1915 was the third year of Buffalo nickel production. It was also the year in which Black Diamond, the North American bison allegedly used by sculptor James Earle Fraser as a model for the nickel’s reverse, died.
This year also saw a dramatic decrease in the San Francisco mintage. While the Philadelphia Mint essentially produced the same quantity as in 1914, and the Denver Mint nearly doubled production, the San Francisco Mint actually reduced production by 57%! This reduced issuance, the fifth smallest of the entire series, is compounded by the fact that coin collecting hadn’t become a widespread hobby by 1915. In fact, it wasn’t until the first coin folders and holders came onto the market in the early 1930s that the number of coin collectors began increasing dramatically. This delay between the 1915-S’s production and the expansion of coin collecting in the U.S. meant that the majority of the already small issuance was subjected to over a decade of wear. Due to the coin’s design, this means that a large number of pieces had lost their dates.
Despite being a relatively well-struck issuance, a number of examples suffer from either weak strikes or extremely worn dies, or both.
What Is the 1915-S Buffalo Nickel Worth?
As the fifth smallest mintage of the series, the 1915-S Nickel’s rarity is reflected in the type’s price, especially in high grades.
For example, one of the seven known MS 67s that have been graded by either PCGS or NGC sold for $37,200 in 2021 by Heritage Auctions and $55,812.50 in 2019 by Legend Rare Coin Auctions. This piece boasts spectacular iridescent toning and is practically flawless. While there is some slight weakness along the obverse legend “LIBERTY”, this is a particularly fine example of the type. As examples in this grade rarely come onto the open market, this coin holds the auction record for the type.
At one grade lower, the price drops dramatically, even though the population does not grow too dramatically. In fact, only 76 MS 66 and MS 66+ examples are known, which is nowhere near enough to meet the present demand. When they come to auction a couple of times a year, this grade commands a price fluctuating between $5,000 and $9,500. However, eBay sales can sink as low as $3,000. Collectors should note that the eBay sales records for $1,100 and $1,099 on May 2019 and July 2020 listed in the PCGS Coinfacts auction records database are actually for 1915-S Pan Pacific gold dollars.
For the roughly 30% of the population that ranges in grade from Fine to Extra-Fine, the prices are much more reasonable for the everyday collector. This is despite the fact that the 1915-S is one of the most expensive types of the series in low grade. On the low end of this range sit examples that sell for as little as $130, and examples on the high end sell for as much as $450. The lowest condition datable examples sell for between $30 and $40.
As always, undated buffalo nickels are worth roughly $1.
The obverse of the 1915-S Buffalo or Indian Head nickel features an oversized bust of a Native American warrior. Unlike the later Sacagawea dollar, this design was not based on a single model or historical figure. Instead, sculptor James Earle Fraser created a composite image of three well-known men: Chief Iron Tail of the Sioux, Big Tree of the Kiowa, and Two Moons of the Cheyenne. This composite man wears two feathers woven into his hair and a braid running down the side of his head. The date (1915) is superimposed over the truncation of the bust, and the legend LIBERTY is off to the side at 2 o’clock on the rim.
The central motif on the reverse was supposedly based on the buffalo named Black Diamond that lived at the New York Central Park Zoological Garden. Standard types display all of the animal’s four legs. The buffalo is standing on a small strip of land, below which is 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” mintmark at the bottom of the design under the denomination.
Intriguingly, this design does not include the national motto IN GOD WE TRUST. This was due to United States Mint Director George Roberts informing Fraser that “the motto, ‘In God We Trust’, is not required upon this coin” (Burdette).
The edge of the 1915-S Indian Head (Buffalo) nickel is plain or smooth, without reeding or edge lettering.
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. A large portion of his work centered around Native American themes and is embodied in his 1913 Indian Head nickel design.
|Year Of Issue:||1915|
|Denomination:||Five Cents (USD)|
|Mint Mark:||S (San Francisco)|
|Alloy:||75% Copper, 25% Nickel|
|OBV Designer||James Earle Fraser|
|REV Designer||James Earle Fraser|
* * *
Burdette, Roger W. Renaissance of American Coinage: 1909–1915. (2007)
* * *