The American Buffalo is an important numismatic icon that is widely popular with collectors.
The American Buffalo is an important numismatic icon
that is widely popular with collectors. Thus far, seven coins have featured the
American Buffalo, most recently the first United States 24 karat gold coin.
The American Buffalo coin concept was introduced in 1912 with the continuing changes
occurring in American coinage. James Earle Fraser's design, after modifications,
was accepted and first issued in 1913. However, the Buffalo didn't gain real popularity
until the release of the scarcer 1931-S. In 1938, the introduction of the Jefferson
Nickel ended the Buffalo Nickel series and their popularity only increased since
The buffalo design would not appear again on American coinage until 1991 when the
Mount Rushmore Commemoratives were released. Much like the reverse of the Buffalo
Nickel, the commemorative featured a buffalo on its reverse though somewhat different
in design. Proceeds from sales of the Mount Rushmore Commemorative coin were contributed
to the restoration of the Mount Rushmore Monument.
In 1999 a similar buffalo design was used in the Yellowstone Silver Dollar Commemorative
issued for the 125th anniversary of Yellowstone National Park. Half of the proceeds
of this commemorative would benefit the National Park Foundation. However, the Yellowstone
sold poorly in comparison to the Mount Rushmore Commemorative. With the authorized
mintage limit of 500,000 and the year long availability, from July 1999 to July
2000, less then half of the authorized mintage was sold. Mint Director Philip N.
Diehl identified the problem as "too many programs, too many coins in each
program, too many weak commemorative themes."
Considering the lack of popularity of the Yellowstone Commemorative,
the United States mint went in a different, more capitalistic direction for its
next Buffalo design. The December 2000 Quarterly Financial Report of the United
States Mint Commemorative Coin program stated "Collector excitement is building
within the numismatic community in anticipation of the reintroduction of a treasured
coin design — James Earle Fraser's Buffalo nickel. This program is scheduled
to launch in June 2001." The Buffalo Silver Dollar was released in 2001 and
was a direct design copy of the Buffalo Nickel designed by James Earle Fraser. The
coin was authorized to commemorate the National Museum of the American Indian of
the Smithsonian Institution. A surcharge of $10 per coin was added to fund the opening
of the National Museum of American Indian and to supplement the endowment and educational
outreach efforts of the museum. The coin had a maximum mintage of 500,000 pieces
and sold out in 16 days.
The popularity of this commemorative spurred ideas of creating a Buffalo Silver
Dollar to be issued on a yearly basis. However, the concept wouldn't come to its
fruition until 2006.
In the meantime, the 2005 Westward Journey nickel series to commemorate the Louis
and Clark Expedition across America would include a buffalo design. At this time,
the image would be hailed as the "American Bison", the more technically
correct term for the Buffalo. This was the first significant design difference for
the buffalo since Fraser's designs. The coin gained instant popularity.
Also issued in 2005, the Kansas State quarter featured a buffalo. The image was
again a departure from Fraser's design. While not as popular as the nickel, the
coin was still highly collected along with all of the other state quarter issues.
With the number of buffalo designs to date along with prospective design concepts
for the future, some expressed concern that the buffalo was being used too much.
Limitations for the use of the design were proposed, but nothing had come of it.
In 2005, rumblings were heard about the first 24 karat gold coin issued by the United
States. The United States introduced the American Eagle Program in 1986 to compete
with the Maple Leaf, Krugerrand, and Panda coins. However, unlike the bullion coins
being offered by foreign mints, the American Eagle was .900 fine compared to the
.999 fine coins currently trading. Since the coins contain less gold than their
foreign counterparts, they trade at discounts and are often undesirable to foreign
markets. In order to make an acceptable coin for foreign markets, the United States
would have to change the content of the American Eagle to a gold standard that is
accepted worldwide or issue a separate bullion coin that contained a pure gold standard.
The latter was chosen.
Much like the American Eagles were based on the designs of Adolph Weinman and Augustus
Saint-Gaudens, the Walking Liberty Half Dollar and Saint-Gaudens $20 respectively,
a previous coin design was chosen for this new series — James Earle Fraser's
original buffalo nickel design. Just like the American Eagle program, the American
Buffalo Gold Bullion Coins were distributed and released through a dealer network
in June 2006. They became an instant hit among the collector community and only
time can tell if their popularity will continue.
The American Buffalo is truly an enduring image in American coinage from the original
display of artistic genius on the Buffalo Nickel of 1913 to the pure American gold
coin of today that would be accepted around the world.