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Lots of Fun to be Had With Buffalo Nickels
buffalo nickelBy Paul M. Green, Numismatic News
April 28, 2008
buffalo nickel

The famous James Earle Fraser Buffalo nickel design is making more headlines lately as a gold coin. That design made a clean sweep when it was introduced - now you can have the Buffalo nickel design on an original Buffalo nickel, on a 2001 silver American Buffalo commemorative dollar and now on a gold bullion coin. It's the only design in American history to be available in three different metals in the course of less than a century.

In fairness, the design certainly is one of the best designs in the history of U.S. coins. In equal fairness, all the attention over the design and the gold version may cause some to forget that there was a lot of fun to be had with the original Buffalo nickels.

At least part of the fun of Buffalo nickels had to do with the design. As classic designs of Native Americans go, it is hard to do better than the James Earle Fraser effort. Paired with a large and impressive buffalo, you have a coin that certainly seems like a tribute to the Old West. In fact, Fraser had suggested that he wanted to create a design that could not be confused as coming from any other country. He was certainly successful in that effort as the Buffalo nickel was without a doubt an American coin.

Americans loved the Buffalo nickel from the start. The Treasury immediately began receiving questions as to the identity of the models for the design. Fraser for his part was apparently better with art than with names. He knew that it was in fact a composite using three models. He knew two of the three.

One of the models was a Cheyenne by the name of Two Moons. As it turned out, Two Moons had excellent credentials as he had participated in the Battle of the Little Bighorn against Gen. George Armstrong Custer and the 7th Cavalry.

Iron Tail, an Oglala Sioux chief, was another model. He, too, had credentials, having been a friend of Buffalo Bill Cody and a member of the group that traveled to Europe in 1889 with Cody's Wild West Show.

The third model, however, was the problem. Coins Magazine editor Robert Van Ryzin does an excellent job of tracing precisely who was the most likely third model in his book Twisted Tails. It is not an easy task as there were a number of people who would have liked that spot as the third model - there was something of a living to be made by being the model for the famous Buffalo nickel. There were public appearances and even TV shows. It might have been a small bit of fame, but it was still fame and a number were happy to claim they were the one on the nickel. As it turns out, the most likely individual is one who never sought fame. Kiowa Adoeette was quietly living out his life as a deacon at the Rainy Day Mission. That was quite a change for Adoeette, who in his younger days had led an 1871 raid on an Army supply train, which saw him convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to hang. Van Ryzin, however traces the evidence and makes a compelling case that, while not certain, Adoeette was probably the third model.

While there might have been a little confusion over the obverse, in theory the reverse was much easier because Fraser remembered the name Black Diamond. Where the Buffalo nickel is concerned, things seem to always get a little confused, and there was confusion over Black Diamond as well. Fraser had placed him at the wrong zoo in New York. In addition, when the right zoo for Black Diamond was located, it was learned that at the time Fraser might have been doing his work, Black Diamond might not have been the imposing physical specimen seen on the coin - Black Diamond was old.

Whatever the reality, it has generally been accepted that Black Diamond was the animal on the reverse. While public appearances for the models on the front were potentially worth money, there was a certain version of fame accorded Black Diamond as well. When he died, his imposing head was mounted. That proved to be a surprise to Baltimore American Numismatic Association show goers in the mid-1980s. There was Black Diamond, peering down on the show.

A dealer friend decided Black Diamond would look good at his business. He inquired as to the price. When he returned he suggested that, while potentially looking good at his business, he did not think it would look quite as good as would be required by the price.

It is actually hard to say which part of the design was of more interest to young collectors in the 1950s. It was generation raised on Westerns on black-and-white TVs, as well as big-screen epics such as "How the West Was Won." Certainly the buffalo stampede in "How the West Was Won" was likely to produce additional interest in Black Diamond on the reverse, but precisely what part of the design attracted more attention is hard to say.

