Buffalo Nickel Collection
Beginning a buffalo nickel collection can be a fun way to become a numismatist, a fancy word for coin collector. By focusing efforts on this narrow collecting niche, the hobbyist learns the ins and outs of coin collecting, including the numismatic lingo, the factors that determine rarity, and gains experience understanding buffalo nickel value. As a bonus, the fascinating up-and-down history of this particular collectible reflects interesting popular and economic trends of the twentieth century.
The original coin, also known as the five-cent Indian Head, was first minted in 1913. It was designed by James Earle Fraser (1876-1953) who studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Academie Julian and Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. He is most known for his award-winning 18' plaster sculpture, The End of the Trail, which he completed before he was seventeen years old and first exhibited at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. The work depicts a dejected Native American astride an equally weary horse, memorializing both a great people and an ugly chapter of the United States expansion into the West. It's so realistic that one can almost imagining Jesus whispering, "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls" (Matthew 11:28-29).
Fraser designed the profile of an Indian on the obverse, or front side, of the five-cent piece based on three Native American models. Before his death, he identified two of them as Lakota Sioux Chief Iron Tail and Cheyenne Chief Two Moons. However, he couldn't recall the name of the third model. The buffalo on the reverse side isn't a buffalo at all. The large hairy beast that settlers found on the western plains is a bison. The Sioux word is "tatanka." This particular bison is Black Diamond who was a popular attraction at the turn of the century at the New York Zoological Gardens. According to the U.S. Mint's website, the design "showcases the native beauty of the American West."
Fraser's original design shows the bison standing on a mound. In numismatic terminology, this is the 1913 Type I piece. A second minting, 1913 Type II, shows Black Diamond standing on a straighter line. The designer's initial, a capital F, is below the date on the obverse side. When the 1913 Type I debuted, many Americans kept coins they either found in their pocket change or purposely obtained from a bank. The hobbyist's interest in beginning a buffalo nickel collection had begun. But today's collectors find that the Type II has the higher buffalo nickel value because it is not as common.
In numismatic lingo, "type" refers to a planned design change. The term "variety" refers to an unplanned change caused by a die production error or a problem caused by the die becoming worn. A die is the steel rod that has a negative, or mirror image, of the emblems (design, date, lettering) cut into its end. In the minting process, the die strikes the metal, imprinting the design onto the coin. Experts categorize varieties into four types: 1) doubled dies where the metal is hit more than once and misalignment occurs; 2) repunched and over mintmarks where one mintmark is struck over a different mintmark; 3) abraded dies where design elements are abraded by fine wire brushes; and 4) destructive dies where the die itself is broken or cracked. A popular example of a destructive die is the 1920 buffalo nickel where "cud" on the reverse side obliterated the mintmark. A cud occurs when a piece of the die is partially or completely broken causing an incomplete design when the die strikes the metal.
A buffalo nickel value is based on such rarity factors as the mintage numbers, the die varieties which depends on the particular die run compared to the total number of minted coins, and strike or, more technically, lack of strike because then the coin lacks the design detail of a correctly struck piece. Approximately 1.2 billion buffalo nickels were minted between 1913 and 1938 at three minting facilities: Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco. Those struck in Philadelphia have no mintmark. Denver is denoted with a D and San Francisco with an S on the design.
The top four varieties needed for a top-notch buffalo nickel collection are the 1916/1916 doubled die obverse; the 1918/7-D doubled die obverse over-date; the 1935 doubled die reverse; and the 1937-D three-legged bison. With an understanding of the terminology, even a novice can figure out that the 1916/1916 doubled die obverse had the date struck twice on the Indian head side of the five-cent piece. The 1937-D three-legged bison is actually one of the most famous examples of an abraded die error. Another popular collectible is the 1914/3 doubled die over-date.
In the late twenties and early thirties, during the years of the Great Depression, families engaged in inexpensive hobbies such as board games and puzzles. During this time period, "coinboards," flat cardboard pieces with round coin-sized slots, became popular. A resurgence in popularity occurred in the 1940s-1950s as people began looking through their pocket change to fill up the coinboard slots. Prices became stagnant and the popularity of coin collecting declined in the 1970s. During this time, grading disputes occurred as the designation of BU for "Brilliant Uncirculated" was used for practically any shiny coin. Dealers challenged the designation when they would find microscopic wear on such a designated coin and lessen its supposed value.
