Coin Rarities & Related Topics: News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community, #254
A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds…
For less than $500 per coin, a set of Buffalo nickels ‘by date’ (including U.S. Mint locations) can certainly be completed, provided that the 1918/7-D overdate and the 1916/1916 Doubled Die are excluded. All the ‘normal dates’ in the series can easily be obtained for less than $500 each, usually in high grades. An essentially complete set is important and enjoyable.
The most famous variety in the series is the 1937-D with a ‘3-legged’ buffalo. As market values for those have recently fallen, it is now realistic to seek to acquire a Very Good-08 or -10 grade 1937-D ‘3 legs’ for less than $500. Besides, it is odd that most references imply that a 1937-D with ‘3 legs’ is needed for a complete set. This variety is included largely because of tradition, rather than for logical reasons. It is the consequence of an error, not a separate issue. This variety is, however, very popular and thousands of collectors intensely demand to own one. Minor varieties are discussed herein.
Matte Finish Buffalo nickels were minted from 1913 to 1916. There was a Satin Finish Proof issue relatively early in 1936. Brilliant Proof Buffalo nickels were struck later in 1936 and in 1937. There are also unusually produced 1927 Buffalo nickels that cannot be easily explained. All Proof and otherwise specially struck Buffalo nickels retail for significantly more than $500 each and are beside the purpose of this discussion. Indeed, the focus here is on business strike Buffalo nickels.
This is the ninth in a series of articles on classic U.S. coins that cost less than $500 each. Generally, classic U.S. coins date from 1793 to 1933 or 1934. (Clickable links are in blue.) As Buffalo nickels were first struck in 1913 and people often collect them ‘by date’ (and mint location), it makes sense to include those Buffalo nickels dating from 1934 to 1938 in this discussion of classic U.S. coins.
This series of articles is about forming collections of classic U.S. coins that are consistent with the traditions and evolved values in the culture of coin collecting in the U.S., without spending more than $500 for any one coin. It is fun and satisfying to collect in accordance with objectives that are considered meaningful in relation to evolved rules, as opposed to each individual collector developing his own rules.
As was emphasized last week, classic U.S. coins of multiple series can be systematically collected for less than $25 per coin, or possibly even for less than $5 per coin. I am not now addressing the collecting of $10 Buffalo nickels or of $10,000 Buffalo nickels. There is a limit to the number of coins and collecting options that can be covered here; this discussion needs a theme and boundaries. The current discussion relates to coin buyers who may consider collecting, or already are collecting, Buffalo nickels that cost from $150 to $500 each.
One reason why a $500 per coin limit is especially meaningful for Buffalo nickels is that many expensive, highly certified Buffalo nickels are artificially toned. On Buffalo nickels, rainbow, bright green, yellow-green, pale-yellow, or rich paint-blue tones are usually artificial. Natural shades of blue on nickel tend to be mellow, thin, faint and/or subtle, not rich, thick or bright.
Indeed, bright, vivid or thick blue tones on Buffalo nickels are frequently added by ‘coin doctors.’ Buffalo nickels that are pale russet, orange-russet, light brown, tan, and/or gray are much more likely to have naturally toned, on average.
If a collector has any doubt about the toning on a specific Buffalo nickel, it might be best to not buy that coin, regardless of its certification. There are a few ‘coin doctors,’ one in particular, who have made large sums of money by artificially toning Buffalo nickels that are later submitted to PCGS and/or NGC. The artificial toning of Buffalo nickels is a more serious problem than the artificial toning of Shield, Liberty Head or Jefferson nickels. Fortunately for collectors who do not wish to spend more than $500 for any coin, most of the PCGS or NGC graded, artificially toned Buffalo nickels sell for more than $500 each.
What are Buffalo Nickels?
President Theodore Roosevelt wished that all of the new coin issues in the early 20th century be designed by Augustus Saint Gaudens, the most famous sculptor in the history of the United States. Unfortunately, health problems limited Saint Gaudens’ involvement. Last week, I pointed out that A. Alexander Weinman, the designer of the Mercury dime and of the Walking Liberty half dollar, was earlier an assistant to Saint Gaudens. The designer of the Buffalo nickel, James Earle Fraser, likewise was earlier an assistant to Saint Gaudens.
Fraser’s exhibits at an art show in Paris in 1897 and 1898 commanded attention. Saint Gaudens was one of the judges at the show and invited Fraser to be his assistant at his Paris studio. When Saint Gaudens returned to the U.S. in 1900, he asked Fraser to accompany him, and Fraser assisted Saint Gaudens in New England until 1902. Fraser then opened his own studio in New York City.
