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1915-S Buffalo Nickel : A Collector’s Guide

1915-S Buffalo Nickel. Image: Stack's Bowers / CoinWeek.
1915-S Buffalo Nickel. Image: Stack’s Bowers / CoinWeek.

By Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker for CoinWeek Notes …..
With 1,505,000 coins struck, the 1915-S Buffalo nickel boasts the fifth-lowest mintage of the Indian Head or Buffalo nickel series. Compounding this scarcity was the fact that coin collecting wouldn’t become a widespread hobby until the first coin folders and holders came onto the market in the early 1930s. And because the majority of the already small issuance was subjected to over a decade of wear–and the coin’s design meant that a large number of pieces had lost their dates–the coin is scarce in all grades, with the typical example being heavily worn in grades VG and below. In Mint State, the coin is elusive through the Choice grades and rare in Gem and above.

Strike quality is a major factor in this issue. Even Gem examples show a range of strikes from flat to well-defined. Auction results indicate that collectors are conscientious of this fact, as bids are often higher for well-struck pieces. Better preserved examples can exhibit a satiny finish, and many 1915-S Buffalo nickels exhibit a brownish or rose-to-red toning; on only a few pieces would one qualify this toning as attractive.

Despite the 1915-S nickel’s low mintage, the San Francisco Mint was busy in 1915, receiving more than $50 million in foreign gold coin and bullion from April 1 to November 1 – a more than 10-fold increase from the year before. Australia, Japan, and China were the major exporting countries responsible for this surge. The Mint also produced the iconic 1915-S commemorative coins to mark the Panama-Pacific Exposition. The two $50 gold coins from this set are among the most coveted coins ever struck by the United States Mint. The Philadelphia Mint shipped a large medal press to San Francisco to strike these coins.

What Is the 1915-S Buffalo Nickel Worth?

The value of the 1915-S Buffalo nickel depends on the coin’s condition, its eye appeal, and the level of interest for such a coin in the marketplace.

In grades Good to Very Good, expect to pay between $80 and $100 for a problem-free coin. An April 9, 2024, survey of the eBay marketplace yields a few results that fall under this price, and some are “ok”, but many are not the type of coin that we would want as a hole filler. Anything above the grade of VF, we would only purchase from a recognized dealer with a clearly stated return privilege. From VF to MS60, the retail price of a 1915-S will jump from a few hundred dollars to about $1,000.

Buying Mint State coins in certified holders is strongly advised. In MS63, expect to pay $2,000; in MS65, the price will jump to about $3,500.

Eye appeal is a critical consideration for the 1915-S Buffalo nickel, as this issue seldom comes “nice”, even in high grades. The late numismatist David Lange wrote about this in 2006 in his Complete Guide to Buffalo Nickels. With the benefit of nearly 20 years of numismatic market activity, his observations about this date remain true.

Finally, the timing of the sale and how well a higher-end coin is marketed will play a role in the price realized for a PQ coin. We recommend that you only buy from a recognized auction house, but sometimes, catalogers fail to adequately present a coin, thus providing a buying opportunity for the bidder. If two or more bidders show interest in a particular coin, the price realized might be significantly higher than it would be otherwise.

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Market Data and Noteworthy Specimens

Coin dealer Joel D. Coen of New York offered to sell a “brilliant uncirculated” example of the 1915-S Buffalo nickel for $205 in his advertisement published in the April 1976 issue of The Numismatist.

Top Population: PCGS MS67 (6, 4/2024), NGC MS67+ (1, 4/2024), and CAC MS67 (3:0 stickered:graded, 4/2024).

  • NGC MS67+ #5863320-001: Stack’s Bowres, November 14, 2023, Lot 3025 – $27,000 Reserve Not Met. Reddish-apricot toning throughout.
  • PCGS MS67 CAC #40549439: Heritage Auctions, February 24, 2021, Lot 3663 – $37,200. Gold, Rust, and Blue toning.
  • PCGS MS67 CAC #14589839: Heritage Auctions, July 31, 2009, Lot 1043 – $43,125.
  • PCGS MS67 #90010852: “The Joseph C. Thomas Collection,” Heritage Auctions, April 30, 2009, Lot 2129 – $32,200. Rose toning.
  • NGC MS66+ CAC CMQ #6692356-004: Stack’s Bowers, March 26, 2024, Lot 4051 – $9,000.
  • PCGS MS66+ CAC #44844904: Heritage Auctions, July 14, 2022, Lot 3039 – $8,400.
  • NGC MS66+ CAC #6060915-008: Heritage Auctions, December 16, 2021, Lot 3033 – $5,520; Heritage Auctions, February 25, 2022, Lot 3481 – $9,600. Apricot toning.
  • PCGS MS66+ CAC #40429338: Stack’s Bowers, November 13, 2020, Lot 9096 – $8,400.

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Design

Obverse:

The 1915-S Buffalo nickel features an oversized bust of a Native American warrior as the central motif on the obverse. For this effigy, sculptor James Earle Fraser made a composite image of three well-known men: Chief Iron Tail of the SiouxBig Tree of the Kiowa, and Two Moons of the Cheyenne. The composite Indian wears two feathers in his hair and a braid running down the side of his head. The date (1938) is superimposed over the truncation of the bust, and the legend LIBERTY is off to the side at 2 o’clock on the rim.

Reverse:

The central motif on the reverse was supposedly based on a buffalo named Black Diamond that lived at the New York Central Park Zoological Garden, who happened to die in 1915, the design’s third year of issue. Standard types display all of the animal’s four legs. The buffalo is standing on a small strip of land below the denomination FIVE CENTS. Arcing above the animal’s back around the rim is the legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. The motto E PLURIBUS UNUM is squeezed between “AMERICA” and the animal’s back. As this type was struck at the San Francisco Mint, the “S” mint mark is found at the bottom of the design under the denomination.

This design does not include the national motto IN GOD WE TRUST. According to numismatist Roger Burdette, Mint Director George Roberts informed Fraser that “the motto, ‘In God We Trust,’ is not required upon this coin.”

Edge:

The edge of the 1915-S Indian Head (Buffalo) nickel is plain or smooth.

Designer

An American sculptor, James Earle Fraser, was active during the first half of the 20th century. Born in Minnesota, Fraser attended the Art Institute of Chicago and displayed some of his earliest artwork at the 1893 World’s Columbian and 1915 Panama Pacific Expositions, including his piece entitled End of the Trail. Much of his work centered around Native American themes and is embodied in his 1913 Indian Head nickel design.

Coin Specifications

Country: United States of America
Year Of Issue: 1915
Denomination: Five Cents (USD)
Mint Mark: S (San Francisco)
Mintage: 1,505,000
Alloy: .750 Copper, .250 Nickel
Weight: 5.0 g
Diameter: 21.2 mm
Edge: Plain
OBV Designer: James Earl Fraser
REV Designer: James Earl Fraser
Quality: Business Strike

 

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Sources

Burdette, Roger W. Renaissance of American Coinage: 1909–1915. (2007)

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CoinWeek Notes
CoinWeek Notes
CoinWeek Notes presents expert analysis and insights from Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker, the award-winning editors of CoinWeek.com.

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1 COMMENT

  1. Charles, Hubert: Just a shoulder-tap … the “Design” section contains several references to the 1938-D issue rather than 1915-S.
    Regardless, the accompanying image of a pristine specimen is awe-inspiring!

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