The first third-party grading (TPG) company was established in 1972 to help resolve these conflicts. TPG companies grade and authenticate a coin, then enclose it in a holder. A graded and enclosed coin is said by numismatists to have been "slabbed." The authentication process ensures the validity of the buffalo nickel value assigned by dealers and collectors. A buffalo nickel collection that has been authenticated by a well-respected company with the strictest grading standards gains value over a similar unauthenticated set.
Buffalo Nickel CoinBuffalo nickels dealers on the Internet offer deals to purchase rare coins and ones that are popular. Rare coins appreciate the most over time in comparison with other types of collections. A buffalo nickel coin is considered rare because there are not a lot of them. Online merchants have sets or collections that are offered as well as single coins. Some advertise guarantees and will beat the prices of others when purchasing collections. Dealers may have the top picks that are rare, popular, and have historical significance. Many of these have significant price appreciation associated with them. Coins are from all over the world and some are extremely rare. Offerings include ones that are made from gold, silver, nickel, and platinum.
For those who do not collect because they do not understand how, there are workshops or programs that help to educate people on collecting money and other types of items. Nonprofit organizations that offer information on collecting include museums, libraries, conventions, seminars, and other outreaches. Buffalo nickels dealers will be able to answer questions about collecting and make some suggestions on the best coins to purchase. A person may also want to become a member of associations for collectors and attend conventions to get to know other members with the possibility of buying, selling, and trading. Some sites publish newsletters and furnish articles that may be very helpful to the beginning trader.
Free workshops help attendees and collectors to learn more about the trade. Experts can tell a collector how much his or her collection might be worth. Attending workshops can be very educational and informative for a new collector. Conventions or money shows have many booths set up with well respected dealers and supplies where visitors can attend and bring in their own coins for appraisals. A buffalo nickel coin can be appraised for its value by taking it to a convention or to a local dealer. In addition, a collector can enroll their collection in exhibits that win prizes based upon the rarity and extensiveness of a collection. There are many opportunities found at conventions and shows of rare pieces. A numismatic can meet other people who have the same hobbies and interests as well.
Coins have been around for thousands of years and have been collected almost as long as they have been around. Even the ancient Babylonians used gold and silver as a means of exchange for goods. The first coins were constructed with a hammer and were very beautiful. During the sixteenth century heavy machinery began the process called minting. Milled coins were attractive and very uniform in shape. Most often gold and silver were milled into coins so that they were easier to divide and transport. Buffalo nickels dealers carry a variety of metals, gold, silver, nickel, and platinum collections. An informed dealer will have historical information available with choice pieces.
In the Western world coins are often milled with likenesses of monarchs, presidents, or key historical figures. George Washington's profile was milled on the quarter in 1932 and is still being used today because of its popularity. Other President's profiled on coins include Thomas Jefferson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Dwight D. Eisenhower. A buffalo nickel coin had its beginnings from representations of Native Americans in 1913 and were milled until 1938. Collecting is so popular that there are millions of active hobbyists including professional dealers and worldwide investors.
Some people collect coins for their artistic beauty or historical significance. Other items on collections include animals, plants, ships, maps, buildings, and religious motifs. Collecting and investing should be done responsibly, "A faithful man shall abound with blessings: but he that maketh haste to be rich shall not be innocent" (Proverbs 28:20). A hobbyist might want to look for commemorative sets, or particular designs that are of interest. Buffalo nickels dealers offer many types of sets and designs that may appeal to any type of collector. New series have been milled to spark the interest of new collectors. Some of these include the new 50 state quarters and the forward facing nickel with Thomas Jefferson on it. Supply and demand largely determine how much a piece is worth. A dealer or collector may be willing to pay a lot for coins that are in high demand. A person interested in becoming a hobbyist may want to purchase a catalog to get an idea about how much money will need to be invested to start a collection.
Many people view coin collecting as serious investing and take great pride in caring for their coins. Some decide to try numismatic instead of investing in the stock market because the risk in the stock market can be much greater. Others invest diversely putting a certain percentage towards numismatics. A buffalo nickel coin is a popular investment for serious numismatics. Serious investors should learn how to care for their collection including cleaning and storing. Most dealers and hobbyists do not recommend cleaning coins unless the person knows how to do so without damaging the piece. The best rule of thumb is to never clean the piece with commercial jewelry cleaners or metal polishes. Improper cleaning can lower the value of the piece significantly. Never clean pieces with any type of harsh chemical. Hobbyists should have professional's clean their coins or use a mild liquid dishwashing soap with a toothbrush or petroleum jelly to clean. Trying to restore a coin that is old to look brand new may decrease the value instead of increasing it.