The Indian Head Nickel is better known as the Buffalo Nickel to most folks. It was minted from 1913 to 1938 but it was common to find those in your pocket change even well into the 1970s. I remember getting them as a kid for fun from relatives. They seemed to be more of a novelty at that time. However, make no mistake, they are collectables in every sense of the word. The great thing about the beloved Indian Head Nickel (Buffalo Nickel) is that they are very inexpensive in circulated condition. I’ve seen them for as little as $.25 cents. That makes collecting them and filling an album easy on the pocket book while giving the satisfaction of a great collection! One of the best bargains in beginning coin collections for sure! There has been renewed intrest in the last few years in the Indian Head Nickel so I’m confident that reasonable prices won’t be around much longer!
The Indian Head Nickel (Buffalo Nickel) was designed by sculpter James Earle Fraser. At the time of President Roosevelt’s time in office, he wanted the design of coins changed as most coins of the age were designed by Charles E. Barber (Barber Dime, Barber Quarter, Barber Half Dollar) and the President considered his designs “ugly”. In 1911, Treasury Secretary Franklin MacVeagh, who had worked with Roosevelt in the past and agreed with his opinions on U.S. coinage design and hired James Earle Fraser to design a new nickel. This happened after the Roosevelt Presidency was complete. The new design came out during the Taft Presidency.
The obverse (front) features a profile of a Native American which was a composite portrait of three Native American chiefs: Iron Tail, Big Tree, and Two Moons. The “buffalo” portrayed on the reverse (back) was an American Bison, Black Diamond, from the Bronx Zoo.
In the early Indian Head Nickel designs, it was discovered that the reverse design had a huge problem. It was raised so much that the “five cents” wore very quickly on them. Ironically, it was Charles E. Barber that altered the design of the Indian Head Nickel in 1913 so that it didn’t wear so quickly. He removed the raised mound and lowered the relief of the inscription along with other design changes. In 1916, he again made modifications to address some issues. Some collectors consider that type 3 but most people only consider there to be a type 1 and type 2 set.
One problem that was never addressed for some reason was the problem that was also apparent on the obverse (front) where the date is. It was also raised so that the dates wore quickly. On some Indian Head Nickels, they were so heavily circulated that no date can even be detected.
Most dates on the Indian Head Nickel can be easily found for affordable prices. No Buffalo nickels were made in 1922, 1932 and 1933, however. One very significant date is not as easy to find and it’s certainly not reasonably priced. That is the 1937-D “three legged” variety. This was an error that was caused when the right foreleg was accidentally ground off in the process of removing marks from the die. In Mint State condition this coin is worth thousands of dollars! Even in a really worn condition, this coin is worth hundreds of dollars.
Just under 6,000 matte proofs were made from 1913 to 1916, and a little over 10,000 brilliant proofs were made in 1936 and 1937. The strike was a huge problem with this coin from the beginning as stated, and many well struck business strikes have been mistaken for the matte proofs and vice versa. Many mintmarked coins, especially from 1918 through 1934, are virtually unavailable well struck.
Collectors of the Indian Head Nickel look for “tough” dates and rarities to look for. The most difficult coin to obtain is the very rare 1918/7-D overdate. Another overdate exists for both the Philadelphia and San Francisco Mints. There is also the elusive 1914/3.
Scarce dates include the following:
1. All the San Francisco coins from 1913 through 1928 and the 1918, 1920 and 1924 through 1927 being the rarest.
2. Coins minted in Denver are usually weaker strikes than San Francisco pieces. The 1918 through 1920 issues and the 1925 and 1926 coins are particularly difficult to obtain let alone in a really high grade.
In the case of the 3-legged error or the overdate errors, authentication by experts is advised, as many counterfeits exist.