Counterfeit Detection: 1937-D 3-Legged Buffalo Nickel

Posted by Max Spiegel, NGC on 3/18/2014

Key diagnostics are lacking on a recently submitted counterfeit 1937-D 3-Legged Nickel.

The 1937-D 3-Legged Nickel is undoubtedly the most famous key date in the Buffalo Nickels series. Most collectors consider it to be a distinct issue although it is more accurately described as a late die state and not a variety. The leg was present when the dies were made but was ultimately removed as a result of overpolishing.

Specimens with the normal four legs reverse are quite common and affordable, but those with the three legs reverse trade for hundreds of dollars even in low circulated grades. In About Uncirculated, prices escalate to more than $1,000. While examples are available—NGC has graded nearly 6,000 pieces in all grades—there is significant demand from collectors.

Since the same pair of dies struck coins with both four legs and three legs there is an opportunity for nefarious individuals to carefully efface one of the legs and pass it off as the rare three legs variant. NGC graders identified one such instance in a recent submission.

Although there are no obvious tool marks around the leg on this coin, it is clear that the fields below the buffalo have been manipulated. The area around where the fourth leg should appear shows evidence of heavy polishing, however, while the rest of the fields do not.

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Besides that red flag, this piece is also lacking two key diagnostics seen on genuine examples. On all legitimate 1937-D 3-Legged Nickels there is significant die erosion at the back of the Indian’s neck, which looks “moth eaten.”

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The second diagnostic is the line of tiny raised die lumps below the center of the buffalo, appearing almost as if it were urinating. These die lumps may not be visible on low grade specimens so their presence is not a requirement when authenticating.

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This coin lacks both of these diagnostics and with the altered fields in the lower reverse it can be quickly condemned as illegitimate. Virtually all spurious 1937-D 3-Legged Nickels are altered as opposed to outright counterfeits since it is fairly easy to tool away the leg. Nonetheless, these altered pieces are usually quite obvious and quickly identified.

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