Still Collecting the Classics: Affordable Buffalo Nickels
— Mark Benvenuto
The price of gold may rise. The price of gold may fall. The price of silver may follow gold like the tail on the proverbial dog. Through it all though, there are still some coins worth collecting simply because they are beautiful, are historic, are artistically rendered, and are immune to the rises and falls of the precious metals markets. Buffalo nickels are one such series.
Issued from 1913 to 1938, the Buffalo nickel – also called the Indian Head nickel – is the artwork of Mr. James Earle Fraser. Mr. Fraser gets credit for designing the first circulating United States coin in which the images look real, authentic, and life-like, as opposed to the more staid, formulaic designs that had come before. The Native American who dominates the obverse looks as if he stepped out of history. The buffalo on the reverse – more properly called a bison – could likewise have come straight from the prairie. It is these two images, and Mr. Fraser’s ability to capture them so well, that make these nickels a classic design within United States coinage.
Like quite a few series of United States coinage, the first year of the Buffalo nickel saw a design change after tens of millions had been produced and released for circulation. What is now called Variety I depicts the buffalo on the reverse standing on a raised mound, with the words “FIVE CENTS” further raised off the mound. The common wisdom today, one hundred years after the fact, is that the design made the wording wear off quickly, although you have to wonder just how quickly if the design was changed after only a few months. The other general belief today is that the design didn’t strike up well. Whatever the case though, there were just under 31 million of the Variety I produced at the Main Mint in Philadelphia, and just under 30 million of Variety II, in which the mound was gone, and the words were placed in a recessed exergue. These two varieties of the 1913 can mark the beginning of a collection of affordable Buffalo nickels. Today, each one costs less than $50 in the lower grades of mint state.
In addition, the two branch Mints, in Denver and San Francisco, were also busy cranking out nickels in 1913, with Denver pounding out 5.3 million Variety I, and 4.1 million Variety II, and San Fran adding 2.1 million Variety I and 1.2 million Variety II nickels. Curiously though, despite million-plus mintages, the prices of these 1913’s with mint marks jumps significantly right when a person gets to the MS-60 grade. And that’s really the main point of what we’re going to suggest when it comes to collecting these gorgeous nickels. In too many cases, the mint marked nickels are costly, and should be added to a collection only after the more affordable Philadelphia pieces have been assembled into a date run.
From the 1913 onward, just about every date in this series can be had for fairly inexpensive prices, as long as a person sticks with the pieces from Philly. The 1918 becomes a bit expensive in uncirculated grades, despite having a mintage of over 32 million coins. But by the time a person gets to the 1928 Buffalos, the prices really drop. And if a collector wishes to jump into the waters where you can fish for some absolutely excellent nickels (to mix up a few metaphors), the 1936 is the true place to start. There were 118,997,000 Buffalo nickels produced that year in Philadelphia, which means that even MS-65 examples are affordable today.
Assembling a date run of Buffalo nickels is a great deal of fun, and doesn’t end up being all that costly. While we have just focused on mint state coins, if the cost there is too high – if for instance, you insist on spending no more than $20 per coin for anything in our collection – there are still some great possibilities in the higher circulated grades. The AU-50 and EF-40 Buffalo nickels are still very attractive, and sport prices that in some cases might be fire sale tags.
On the flip side of things, as it were, a date run of Buffalo nickels can be the gateway to a more complete collection including as many D and S mint marks as one can afford. Collecting should never be an expense that competes with paying the rent or the mortgage, and thus each person has to come up with their own rules for what to spend. Some of us might be able to afford the $5,000 price tag for a 1926-S Buffalo in MS-60, while others might think that paying $100 for it in F-12 is still too much. The choice is always individual.
There is one final approach to the Buffalo nickel series that a person could consider, but it’s not what most of us would consider affordable: look to the proofs and the famous varieties. There were proof Buffalos made for a few years at both ends of the series. Any would be a bargain at $1,000 – or even something higher. The famous 1937-D with three legs is the most famous of all the rare varieties of Buffalo nickel, and that just-mentioned $1K might get you one in EF-40. Maybe.
When it comes to affordable Buffalo nickels, we’ve just seen that there is still quite a bit out there from which a person could choose. Let the precious metals rise and fall, and enjoy their roller coaster ride. For the pure collector, the Buffalo nickels can still be quite a bit of fun.