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Buffalo nickels: Tips on how to start building a collection

Updated 15th March 2020
5 cents coin, Buffalo Nickel, USA, 1915
Credit: Ivan Vdovin/Alamy Stock Photo
Buffalo nickels: Tips on how to start building a collection
Written by Forrest Brown, CNN
Whether an entry point for budding neophytes or the domain of studied numismatists, buffalo nickels hold a fascinating place in the world of coin collecting.
For the uninitiated, buffalo nickels are copper-nickel 5-cent pieces produced by the US Mint in the first half of the 20th century. An image of a bison or buffalo is stamped on one side, hence the name.
Millions were made, so rather than rewarding finders with the promise of riches, the coins simply offer a window into US history.
"When you hold a 1913 buffalo nickel in your hand, you are holding the form of payment used to watch short films at nickelodeons," said editor of CoinWeek, Charles Morgan, referring to an early type of movie theater that charged 5 cents for entry.
"You are holding what was enough money to buy a sandwich at a diner, or a get a shoeshine on the way to work. It was real money."

Collecting buffalo nickels

CNN Style caught up with Morgan, who also hosts the CoinWeek Podcast, to get some tips on collecting and determining the value of buffalo nickels.
Only a few buffalo nickels can make you rich, but all of them allow you to hold a little piece of history.
Only a few buffalo nickels can make you rich, but all of them allow you to hold a little piece of history. Credit: Shutterstock
CNN: First, a few basics. When were buffalo nickels produced? What's featured on each side of the coin?
Morgan: The buffalo nickel was produced from 1913 to 1938. It replaced the Liberty "V" nickel and was replaced by the Jefferson nickel that we use today.
The obverse (front face) of the buffalo nickel features a realistic likeness of a Native American drawn from a composite likeness of several people that sculptor James Earle Fraser had worked with over the years.
The reverse of the coin features a realistic likeness of an American buffalo.
How would you go about starting a buffalo nickel collection?
If one wants to start a collection of buffalo nickels, they should first learn about the series by picking up a copy of Q. David Bowers' "Guide Book of Buffalo and Jefferson Nickels."
This book breaks down the series, date by date and mint by mint, and gives collectors historical insights into the series and a handy price table that details the value of nickels in various collectible grades.
You might not have even realized you had a Buffalo nickel in your hand as they are prone to wearing down.
You might not have even realized you had a Buffalo nickel in your hand as they are prone to wearing down. Credit: Shutterstock
Can you find them in circulation today?
Many Americans may have encountered buffalo nickels in circulation, although they are seldom (identified).
One of the reasons for this is that the coins look different from today's designs, and did not particularly wear well. Most worn buffalo nickels have lost significant details, including the date.
Another reason that buffalo nickels aren't plentiful in change is the sheer volume of modern coins that are produced each year. The most buffalo nickels the Mint ever produced in a given year was 119 million, in 1936.
Jefferson nickel production figures are typically five to six times this, and in some years, the Mint produces more than a billion Jefferson nickels.
Most circulated buffalo nickels are only worth a slight premium over their still legal tender face value of 5 cents. Typically 25 or 30 cents. However, experienced coin collectors pay significant premiums for buffalo nickels that look as fresh and detailed today as the day they were minted.
How do you know you're getting something genuine and worth having?
Counterfeits are a problem in the rare coin industry, and no collector should buy expensive or valuable coins without having enough familiarity with the series that they can discern the difference between a genuine coin and a fake.
Most collectors have an ally in the fight against counterfeits through the services of the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS) and the Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC).
These two services have graded hundreds of millions of coins, of all types, and collectors will have no problem finding desirable, attractive, authentic coins that have been guaranteed by these companies.
Certified coins are regularly traded at coin conventions, on popular internet auction sites and sometimes at local coin shops and jewelers.
A buffalo nickel from 1915. These nickels were minted in three cities: Philadelphia, San Francisco and Denver.
A buffalo nickel from 1915. These nickels were minted in three cities: Philadelphia, San Francisco and Denver. Credit: Ivan Vdovin/Alamy Stock Photo
What qualities do you look for in a coin before you buy it?
First and foremost, a buyer must determine whether the coin is authentic. An authentic coin should be free of problems and have an attractive look overall.
Whether circulated or uncirculated, the coin must appeal to the buyer. If buying circulated coins, make sure that the date is clearly visible and as many design details remain on the coin as is possible for your budget.
For uncirculated coins, which cost significantly more, make sure the coin is attractive and is certified by either PCGS or NGC.
If you already have a collection, how do you find out how much it's worth? What's a trusted source?
Every serious coin collector should own a copy of Whitman's "A Guide Book of United States Coins."
Collectors can also get a realistic impression of the current value of their coin holdings by doing an advanced search on eBay and looking for completed sales of comparable coins. These prices paint a realistic picture of what coins are selling for now.
For larger or more valuable collections, it is advisable that collectors work with nationally known coin dealers or auction houses to develop a strategy for evaluating and properly marketing or selling their holdings.
In 2006, the US Mint came out with new pure gold coins designed as a salute to the 1913 buffalo nickel.
In 2006, the US Mint came out with new pure gold coins designed as a salute to the 1913 buffalo nickel. Credit: Daniel Barry/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Are there certain years, or type of buffalo nickel, that command especially high prices?
In high uncirculated grades, many of the early buffalo nickels sell for significant premiums.
The most famous buffalo nickel of all is the 1937-D "three legged" buffalo nickel. This is a scarce coin variety struck at the Denver Mint. It gets its name because the right front leg of the buffalo was polished off the die before the coin was struck.
In circulated grades, this variety is worth hundreds of dollars. The record price paid for one, however, is $97,950. This price, paid at a 2009 auction, was for the finest known example.
The cover of the program for the 1936 World Series between the New York Yankees and the New York Giants features an illustration by Grant Powers that shows a baseball player hitting the ball, the New York skyline -- and a buffalo nickel!
The cover of the program for the 1936 World Series between the New York Yankees and the New York Giants features an illustration by Grant Powers that shows a baseball player hitting the ball, the New York skyline -- and a buffalo nickel! Credit: Howard Muller/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
But generally, buffalo nickels aren't get-rich collectors' items -- so what are some of the more intangible merits of collecting them?
Coin collecting is part of a broader discipline called numismatics, which is the study of money, tokens, medals and related objects.
It's a pursuit that has occupied the minds of the wealthy and poor alike for more than 2,000 years, and in the numismatic community, you will find people willing and eager to share with you their love and knowledge for history and these wonderful objects.
This interview was edited for brevity, clarity and style.

