The Buffalo Nickel is one of the most popular 20th century coin series to collect, both by novice as well as more experienced collectors. Introduced in 1913 and struck until 1938, it is a coin that fills many American childhood memories. It was used at a time when a nickel still bought something, and together with the Lincoln Cent, the Buffalo Nickel is one of America’s most iconic coin series. It should come as no surprise that sets of Buffalo Nickels (a basic set excluding varieties consist of 64 different dates and mintmarks) are put together by collectors of all ages, in all grades. Surprisingly, there are very few dates that, in lower circulated grades, will set you back thousands of dollars, making it an excellent starter set in grades such as Very Good and Fine. There are, however, several dates that are more difficult to find than otherwise might be suspected, and this article will focus on some of those key-dates and semi key-dates in the Buffalo Nickel series.
1913-S Variety 2 (Level Ground)
The first year of issue saw ample mintage levels at the Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco mints struck with the original design. The Mint altered the design in the middle of the year after it was discovered that the denomination would wear down too quickly, with the most noticeable difference the ground the Buffalo (actually it’s an American Bison, but that’s another story) is standing on. On the first variety the ground is raised, while on the second variety (which was used until the end of the series) the ground is level with the denomination deeper into the design. The second variety struck at the San Francisco Mint had a mintage of 1,209,000 pieces that year and is the most difficult to find, although plenty of circulated examples are generally available for a premium.
While not as scarce as the 1926-S discussed below, the 1924-S is still considered a semi-key date in the series with a mintage of 1,437,000 pieces, the fourth lowest in the series. This date is very easy to find in the lower circulated grades but becomes difficult in Very Fine and Extremely Fine. Uncirculated pieces are very scarce and tend to show striking weakness, a problem often encountered with San Francisco nickels from the 1920s. Very few pieces have been certified at the gem uncirculated level and as such it is generally considered to be one of the key-dates in the Buffalo Nickel series.
Like the Lincoln Cent of the same year, the 1926-S Buffalo Nickel is an issue that is plagued by quality issues, although not to the extent of the Lincoln Cent, or even some of the other San Francisco Buffalo Nickels of the 1920s. Very, very few gem uncirculated pieces have been certified by the major grading services and most experts consider this to be the key-date in the Buffalo Nickel series, despite a mintage of a still somewhat generous mintage of 970,000 pieces (the lowest of the series). An NGC MS-66 (the finest known) sold for $322,000 at auction in 2010, but in lower grades this date is generally relatively affordable in Very Good and sometimes even Fine condition. Better preserved examples, however, are very scarce and often require some searching and more cash on hand.
The 1931-S Buffalo Nickel is the second lowest mintage of the series at 1,200,000 pieces struck for circulation, thanks to the Great Depression that lowered mintages for all denominations at all mints. Surprisingly enough, it sells for lower levels in uncirculated condition than most Buffalo Nickels for the time period. Circulated pieces are still better and generally sell for a bit more thanks to their lower mintage, but this date is generally not considered to be a key-date. The reason can be found in the fact that coin collecting had become more popular by the early 1930s, and dealers immediately noticed the low-mintage of the 1931-S, setting aside rolls and rolls of fresh uncirculated coins before they reached circulation. As a result, the date is just not difficult to find at all, a similar situation decades later with the 1950-D Jefferson Nickel, which shares the same story.
Other Scarce Dates
As you might have noticed all the dates discussed above were struck at the San Francisco Mint, which is no coincidence. Mintages were generally lower there than at the other Mints in Philadelphia and Denver. This doesn’t mean, however, that there are no scarcer dates from the other Mints. Some of the earlier Denver Mints, while generally available in circulated condition, become scarce to very scarce in uncirculated condition. All the Philadelphia dates are easily found, even in gem uncirculated condition, and are a great way to get started on a set of Buffalo Nickels.