Few U.S. coins are more prized, romanticized, and searched for than the rare buffalo nickels. This unique artifact of the 20th century is the target of avid collectors more than a century after it was first minted.
So how did the buffalo nickel come into being, and which versions of it are the most valuable?
A Brief History of Rare Buffalo Nickels
The U.S. Mint began to produce five-cent nickel pieces shortly after the Civil War. New coinage was sorely needed in the states, and nickel was much more plentiful than gold and silver.
Original five-cent pieces, or shield nickels, were produced from 1866 to 1883. They featured a rather intricate, frilly shield on the “heads” side.
On the reverse was a stars-and-beams celebration of the number “5,” a complex design that the U.S. Mint’s stamping machines eventually couldn’t handle.
In 1883, chief engraver Charles Barber designed the Liberty nickel or Liberty Head nickel. This piece, featuring the ever-popular Lady Liberty on the head’s side, went into circulation in 1883 and was minted for 30 years.
The five-cent coin is also known as the V Nickel because of the eye-catching “V” (the Roman numeral for 5) stamped on the tails side.
Buffalo Nickel Evolving Design
In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt lodged some complaints about the design of coins in current circulation.
The nickel couldn’t be immediately redesigned because of a Congressional act passed in 1890, preventing new designs on existing coins for 25 years after original minting.
Finally, in 1912, the U.S. Mint commissioned sculptor James Earle Fraser to develop some new styles for the five-cent piece.
The design that received the best response featured sketches of the head of a Native American and an American bison.
Production began in 1913 at the Denver, Philadelphia, and San Francisco Mint operations. It was minted for 25 years.
In 1938, the buffalo nickel gave way to the Jefferson nickel, the design that’s still in circulation today.
Design Elements of Rare Buffalo Nickels
James E. Fraser used real-life models in the proof coins for the buffalo nickel.
The Native American portrait on the obverse was a composite of three Native American chiefs who had posed for Fraser’s work in the past: Big John Tree of the Seneca Nation, Iron Tail of the Sioux, and Two Moons of the Cheyenne. It’s a rather striking profile.
The heads side of the buffalo nickel originally featured a date stamp just beneath the neck of the chief, along with the inscription “LIBERTY” arced along the top-right area of the coin.
On the reverse side of the nickel is an image of the American bison, commonly known as the buffalo.
It’s widely thought that Fraser based this image on a buffalo named Black Diamond who lived in the Central Park Zoo in New York City. The buffalo stands atop a somewhat nondescript mound of dirt on the coin.
The words “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” are inscribed in an arc along the top edge of the coin, with the phrase “E PLURIBUS UNUM” scrunched in just beneath the right side.
The denomination “FIVE CENTS” appears in a straight line just under the dirt mound.
Most Valuable Buffalo Nickels
1913 Liberty Head V Nickel – $3,737,000
1918 7-D Buffalo Nickel – $350,700
1926 S Buffalo Nickel – $322,000
1916 Buffalo Nickel – $282,000
1913 D Buffalo Nickel – $143,500
1917 S Buffalo Nickel – $138,000
1920 D Buffalo Nickel – $138,000
1867 Shield Nickel – $132,000
1918 S Buffalo Nickel – $125,000
1927 S Buffalo Nickel – $125,500
There are a few key dates in the minting of rare buffalo nickels that coin collectors keep an eye out for. Let’s break down the most significant designs corresponding to those years.
1913-S Type 2
The first buffalo nickel featured a Native American profile on the head’s side. On the reverse of the coin, it showed an American bison standing pensively atop a raised mound of dirt, with the phrase “FIVE CENTS” depicted along the bottom.
The problem with the first coin was that the phrase seemed to wear away rather quickly. It was stamped flat underneath the mound of dirt, with no apparent separation between the design elements.
The second series of the buffalo nickel fixed this problem by inserting a ridge just below the dirt and recessing the denomination. These features, along with the rim of the coin, prevented the “FIVE CENTS” phrase from erosion.
All the U.S. Mints produced the 1913 varieties, but those minted in San Francisco (identified with the “S” mint mark on the tails side) are considered the rarest and most valuable.
1915-S Buffalo Nickel
For higher-grade examples, the 1915-S Buffalo Nickel coin values range from $50 to over $1,000. Uncirculated high graded coins are extremely rare, but overall, circulated coins are just as challenging to find.
Out of the 1.5 million 1915-S buffalo nickels minted, only about 6,000 are estimated to have survived.
1916/16 Doubled Die Variety
In 1916, the Philadelphia U.S. Mint experienced a fault in its production process. This caused the date stamp on the obverse to appear “doubled.”
On a 1916 double die buffalo nickel, you can see the “916” digits of the date replicated as a sort of shadow of the main date.
The error was caught, and production resumed with a readable date after only a few hundred double die coins were minted.
Minting errors, of course, command extreme attention from rare coin collectors. This makes the 1916/16 buffalo nickel one of the most sought-after, valuable coins in the entire series.
Even lower-grade 1916/16 coins can fetch a few thousand dollars on the market, while coins in uncirculated condition are worth upwards of $100,000.
1918-D 8 Over 7
Another production mistake happened at the U.S. Mint in Denver in 1918.
In this mishap, the 1918 date stamp appeared superimposed over the year 1917 — look closely at the last digit where the “8” shows a slight impression of a “7” going through it.
Experts theorize somebody forgot to change the date on the machines at the beginning of the year (like we all did back when it was still common to write personal checks by hand!).
It’s estimated that about 100,000 of the 1918-D double die coins were put out into circulation. Uncirculated versions of the coin are exceedingly rare because collectors didn’t get to them before the general public did.