5 fun facts

This is a portrait of Oglala Sioux Chief Iron Tail, one of three Native American chiefs used to create the composite profile on the buffalo nickel.
This is a portrait of Oglala Sioux Chief Iron Tail, one of three Native American chiefs used to create the composite profile on the buffalo nickel. Credit: Underwood Archives/Getty Images
  • The Native American on the obverse isn't a specific individual. According to James Earle Fraser, the sculptor who designed the coin, the figure is a composite of three Native Americans, including Iron Tail, an Oglala Lakota chief famous in the late 1800s. He was one of the stars of Buffalo Bill's Wild West shows and was frequently photographed in traditional Native American clothing.
  • It was the first coin to feature an animal that wasn't an eagle. According to the US Mint, the bison that appeared on nickels in 1913 was the first animal on a circulating American coin that was not an eagle.
  • The first version of the buffalo nickel showed the animal standing on a mound. The mound was later changed to a more level plain, leaving more room for the words "five cents" and protecting the coins from wear.
  • The buffalo nickel didn't actually contain a whole lot of nickel. Only 25% of the coin was made from nickel, with the other 75% being copper.
  • Your change can triple in value. A well-worn buffalo nickel, with the date partially or wholly rubbed out, is worth anywhere from 15 cents to 25 cents.

Grading categories

These are the grading categories of buffalo nickels, as outlined by the PCGS. The condition is usually judged by the wear on the coin's reverse.
  • FR / AG: This means "fair" / "about good." The dates are well-worn and the rim will be worn down to the lettering.
  • G / VG: This means "good" / "very good." You should be able to see clear lettering and the full date.
  • F / VF: This means "fine" / "very fine." You need to be able to see the horn on the bison for your nickel to earn this grade.
  • EF / AU: This means "extremely fine" / "about uncirculated." If you're lucky enough to get this grading, the full horn tip on the buffalo is visible.
Amy Roberts of the CNN Library contributed research to this article.