The Story Of The Buffalo Nickel

One of America's most popular coins ever, the buffalo nickel, minted only from 1913 to 1938, is considered a work of art by collectors.

The buffalo nickel, minted from just prior to World War I to just before World War II, is one of America's most distinctive coins ever minted. Considered by many to be a work of art with its dominating images, the buffalo nickel is a particular favorite with coin collectors.

The buffalo nickel traces its origins to an obscure law stipulating that an American coin design could not be altered more often than once every 25 years. This legal tidbit was brought to the attention of Treasury Secretary Franklin McVeagh by his son in 1911. McVeagh was appointed by President William Howard Taft and was well aware that the previous administration under Theodore Roosevelt had re-engineered both the one cent and gold dollar coins. The Liberty Head five-cent piece had passed its quarter-century anniversary in 1908.

McVeagh set out to make his mark with the nickel in 1911 by commissioning internationally famous artist James E. Fraser to create the designs for the new coin. For the front, Fraser sketched a rugged, dignified Indian head based on a composite of three models: Iron Tail, Two Moons and Chief John Big Tree. For the reverse side, Fraser looked to the Central Park Zoological Garden in New York and its American Bison, Black Diamond. He drew Black Diamond standing regally atop a small mound. Both designs boldly filled the entire coin, giving the buffalo nickel its memorable classic look.

Fraser's designs were quickly approved by McVeagh but production was delayed as the sketches bounced among meddling bureaucratic officials and, more ominously, the Hobbs Company, a manufacturer of coin-operated vending machines. Hobbs engineers wanted to make certain the new nickel worked smoothly with its existing machines.

The first buffalo nickel was minted in 1913. Once in circulation it became apparent that the denomination "FIVE CENTS" was eroding too rapidly under the mound on the back of the coin. Sacrificing esthetics, the mound was excised in favor of a broad line.

The buffalo nickel, 75% copper and 25% nickel, was minted for 25 years until 1938 when it was replaced with the Jefferson nickel which is still in use today. The coins were struck in mints in Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco. During the 1920s, partly because of the vast amounts of coins produced during World War I and partly due to an effort to conserve costly dies, there were fewer nickels struck. No buffalo nickels at all were minted in 1922. There were also none minted in 1932 and 1933. Some of the older dies also produced poorly struck coins. In 1937 a reverse die became damaged and was reground too aggressively and an entire front leg of the buffalo disappeared on some coins.

The three-legged buffalo is a favorite with collectors today. A 1937-D three-legged buffalo in perfect condition can fetch as much as $14,000 while even a scruffy one will command hundreds of dollars. Aside from double-died and other rarities, the buffalo on the mound coins from the first issue in 1913 are the most prized. Many of the common buffalo nickels can be had from coin dealers for about a dollar and are always a treat to those who have never seen one.

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