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1931-S Buffalo Nickel – A Collector’s Guide | CoinWeek

1931-S Buffalo Nickel. Image: Heritage Auctions.
1931-S Buffalo Nickel. Image: Heritage Auctions / CoinWeek.

Nickel production at the San Francisco Mint fell to 1.2 million coins in 1931, marking the lowest output of the denomination since 1926 and the second lowest S-mint nickel mintage over the course of the entire series.

That number could have been much lower.

In January 1931, San Francisco produced 194,000 Buffalo nickels – none were produced at Denver or Philadelphia that month, and no nickels would be produced by any of the three branch mints for months thereafter.

By November, acting United States Mint Director Mary O’Reilly had become alarmed at the ramifications of the low mintage figure at San Francisco and ordered Mint Superintendent M.J. Kelly to suspend dime production and strike up additional nickels through the balance of the calendar year. Kelly complied, and the San Francisco Mint struck 1,006,000 nickels over the course of November and December.

Had the 194,000 mintage stuck, it would have been the lowest nickel mintage since 1881, when the Philadelphia Mint struck 68,800 pieces. As it happens, the lowest S-Mint nickel mintage took place in 1912, when 238,000 Liberty Head nickels were struck by the Granite Lady. Of course, in our tabulations, we omit the 1913 nickel – of which five Proofs were struck without authorization.

The 1931-S Buffalo Nickel’s Value Today

O’Reilly’s worries about speculation of the 1931-S nickel were well-founded. Mint State examples of the 1931-S Buffalo nickel have commanded a premium since shortly after their release. As the coin collecting boom took off in the 1960s, the price advertised for BU examples had reached $45. By the mid-1970s, this price had nearly doubled.

Modern marketers often call the 1931-S Buffalo nickel a semi-key. We do not support that nomenclature. True, the coin sells for a strong premium over the price of common dates, but in terms of overall scarcity, the issue doesn’t crack the top 20 in a series that was only produced for 25 years. It’s a dated coin, for sure, but not a semi-key.

The 1931-S Buffalo Nickel’s Design


The obverse of the 1931-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 SiouxBig Tree of the Kiowa, and Two Moons of the Cheyenne. This composite effigy wears two feathers woven into his hair and a braid running down the side of his head. The year (1931) 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. According to Roger Burdette, this was due to Mint Director George Roberts informing Fraser that “the motto, ‘In God We Trust’, is not required upon this coin”.


The edge of the 1931-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.

The 1931-S Buffalo Nickel’s Coin Specifications

Country:  USA
Year Of Issue:  1931
Denomination:  Five Cents (USD)
Mint Mark:  S (San Francisco)
Mintage: 1,200,000
Alloy:  75% Copper, 25% Nickel
Weight:  5.00 g
Diameter:  21.20 mm
Edge: Plain
OBV Designer  James Earle Fraser
REV Designer  James Earle Fraser
Quality: Business Strike


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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