The Buffalo nickel has a bison on the reverse (back) and the head of a Native American Indian on the obverse (front). Fraser was very familiar with Indians and the American West, as he spent considerable time as a kid in Minnesota and South Dakota. Fraser is best known for his works relating to the American West and to historical figures.
Fraser’s career as a coin designer, medalist and sculptor was enormously successful. A long book could fairly be written about his accomplishments. He was the co-designer of several commemorative half dollars. He created many large sculptures that appear in public places on the East Coast and in the Midwest.
According to the official site of the history of the U.S. Navy, “The Navy Cross was designed by James Earle Fraser, a distinguished sculptor, member of the nation’s Fine Arts Commission and designer of the obverse of the Victory Medal and an early version of the Navy Distinguished Service Medal.” In 1942, the Navy Cross became the second highest honor that may be awarded to a member of the U.S. Navy or Marine Corps.
1913: ‘Five Cents’ on Mound
There are two subtypes of Buffalo nickels. At first, the denomination in words, “FIVE CENTS,” was placed on a mound at the bottom of the reverse (back of the coin). At least one senior official at the U.S. Mint was concerned that the letters would wear away while these nickels circulated and such worn Buffalo nickels would then lack explicit mention of a monetary value.
So, the design was modified in the middle of 1913 by Charles Barber. The words, “five cents,” were no longer on a raised design element. The mound, on which, the Buffalo stands, was reduced and placed clearly above the area where the words “five cents” are prominent. The letters are situated on and surrounded by relatively flat fields, not on any kind of design element. Presumably, the letters of the ‘five cents’ value wore down at a much slower rate on Buffalo nickels of the second subtype than on Buffalo nickels of the first subtype.
People who collect business strike Buffalo nickels ‘by date’ (and U.S. Mint location) usually seek six Buffalo nickels of the year 1913, Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco issues of both subtypes. Of the first subtype, a MS-66 grade 1913, a MS-65 grade 1913-D and a MS-64 grade 1913-S could all be obtained for less than $500 each.
1913-38: ‘Five Cents’ in lower field
Other than those made during the first few months of 1913, all Buffalo nickels are of the second subtype. For less than $500 per coin, PCGS or NGC graded MS-64 or higher grade representatives of a majority of the dates (and U.S. Mint locations) in the series are available for less than $500. Indeed, in many cases, a coin that is certified as grading above MS-64 could easily be acquired for less than $500. So, it is best to limit this discussion to keys, semi-keys and other ‘better dates,’ as opposed to common dates, which will not be listed here.
As for 1913-D nickels of this second subtype, PCGS or NGC graded MS-63 coins have tended to sell in 2014 in Internet auctions for prices between $300 and $400. The 1913-S is a key date and is much more expensive than the 1913-D.
In Sept. 2014, Heritage Auctions (HA) sold a PCGS graded Fine-12 1913-S for $305.50. In April 2013, HA sold an NGC graded Fine-12 1913-S for $282. In Nov. 2013, HA sold a PCGS graded Very Fine-20 1913-S for $352.50. Earlier, in June 2013, an NGC certified coin of the same grade, subtype and date brought that same price. A year later, in June 2014, a PCGS graded Extremely Fine-40 1913-S, with a CAC sticker, brought $470, a weak price, perhaps an excellent deal for the buyer.
The 1914-D, 1917-D and 1917-S are much ‘better dates.’ PCGS or NGC certified AU-53 to -58 grade coins of these dates could be found for well under $500. ‘Mint State’ grade pieces are a different matter.
The 1915-S is even scarcer. An AU-53 to -55 grade 1915-S could be purchased, at some point, for less than $500. In March 2014, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS graded AU-55 1915-S for $446.50.
The 1918-D and the 1918-S certainly are ‘better dates.’ In March 2014, Stack’s-Bowers sold a PCGS graded AU-55 1918-D for $305.50. A 1918-S is a little scarcer than the 1918-D, though an AU-50 to -55 grade 1918-S could be found for less than $450.
For collectors seeking nickels for less than $500 each, the 1919-D and the 1919-S are in the same category as the 1918-D and the 1918-S, as are the 1920-D and ’20-S. Again, collectors may wish to focus on PCGS or NGC certified, AU-53 or AU-55 grade coins.
The 1918/7-D overdate is a key. As the overdate is readily apparent, it is generally classified as a distinct date. It would be extremely difficult to acquire one for less than $500, perhaps an AG-03 grade, Fair-02 grade, or non-gradable 1918/7-D will sell on occasion for less than $500. There are fakes around, so collectors should resist the temptation to buy a non-certified 1918/7-D that is offered for a seemingly very low price.
