USA Coin Album: Buffalo Nickels – A Personal Journey

Posted by David W. Lange, NGC Research Director on 10/6/2010

This month, David W. Lange recalls collecting Buffalo Nickels.

I started collecting coins as a child in the mid-1960s, at which time Buffalo Nickels had become scarce in circulation but were still found with patience. At that time, adults were quite well acquainted with the design and took little notice of these coins, just passing them on if they were not themselves coin collectors. Kids, however, knew them only as oddities, and I was drawn to these handsome nickels immediately. Of the half dozen I found in circulation, a couple were dateless, two others had distinct dates of 1936 and 1937-D, respectively, and the remaining two revealed just enough features of their dates to create a stir in my young life.

By the time I was in the fifth grade I had ensconced myself as the school’s milk vendor, pushing the squealing cart from room to room selling half pint cartons at five cents per. This provided me with an opportunity to examine a couple hundred dimes and nickels each day, and I filled a number of holes in my Jefferson collection that way, though Buffalo nickels were seldom seen.

One notable exception was the first of the two partial date coins mentioned above. It bore an S mintmark, which made it desirable from the get-go, but all that remained of the date was the final numeral, a well-worn 8. As the only dates for which San Francisco made Buffalo nickels were 1918 and 1928, it was obviously one of those two — but which one? I showed it around to classmates that afternoon, and soon our teacher was drawn into the probe, as well (she seemed old enough to remember Shield nickels, but I knew better than to ask). None of us had seen a 1918 or 1928 nickel in higher grades, so it was difficult to know how to tell them apart. Though I suspected my coin was a 1918-S, the matter was not settled that day. It was not until a couple years later, when I began going to actual coin shops, that I finally saw sharp coins of those two dates and realized that the numeral 8 on 1928 nickels overlapped the Indian’s hair ribbon. Since my coin was fully clear of the ribbon, I had confirmation that it was a 1918-S. Many more years went by before I finally replaced that xxx8-S nickel in my collection, and today I wish I had kept it for its sentimental value. Always short of coin-buying money, I was ruthless with pieces that didn’t make the grade, and I must have sold it at some point for 15 or 20 cents.

The other partial date coin was found by me in a roll of nickels from the bank around 1971 or so. A little more savvy by that time, I was able to make out the faint numerals 20 and an S mintmark. The 1920-S nickel was a scarce coin that carried a premium even then, so I was quite pleased with this find. Sadly, it too was eventually replaced with a better one, only to be unceremoniously sold off for coin cash. Whenever I read about collectors still having their childhood collections, I feel a bit guilty about having been so uncaring for my own early acquisitions. Even coins given to me as presents by loving relatives were dispatched when they failed to meet my later standards. I now own just a single coin from my childhood, a gorgeous 1881-S silver dollar given to me by an aunt and uncle for Christmas in 1968, along with my first Red Book.

Over the years I’ve built and sold several collections of Buffalo nickels. My best set was one assembled during the 1980s, when I finally had the experience and disposable income to assemble a really pleasing set. Though I couldn’t afford to get every coin in mint state, the entire “short set” (1934-38) was comprised of well-struck gems, while the earlier pieces were attractive and problem-free coins, most grading XF and AU, but with a few of the toughest issues being choice VF (full-horn only, please). This set was subsequently sold on a piece-by-piece basis through a price list sent to my mailing list of persons who bought my book, The Complete Guide to Buffalo Nickels, and this proved to be a most satisfying way to pass on my precious nickels to another generation of collectors. All of these coins were claimed within 48 hours, most buyers acquiring multiple issues.

I can still visit some of my Buffalo nickels by examining the latest edition of that book, which features a number of my former nickels as plate coins. Among the coins which had been in my own collection are those plated for 1913-S Type 2, 1936(P), 1936-S, 1937(P) and 1938-D. Several others appear in the chapters on grading, such as my very sharp but lightly worn 1930-S, the plate coin for the grade of AU 50. Perhaps the most remarkable image is the plate coin for the grade of AG 3. Yes, that 1920-S nickel is the same one I found in a roll of nickels nearly 40 years ago. What happened to it after being photographed for the book I can’t say. It just joined the long parade of coins that have come into my life and then passed on to fuel the imaginations of other collectors.

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