Indian Head/Buffalo Nickels 1913-1938 Coin Guide
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Photo courtesy LeeG member of the PCGS boards
Indian Head/Buffalo Nickels 1913-1938
It was a difficult time for Charles Barber, chief engraver of the
United States Mint. Although Theodore Roosevelt was no longer in office,
his desire to have more classical designs on our coins, as expressed to
Augustus Saint-Gaudens over dinner in 1905, was very much alive.
Barber's uninspired Liberty Head nickel had been in production since
1883. Under the Coinage Act of 1890, a change in the its design was
permitted after 25 years. Secretary of the Treasury Franklin MacVeagh,
originally a Roosevelt appointee, wasn't about to pass up the opportunity.
Reminded by his son in May, 1911 that a new nickel would be "A
permanent souvenir of the most attractive sort," MacVeagh, pointedly
bypassing the competent but mediocre Barber, started the process for a new
The Buffalo nickel became a reality less than two years later. On March
4, 1913, coins from the first bag to go into circulation were presented to
outgoing President Taft and 33 Indian chiefs at the groundbreaking
ceremonies for the National Memorial to the North American Indian at Fort
Wadsworth, New York.
James Earle Fraser, a former assistant to Saint-Gaudens and a prolific
artist best known for his monumental "End of the Trail" Indian
sculpture, created a truly unique design for the new coin. Up until that
time, except for Bela Lyon Pratt's quarter and half eagle of 1908, the
"Indians" portrayed on U.S. coins were primarily Caucasian with
an Indian headress, epitomized by Saint Gauden's Greek Nike head on the
1907 Indian eagle. Fraser's design accurately portrays a male Native
American, and the obverse portrait was a composite of three chiefs who had
posed for him years earlier. Keeping with the distinctly American theme,
he depicted an American bison on the reverse. The inscriptions UNITED
STATES OF AMERICA and E PLURIBUS UNUM are artfully placed over the
buffalo, with the denomination FIVE CENTS below. The legend LIBERTY and
the date are similarly well executed on the coin's obverse.
Fraser's design was medallic and beautiful, and for that reason was
favored by Secretary MacVeagh. Its allure seemed to completely elude
Barber, who complained that the design elements were too large and didn't
allow for the proper placement of inscriptions. Barber didn't get very far
with this, as the design remained unchanged over his objections.
Reservations also came from the vending machine industry, whose devices
were designed primarily for accepting cents and nickels. Particularly
persistent was the Hobbs Manufacturing Company, which marketed a machine
for detecting counterfeit coins. Mr. Hobbs was certain that Fraser's
design would not work in his mechanism, and he asked that significant
changes be made to the models. After much wrangling over this, Secretary
MacVeagh instructed the Mint to proceed with the original design and let
the vending machine companies adapt their mechanisms to the coin.
Over 1.2 billion Buffalo Nickels were minted from 1913 through 1938 at
three mints; Philadelphia (no mintmark), San Francisco (S), and Denver
(D). The mintmark can be found on the reverse under the denomination,
while the designer's initial "F" is below the date.
There were two varieties made. Type 1 nickels, minted only during the
first few months of 1913, had the denomination FIVE CENTS on a raised
mound. As early as April, rapid wear in this area became evident on the
coins in circulation, so Barber finally got his chance to modify Fraser's
design. He cut away the mound, creating an exergue into which the
denomination was set. This solved the reverse wear problem, but then he
kept going. He smoothed out much of the detail and granularity in both the
Indian's portrait and the bison's hide. The resulting Type 2, however,
lacked much of the artistic impact of the original.
Barber again made minor modifications in 1916, and some specialists
consider this a third subtype, but most type collectors only consider the
Type 1 and 2 coins as actual varieties. It is strange that during all his
modifications, Barber never addressed the problem of the date wearing down
No Buffalo nickels were made in 1922, 1932 and 1933. Some 5,967 matte
proofs were made from 1913 through 1916, and 10,189 brilliant proofs in
1936 and 1937. Strike was an inherent problem with this coin from the
beginning, and many deceptively well struck business strikes have been
mistaken for the matte proofs and vice versa. Many mintmarked coins,
especially from 1918 through 1934, are virtually unavailable well struck.
When grading these coins of this type, you must take the surface into
account, as many full luster pieces will not show rounded relief detail on
the high points of the horn or the fringe on the tail. Generally, the date
and LIBERTY will be faint on weakly struck pieces. The points on the coin
that wear most readily are the high point of the Indian's cheekbone and
the hair near the part. On the reverse, the bison's hip, the fringe on its
tail and the horn are the first areas to show wear.
Collectors of this series have a fascinating array of "tough"
dates and rarities to pursue. The most difficult coin to obtain is the
very rare 1918/7-D overdate. Another overdate exists for both the
Philadelphia and San Francisco Mints-the elusive 1914/3. Scarce to rare
dates in high grade include all the San Francisco coins from 1913 through
1928, with 1918, 1920 and 1924 through 1927 being the rarest. Denver coins
are usually weaker strikes than San Francisco pieces. They present the
collector with challenges like the 1918 through 1920 issues and the 1925
and 1926 coins, along with the famous 1937-D 3-legged Buffalo. This
extremely popular variety (caused by excessive die-polishing to remove
clash-marks) was not discovered until most of the coins had reached
circulation, making well-struck gem specimens very rare today.
Particularly in the case of the "3-legger" or the overdates,
authentication by experts is advised, as many counterfeits exist.
Recent years have witnessed renewed collector interest in the Buffalo
series, no doubt stimulated by the wealth of new research published by
nickel specialists. An ever-growing number of numismatists are assembling
complete sets of Buffaloes by date and mintmark. Demand is also strong
from type collectors, all of whom seek this design for their 20th
Century-or more comprehensive-type sets. Although well struck, inexpensive
type examples such as 1938-D are available, many collectors prefer to
pursue one of the scarcer dates.
By the end of 1937 planning for the Buffalo nickel's successor was well
under way, as the design's required 25 years would end the following year.
It was to be replaced by the third coin to bear a likeness of one of our
presidents, Thomas Jefferson. The Jefferson nickel continues in production
to this day.
Diameter: 21.2 millimeters Weight: 5 grams Composition: .750 copper,
.250 nickel Edge: Plain
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Breen, Walter, Walter Breen's Complete
Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins, F.C.I.Press/Doubleday, New York,
1988. Cohen, Annette R., and Druley, Ray M., The Buffalo Nickel, Potomac
Enterprises, Arlington, VA, 1979. Lange, David W., The Complete Guide to
Buffalo Nickels, DLRC Press, Virginia Beach, VA, 1992. Vermeule,
Cornelius, Numismatic Art in America, The Belknap Press of Harvard
University Press, Cambridge, MA, 1971. Wescott, Michael, with Keck,
Kendall, The United States Nickel Five-Cent Piece, Bowers and Merena
Galleries, Wolfeboro, NH, 1991.
Coin Information Provided Courtesy NGC.