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No Proof Like an Old Proof Buffalo?
By Ginger Rapsus, Numismatic News
September 05, 2013

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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The August World’s Fair of Money had a lot to offer any collector. Besides the exhibits, displays and coins for sale on opening day, I saw something not often seen at a coin show: a long line inside the convention center.

What were people so anxious to buy? It was the reverse proof gold Buffalo, offered at the United States Mint booth. Collectors waited two hours that day to buy one, for the price of $1,640.

This piece was indeed beautiful. Well struck, with every detail visible, and much detail is found on James Fraser’s classic design. The surfaces were frosty and the devices brilliant – a reverse proof, a finish that has become popular in recent years on other coins.

After the show ended, I paid a visit to a favorite coin shop. Many new purchases were shown, including a few Buffalo nickels of 1936 and 1937. These coins were displayed among other lovely coins, without fanfare, without long lines.

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Perhaps fans of the new gold Buffaloes are not aware of proof specimens of the original Buffalo nickel. Mintage figures are low. Many people are aware of the Buffalo nickels that circulated for many years, and may even have found a few in change, probably with the dates worn off. Proof Buffalo nickels are different. They are specially made and are as perfect as a coin could be; they were not meant to circulate. Discriminating collectors, devotees of proof coinage, and Buffalo nickel specialists want these coins, along with type collectors who really want to dress up their sets. They are not made of gold, but made of copper-nickel, and are special in their own way; proofs are specially struck.

Buffalo nickel fans know that their favorite coin was made in three different proof finishes: satin, brilliant and matte. The brilliant is always popular with proof collectors, and may be preferred. But a proof coin is a proof coin. Regardless of the appearance of the surfaces, proof Buffalo nickels are fully struck, showing full details on the Indian’s face and braid, hair and feathers. The word “Liberty” is separate from the rim. On the reverse, the buffalo never looked so real. From the horn to the furry head, to the shoulder and tail, down to the legs and hooves, the buffalo is seen in all of its rugged glory.

Matte proofs, struck from 1913-1916, were not all that popular with collectors. Some of these coins were spent by collectors who liked the brilliant proofs. It was also easy for the inexperienced eye to confuse a matte proof with a nice circulation strike. I once purchased a lovely 1913 Type I that had earlier been identified as a matte proof. The previous owner paid the matte proof price for this coin, and was quite disappointed when he had it slabbed.

Mintage figures for matte proof Buffalo nickels are tiny, compared to modern totals. Only 1,520 of the 1913 Type I were minted, down to a low of only 600 of the 1916. But compare the prices of a Proof-63 of any date with the price of a modern gold Buffalo. For a decent price, a Buffalo fan can have a choice coin, the original coin with the classic design. And a Buffalo nickel is a real coin, not a bullion piece.

Matte proof Buffalo nickels look like miniature sculptures. During a visit to a convention, I spotted a set of the five matte proofs together; the 1915 was probably the best-looking nickel I have ever seen.

Proof coinage made a comeback in 1936, the Buffalo nickel included. Two distinct types of proofs are found this year. Most 1936 proofs have a satiny surface, while others are brilliant. Total mintage of 1936 proof nickels: 4,420. Mintage was increased a bit the following year, to all of 5,769, the final year of proof Buffalo nickels.

Brilliant proof Buffalo nickels are gorgeous, with all the details meant to be seen, in a lustrous little coin. Matte proofs, too, while not as flashy, are beautiful in their own way.

Some proofs show toning, as many nickel coins do, in shades of gun-metal blue and gray. The toning can add to their beauty. Nearly all proof Buffalo nickels are in very high grades and have been preserved very well, going up to grades of Proof-68 and -69.

Modern collectors who waited in line to obtain a new gold Buffalo would do well to see the proof Buffalo nickels and compare them to the new rendering of the classic design. Perhaps these collectors can begin a new and challenging pursuit: building a set of the original proof Buffalo nickels.

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• See what guides and supplies our editors recommend for keeping up with your collection.


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