The 1921-S is a key. Very Fine grade 1921-S nickels sell for less than $500. In Nov. 2012, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS graded VF-35 grade coin for $411.25. On Sept. 30 2014, HA sold an NGC graded VF-35 1921-S for $370.13 and, two weeks earlier, a VF-25 graded coin for $246.75.
The 1923-S, the 1924-D and the 1924-S are all much ‘better dates.’ A PCGS or NGC graded MS-60 to MS-62 1923-S could probably be acquired for less than $500.
Although certified MS-64 1924-D nickels are not that scarce, these almost always cost more than $1000. I suggest seeking a PCGS or NGC graded AU-53 or -55 1924-D, which would not be easy to obtain. In Jan. 2014, Stack’s-Bowers sold a PCGS graded AU-55 coin for $305.50.
The 1924-S is scarcer than the 1924-D, and is a semi-key date. ‘Mint state’ grade pieces cost more than $2000 each and AU grade 1924-S nickels cost more than $1000 each. In May 2013, Stack’s-Bowers sold an NGC graded VF-35 coin for $352.50. A VF-20 grade 1924-S could be found for less than $250.
In theory, an MS-60 to -62 grade 1925-D would sell for less than $500, though there are not many of these certified and they tend to be characterized by annoying readily noticeable imperfections. An AU-55 or AU-58 grade 1925-D might be a better value for most collectors.
The 1925-S is expensive and scarce in ‘MS’ grades. A PCGS or NGC certified AU-58 grade coin for less than $400 or an AU-55 grade 1925-S for less than $300 would be a good value, from a logical perspective.
There are not many certified AU grade 1925-S nickels, considering that there are thousands of people who collect Buffalo nickels ‘by date.’ PCGS has graded 96 as AU-58 and 57 as AU-55, for a total of maybe 120 different coins. NGC has graded 75 as AU-58 and 34 as AU-55, some of which have also been graded by PCGS.
Though not nearly as scarce as the 1925-S, the 1926-D is almost as scarce as the 1925-D. Around a month ago, HA sold a PCGS graded MS-63 1926-D for $335.88, though there was not a compelling reason to snatch that one. During 2015, a collector can select a PCGS or NGC graded MS-63 1926-D from at least a dozen that probably are or will be available for less than $425 each.
The 1926-S is a key date and one of the most famous of all issues in this series. In April 2008, Spectrum-B&M auctioned an NGC graded MS-66 1926-S for $322,000! It is easy to obtain a PCGS or NGC certified, Very Fine-25 to -35 grade 1926-S for less than $500.
It would not take a long time to acquire a PCGS or NGC graded MS-63 1927-D for less than $500. For some reason, there are not a substantial number of certified 1927-D nickels in the AU grade range and some certified AU-58 grade pieces bring high prices at auction to bidders who are seeking upgrades.
While ‘MS’ grade 1927-S nickels are surprisingly expensive, AU grade pieces cost less than $500. In March 2014, Stack’s-Bowers sold a PCGS graded AU-58 1927-S for $423. An AU-55 grade 1927-S would be likely to sell for less than $400 in early 2015.
Among regular issue Buffalo nickels that were struck with ‘normal dies,’ the 1928-S is the last of the ‘much better dates’! A MS-62 grade 1928-S would sell for less than $500, if one becomes available sometime soon. A MS-63 grade 1928-S may as well. A purchase of a really nice AU-58 grade coin for less than $250 might be a superior value, as the 62 and 63 grade 1928-S nickels tend to have noticeable friction and annoying hairlines.
Varieties Listed As Dates
“It is best for the collector,” Saul Teichman declares, “attempting to create an affordable set of Buffalo nickels, to avoid overmintmarks, double dies, overdates, overpolished dies, etc.” Teichman has been collecting coins for more than forty years and is the mastermind behind the www.uspatterns.com site. Plus, Saul is an active researcher who has contributed to many auction catalogues and reference works.
It was already said that it is not practical to acquire a 1916/1916 Doubled Die for less than $500. In my view, though, this has the status of a distinct date. The numerals of the year 1916 are incredibly doubled. Immediately apparent varieties that relate to the numerals in the year are usually categorized as distinct dates or collected ‘as if’ they are separate dates. The 1918/7-D overdate is very apparent, too, as has already been mentioned.
As for the 1937-D with ‘3 legs,’ the reverse die was polished to the point that one of the buffalo’s legs was erased. It is imperative that collectors consider only certified representatives of this variety, as there are many fakes. In October 2014, HA sold two different PCGS graded VG-10 coins for less than $450 each. Generally, though, it may take months to acquire a gradable ‘3 legs’ Buffalo for less than $500.
