance.

Some of the most popular and valuable Buffalo nickel varieties include:

  • 1937-D 3-Legged: The most famous Buffalo nickel error, created when a Mint employee accidentally removed one of the buffalo‘s legs while trying to fix a die clash. Only a few thousand examples are known, and they can sell for $50,000 or more in high grades.

  • 1916 Doubled Die Obverse: A spectacular doubling of the date, lettering and Indian‘s features, caused by a misaligned hub during the die-making process. Gem uncirculated examples have sold for over $100,000.

  • 1914/3 Overdate: A rare variety created when a 1914 die was hubbed over a 1913 die, leaving traces of the "3" under the "4". High-grade specimens can bring $50,000 or more.

  • 1918/7-D Overdate: Another overdate, this time with an "8" punched over a "7" on a Denver die. Even well-circulated examples are worth over $1,000, while gems can approach $500,000.

  • 1935 Doubled Die Reverse: A clear doubling of the motto "E PLURIBUS UNUM" and "FIVE CENTS", caused by a misaligned hub. This variety was discovered relatively recently and can command strong premiums in all grades.

Collecting varieties and errors can be a fun and challenging way to add depth to your Buffalo nickel collection. But it‘s important to do your research and buy from reputable sources, as there are many counterfeit or altered coins on the market.

Some key reference books for Buffalo nickel varieties include:

  • The Cherrypickers‘ Guide to Rare Die Varieties by Bill Fivaz and J.T. Stanton
  • The Comprehensive Guide to Buffalo Nickels by John Wexler and Ron Pope
  • The PCGS CoinFacts Buffalo Nickel Variety Guide by Jamie Hernandez

These books can help you identify genuine varieties and learn about their rarity and value. But they‘re no substitute for experience and a trained eye, so it‘s always a good idea to consult with a trusted dealer or fellow collector before making a major purchase.

Building a Meaningful Collection: Strategies and Tips

So, how can you start building a Buffalo nickel collection that‘s both personally satisfying and potentially lucrative? Here are some strategies to consider:

  1. Focus on quality over quantity. It‘s better to have a few high-grade coins than a large number of lower-grade ones. Look for coins with strong luster, clean surfaces and sharp details.

  2. Set realistic goals and budgets. Buffalo nickels can be expensive, especially in higher grades. Decide what you want to collect (date set, type set, varieties, etc.) and how much you can afford to spend. Don‘t overextend yourself financially.

  3. Buy from reputable dealers. Look for dealers who specialize in Buffalo nickels and have a good reputation in the hobby. Check their feedback on online forums and ask for references. Be wary of deals that seem too good to be true.

  4. Consider certified coins. For high-value coins, it‘s a good idea to buy examples that have been authenticated and graded by a reputable third-party service like PCGS or NGC. These coins will come in sealed plastic holders with a grade and serial number, which can give you peace of mind and easier resale.

  5. Study and learn. The more you know about Buffalo nickels, the better equipped you‘ll be to make smart purchasing decisions. Read books, attend shows, talk to other collectors and handle as many coins as you can. Over time, you‘ll develop a keen eye for quality and rarity.

  6. Be patient. Building a great collection takes time and persistence. Don‘t feel like you have to acquire everything at once. Wait for the right coins at the right prices, and enjoy the thrill of the hunt.

  7. Appreciate the artistry and history. While it‘s natural to focus on value, don‘t forget to stop and appreciate the beauty and significance of these coins. Imagine the stories they could tell about the people who designed, minted and used them. Think about the role they played in shaping American culture and identity.

Ultimately, collecting Buffalo nickels should be a labor of love, not just a financial investment. By approaching it with passion, knowledge and discipline, you can build a collection that will bring you joy and pride for years to come.

Conclusion: A Legacy in Copper and Nickel

In the end, the Buffalo nickel series is more than just a set of rare and valuable coins. It‘s a tangible link to a pivotal time in American history, when the nation was grappling with issues of westward expansion, Native American rights, and conservation of natural resources.

The coins‘ iconic design, with its bold portrait of a Native American chief and majestic bison, captured the spirit of the American West and the ideals of the early 20th century. Today, it remains a powerful symbol of our shared heritage and identity.

As a collector and researcher, I‘ve had the privilege of handling some of the finest known Buffalo nickels, from gem uncirculated key dates to spectacular errors and varieties. Each one tells a story and evokes a sense of wonder and discovery.

But you don‘t have to own a million-dollar rarity to appreciate the beauty and significance of these coins. Even a well-worn Buffalo nickel from your pocket change can be a treasure if you take the time to study and cherish it.

So, whether you‘re a seasoned numismatist or a curious beginner, I invite you to explore the fascinating world of Buffalo nickels. With knowledge, patience and passion, you can build a collection that will enrich your life and leave a lasting legacy for generations to come.

Happy collecting!

References and Resources