The fact that there were still plenty of Buffalo nickels in circulation at the time meant they were a set many could attempt. The nickel was in most cases the second set younger and new collectors would attempt, simply because of the face value. On weekly allowances of a quarter a week, and with odd jobs only providing small additional amounts, the young collectors of the 1950s were really very limited in the sets they could pursue.

The choice of which nickel to collect was not that easy. If it was dimes, it was usually Mercury dimes. All Roosevelt dimes seemed common so that set was no challenge, and the Mercury dime in the minds of most was a more interesting design. In the case of nickels, there was no doubt that the Buffalo nickel design was the more popular. Monticello is just never going to rival a buffalo for popularity. The Jefferson nickel set, however, included the famous 1950-D as well as other good dates like the 1939-D and 1939-S. There was no certainty that the Buffalo nickel set included any especially good dates, except for errors.

As a collector looked at assembling a circulated Buffalo nickel set, the likely problem date based on its mintage would have been the 1926-S, which had a mintage of 970,000. At the time we assumed any coin with a mintage of less than a million pieces was going to be a problem. The list was clear and included the 1909-S VDB and 1931-S Lincoln cents, the 1916-D Mercury dime, the 1916 Standing Liberty quarter as well as the 1927-S and 1927-D, and then the 1932-D and 1932-S Washington quarters. There were also an assortment of half dollars and Barber dimes, quarters and half dollars with dates with mintages under a million, but those really were not considered. Few if any beginners were collecting Barber coins because any Barber coin was scarce in circulation. Half dollars were simply far too expensive for most.

In the case of nickels, there simply were no dates with mintages of much less than a million. The 1912-S Liberty Head nickel was below a million, but it was like the Barber dates. Finding any Liberty Head nickel was virtually impossible, so a tough Liberty Head nickel was just out of the question. In the Buffalo nickels that left the 1926-S with its near-million mintage. There were a number of dates with mintages of between 1-2 million. Such totals were also lower than the mintage of the 1950-D Jefferson nickel, which was a sensation at the time. As a result, it could be safely concluded that assembling a Buffalo nickel set from circulation was going to be more of a challenge that might be expected. It was just a case where the Buffalo nickel had no especially famous date like the 1909-S VDB cent, 1916-D dime or 1916 Standing Liberty quarter. What the Buffalo nickel set had instead was a lot of lesser-known but potentially difficult dates.

As it turned out, there were a lot of Buffalo nickels in circulation back in the 1950s. That should have made the set a possible one to complete with a lot of looking and a little luck. In an average $2 mixed roll of nickels, you might well find half of them were Buffalo nickels. But there was a problem, and a very frustrating one. Of the Buffalo nickels you did find, as many as half of them had no dates. What added to the frustration was that often you could make out a "D" or "S" mintmark but do date. The reliable dates you would see would be the 1936 or the 1938-D, but when it came to a date like the 1914-D, you were in trouble even though it had a mintage of over 3.9 million. The story of the 1914-D was repeated over and over again with other dates.

I can remember that the two early mintmarked dates you could identify were the mound reverse (Type 1) 1913-D and 1913-S. It was not because they had dates - although I did find one with a vague indication of a date - but rather because the animal was on a mound. That had been the original design. That was quickly changed, though, with the words FIVE CENTS put on that mound. It was discovered that being on a mound made the denomination the highest part of the reverse design, and that meant it was likely to wear off quickly. No one ever said as much, but it seems possible that the idea of a nickel without a clear denomination made officials nervous. Back in 1883 they had made Liberty Head cents without a denomination and some crooks had cheerfully gold plated them and passed them off as $5 gold pieces. The possibility might have seemed real that if FIVE CENTS wore off quickly, Buffalo nickels could also be passed off as gold coins. Of course now, more than 90 years later, we have a solid gold coin with the Buffalo nickel design. In 1913, however, officials wanted no problems. The mound was quickly changed to a line. Even if the date was gone, if you could identify a mound and a mintmark, you knew that you had found either a 1913-D or a 1913-S.

