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.

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