A low-grade specimen of this coin has a value of nearly $1,000, while a genuine uncirculated version can top $50,000 in value.
1921-S, 1924-S, and 1926-S
The buffalo nickel was in wide circulation in the 1920s. But throughout the decade, there was a great disparity in the number of coins made by regional centers of the U.S. Mint — specifically, San Francisco.
Philadelphia and San Francisco were the only U.S. Mints to produce the buffalo nickel in 1921. Philadelphia made over 10,000,000 nickels, while San Francisco only made around 1,500,000.
The low mintage of the San Francisco coins makes them far more valuable to collectors. While circulated 1921-S coins aren’t that hard to find, they still command high prices. The ultra-rare uncirculated coins can be worth more than $1,000 each.
Similarly, the San Francisco U.S. Mint produced a paltry 1,500,000 buffalo nickels in 1924, only about one-fourteenth of the total made in Philadelphia and Denver.
1924-S buffalo nickels are extremely valuable to collectors, with uncirculated grades fetching more than $2,000 on the collectibles market.
San Francisco production of the 1926 buffalo nickel slowed down even more, capping at only 970,000.
Philadelphia alone produced over 45,000,000 coins and Denver’s minting of almost 6,000,000. Again, 1926-S versions of the buffalo nickel are highly sought after.
1935 Doubled Die Reverse
All sorts of things went wrong at the Philadelphia U.S. Mint in 1935.
Some buffalo nickels fell victim to the double die error, and those coins show what looks like an extra stamp on the “FIVE CENTS” and “E PLURIBUS UNUM” inscriptions.
Another subset of those coins shows the doubling effect on features of the buffalo’s head.
1937-D Three-Legged Buffalo
This rare coin is, arguably, the most famous and definitive in the buffalo nickel series. In 1937, a Denver mint worker tried to repair some common scratches on a worn-out reverse die.
In the process, they wound up over-polishing the die component.
This admirably eager but ultimately inattentive worker scrubbed so hard that they wound up removing the front foreleg of the buffalo, giving it the impression of having only three legs.
The mutant buffalo is worth a lot of money on the collectibles market. It was quickly removed from circulation in 1938, confirming its collectible status.
Watch out for fake versions of the three-legged buffalo coin.
Some unscrupulous individuals with time on their hands have tried to “rub out” the front leg on normal 1937 buffalo nickels to make it look like the rare version. These altered coins aren’t worth much at all.
What to Look for in Rare Buffalo Nickels
There are four distinguishing characteristics to consider when estimating the value of rare buffalo nickels. We’ll describe these traits and identify those worth the most on the collectibles market.
The buffalo nickel was produced at three United States mint facilities: Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco.
All versions of the buffalo nickel feature a date stamp showing the year the coin was minted (unless it has worn off over time). It’s found in the lower left area, just underneath the Native American chief’s head.
Value of a Buffalo Nickel with No Date
There are some buffalo nickels with no date stamped on them — or at least appear so. This isn’t a design flaw; it’s simply because the date wore off over time.
It may be possible to reveal the date with a commercial ferric chloride solution, but doing so can cause damage to the coin, making them almost worthless to collectors.
To properly value a rare buffalo nickel, you must know the date. The value of a buffalo nickel with no date is worth about ten cents.
Luckily, in 1913, James Earl Fraser corrected his design of the buffalo nickel by dropping the lettering below the coin’s rim so the lettering and date wouldn’t wear off.
This minor adjustment to the raised coin stamping prevented premature wear and solved the problem of the buffalo nickel with no date marks. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but your worn buffalo nickel is not the treasure you’ve been searching for.
A single-letter mintmark indicates the buffalo nickel location was minted beneath the “FIVE CENTS” denomination — or, as the case may be, the lack of one.
Coins from Denver mints are identified with a “D”; San Francisco coins with an “S.” However, buffalo nickels with no mintmark came from the Philadelphia facility.
Although all buffalo nickels in mint state are worth considerably more than their face value, certain denominations fetch more than others.
The series with the highest listed price is the 1926-S mint, owing to the low mintage San Francisco issue during the 1920s.
A mint-state 1926-S coin is worth nearly $3,000, and even one in merely good condition is worth about $15 — considerably more than other buffalo nickels with no flaws.
As with all other collectible coins, the condition of buffalo coins indicates the nickels that are worth money on the market.
As you might expect, the more clearly and sharply the design elements appear on the coin, the higher grade it’s likely to score.
Rare Buffalo nickels are examined by a professional coin grading service with four quality categories: “mint,” “extremely fine,” “fine,” and “good.” Mint coins have the clearest definition and are worth the most.
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Even merely “good” coins with obvious erosion and “smudged” looks may have a high price, depending on the other factors that infer value.
Completely or near-completely faded buffalo nickels aren’t worth your time or money.
Buffalo nickels that were uncirculated are more valuable — especially those produced in years when many buffalo nickels were in circulation, making those years’ uncirculated versions extremely rare.
An uncirculated 1936 buffalo nickel’s value is especially high at auction houses for just that reason.
Rare Buffalo Nickels Distinct Qualities and Errors
The 1913 design change is one example of an alteration that makes the buffalo nickel unique.
Buffalo nickels from 1913 are divided into Type I and Type II, the difference being the appearance of either a raised “FIVE CENTS” denomination (Type I) or a recessed one (Type II).
And, of course, minting errors make collectors’ hearts throb. Mint and extremely fine buffalo nickels in the 1918/17-D series are so rare; some appraisers don’t even list a value for them.
Even merely “fine” condition copies of this coin are worth more than $1,000.
But especially with the three-legged buffalo series, be on guard against counterfeit error coins with illegitimately inflated prices.
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