That option was not there for the line reverse (Type 2), which started in 1913 and lasted until the end of the design. You could find a coin with a "D" and not know whether it was a 1914-D or a 1936-D, and there was a very big difference between the two.

It must be remembered that at the time we were simply filling holes and having fun. I did find a nice about uncirculated 1938-D and I certainly kept that in a special place, but the real goal was simply to fill a Whitman folder with all the dates. One frustrated friend simply filled all the holes with dateless coins. If the hole was for the 1914-D, he would put a dateless "D" coin in the hole. I pointed out that was not precisely how collecting was done, and he replied that I could not prove the dateless "D" Buffalo was not a 1914-D.

Apparently a lot of collectors were faced with the same problem. I opted to try a chemical compound being promoted at the time as something that would restore the dates on Buffalo nickels. In fact it was etching acid, but telling people that could have discouraged sales. As it was my mother was sure the stuff would explode. That said, I was enthusiastic. I had assembled about 50 dateless Buffalo nickels with mintmarks, and even purchased a few rolls as people were selling dateless Buffalo rolls at the time.

I set up my small Buffalo nickel date restoration activity out on the front sidewalk – my mother would not let me even open the bottle in the house. There on row after row of dateless Buffalo nickels I cheerfully applied a drop of the stuff to the date area. Sure enough, held at the right angle to the sun, you could make out a date. It did leave a permanent stain on the coin, so there was no way these nickels would pass as anything but damaged. That said, it seemed like a better response than simply putting coins with no dates but the right mintmarks in the folder holes. Maybe I was lucky, but well before I had restored every date, my Buffalo nickel set was complete. I kept restoring, however, because it was fun. I started another set for my brother, and it was very close to completion before I ran out of coins.

The regular dates in a Buffalo nickel set were one thing, the errors and varieties were another. There was a 1916/16 that was not really all that well known or appreciated for being the tough date it is. It seemed like the 1918/17-D, which today is about half the price of the 1916/16 in G-4, was more widely recognized. I would regularly check if I got a 1916 or 1918-D, but given the condition of the dates on those coins by the 1950s, it would have been awfully hard to tell even if they had been overdates.

The 1937-D with a three-legged buffalo was a different matter. It was a coin you could identify. Having been in circulation for relatively little time compared to the earlier dates, it usually had its date. It was an error that seemed to capture the fancy of everyone. True, it was result of a simply technical matter. Something had prevented planchets from reaching the die chambers, so the dies clashed into one another. That was followed by a decision to save time and money by simply taking an emery stick and removing the clash marks - which in the process also removed a foreleg and weakened some details. It was all technical and simple, yet the result was fascinating and fun. There were Buffalo nickels floating around with the animal missing a leg.

Do not be fooled, the 1937-D with the three-legged buffalo is not common. It lists at $560 in G-4, but the fact remains there are probably thousdands of examples including hundreds of mint state examples. It was a case where coming a couple decades after the 1916/16 and 1918/17-D made all the difference. The earlier dates were not even discovered until they had been in circulation for years. The 1937-D with three-legged buffalo was discovered fairly quickly and it was saved. It made an enormous difference in supplies, especially in top grades, so today there are decent supplies available. Demand keeps prices rising. I was not alone in finding the concept of a three-legged Buffalo interesting as generation after generation of collectors seems to want the 1937-D with a three-legged buffalo.

I never found any of the errors, but I had fun looking, and talking to a couple of friends who did find the 1937-D with the three-legged buffalo years later in mixed bags of nickels they had purchased. That said, from the most common to the most difficult dates, Buffalo nickels have always been fund to collect. Now with gold American Buffalo coins in the mix to attract attention, perhaps more people will take advantage of the chance to truly enjoy the original Buffalo nickels.





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