The 1937-D “3 legs buffalo is simply an overpolished die creating an inferior example of this coin. It should actually sell for less than a regular 1937-D,” suggests Teichman. So, perhaps Saul figures that it should be analogous to a weakly struck coin being worth less than a sharply struck coin of the same type, date and grade.
In my view, while it is worth a premium because of its entertainment value, the ‘3 legs’ variety should not be worth the premiums that it commands and it is not needed for a complete set of Buffalo nickels. Curiously, a 1937-D nickel with all four legs is an extremely common coin that is worth less than $100 in MS-66 grade and maybe fifty cents in Good-04 grade. The ‘3 legs’ variety should be worth more, though it is hard to figure how much more it should be worth.
“I really wanted one when I was a kid,” Richard Burdick recollects. There was a covered “spot in my coin folder for Buffalo nickels that just said three legs. The ‘37-D ‘3 legs’ is a fun coin that collectors I have known really wanted. It has always been accepted as part of the series,” Richard adds.
Although I understand that the 1937-D ‘3 legs’ variety is unusual and has a place in the history of coin collecting, paying a substantial premium for the recently promoted, 1936-D with “3½ legs” is nonsensical. One of the legs has a little less detail, probably also as a consequence of overpolishing of the reverse die. The difference, however, is slight.
The “3½ legs” name is misleading and the variety should sell for only a small premium to collectors who are interested in die states. PCGS graded Fine-12 coins of this variety have been selling for more than $1000 each. At current price levels, the purchase of a representative of this variety would be an awful value, from a logical perspective.
The doubling on the “1935 Doubled Reverse” is not bold, though this is more significant than the just mentioned “1936-D “3½ legs” variety. Neither variety is needed for a complete set of Buffalo nickels, and the the “1935 Doubled Reverse” variety should be of interest primarily to people who seek coins struck with ‘doubled dies,’ a popular specialty among collectors of mint errors. I am puzzled as to why this variety is listed in standard price guides.
In any event, a Very Fine-30 to EF-40 grade “1935 Doubled Reverse” nickel could be acquired for less than $500, yet I find market levels for these to be illogically high. “Many minor varieties to me are ways for dealers to create artificial rarities,” Teichman says.
Saul suggests that the “1914/3 overdate” might really be a re-cut date, not an overdate. A mint craftsman may have done some hand-engraving to ‘improve’ the appearance of the numerals on one or more obverse dies. Something went wrong when one or more dies were created.
Andy Lustig declares, “I do not know if the ’14/3 is really an overdate. But whatever it is, it is not dramatic enough to interest me!” Lustig has been a coin professional since the 1970s and has owned innumerable mint errors in addition to dozens of famous mainstream rarities, including two 1876-CC Twenty Cent pieces at the same time. “I would tell a client that all [often listed] varieties are optional, but that he should probably at least include the 1938-D/S, ” Lustig adds.
Traditionally, overmintmarks, if very much apparent, are collected as distinct ‘dates’ by those who collect ‘by date’ (and mint location). Even so, the 1938-D/S is somewhat subtle. It requires considerable magnification to identify. Collectors should not feel that it is necessary to acquire a 1938-D/S to complete a set.
Fortunately for those who desire a 1938-D/S, these are not particularly expensive. On Nov. 23, 2014, HA sold a PCGS graded MS-66 1938-D/S for $152.75
A re-punched mintmark is considered to be less significant than an overmintmark, as two marks representing different mints on the same coin are more interesting. A re-punched mintmark usually is and should be a concern to die variety collectors. The 1938-D/D is so common, though, that most collectors of Buffalo nickels can afford one. Recently, HA has been selling NGC graded MS-66 coins for $78 each. In March 2013, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS graded MS-63 1938-D/D for $16.45.
In sum, the 1916/1916 and 1918/7-D are varieties are and should be collected ‘as if’ they are ‘distinct dates.’ It could be logically argued that the 1938-D/S should be so collected as well. The 1936 ‘3½ legs’ variety is fictional; it was struck with a poorly treated die and all four legs are present.
Regarding Buffalo nickels with ‘normal dates,’ and four clear legs, completing a set ‘by date’ (and mint location), without spending more than $500 on any coin, is not difficult. In most cases, a collector may choose from many that become available each year. Indeed, besides some just mentioned varieties, just the 1913-S of the second subtype, the 1921-S, the 1924-S and the 1926-S cost more than $500 in AU-50 grade.
©2014 Greg Reynolds
Collectors who are interested in other types of classic U.S. coins, and do not wish to spend more than $500 for any one coin, may wish to click on links below to read earlier parts of this series: