Grading Buffalo Five Cents (1913-1938)
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Grading circulated examples of United States coins is pretty straightforward for most series. The text in The Official American Numismatic Association Grading Standards for United States Coins is easy to follow and is accompanied by photographs that clearly illustrate the various grades. One coin type that often defies the rules, however, is the Indian Head/Buffalo nickel. Coins struck at the Denver and San Francisco Mints during the years 1917-27 often are so indistinct on their high points that grading becomes a real guessing game.
The ANA's grading guide addresses this issue by providing a list of dates that are notorious for being "usually unevenly struck, with weak spots in the details." The areas of the design most often affected include the date, the Indian's braid and the bison's head, tail and shoulder. Perhaps the most troublesome element is the bison's horn, because it figures prominently in the established grading standards. For example, the traditional criteria for grading a Buffalo nickel Very Fine includes the presence of a fully visible horn. This would be okay if it were not for the fact that many mint state coins of this type lack a fully visible horn! The most recent edition of the ANA guide has thus added that for VF-20 "Point of horn is not always visible."
How do you grade a Buffalo nickel that is only lightly worn yet has little or no detail evident in the bison's head? This is a problem which collectors and dealers frequently face when attempting to grade many of the key and semi-key dates in this widely collected series. The market-oriented approach employed by grading services such as NGC seeks to establish a coin's relative worth when assigning a grade. In so doing, the coin's overall wear and surface quality play an important role. A Buffalo nickel that has only a touch of wear and retains most of its luster normally would be graded About Uncirculated (AU). Yet if it's so poorly struck that is displays the detail of a coin grading only Fine, it should not be called AU. Graders may compromise by assigning a lower, net grade which reflects its relative market value.
Collectors often have a difficult time rationalizing this practice and seldom understand how it works. If you're uncomfortable with such compromise coins, hold out for a well-struck coin for each date, one that began its existence with reasonably full details and is thus graded solely on the basis of wear. This will require enduring patience, however, as a sharply struck 1918-S or 1925-D nickel is a rare critter.
The same principle of net grading applies to mint state Buffalo nickels. A coin with full luster and very clean surfaces normally would grade MS-65 or perhaps higher, but an otherwise gem example on which the features of the Indian and the bison are indistinct is apt to be downgraded a point or two depending on the severity of the weakness. This is particularly true of dates for which well-struck examples are not to hard to find. For dates that are notorious for being poorly struck (1926-D comes to mind), graders may be a bit more accepting of light to moderate weakness when assigning a grade.
Another issue with mint state Buffalo nickels is surface quality. Copper-nickel planchets are very hard, and any flaws present in the planchet will remain visible in the areas not fully compressed into the die cavities. The dies normally flatten out such irregularities, but on poorly struck coins, they will remain as distractions that can reduce the grade. Copper-nickel also is subject to problems of improper alloying. These two metals do not always blend completely, and streaks of concentrated copper may become visible as the metal tones. This also can detract from a Buffalo nickel's eye appeal and lower its grade, though it's not a big factor.
In collecting the popular Indian Head series the discriminating collector should simply bypass those coins without eye appeal. Though there are a number of scarce issues, there are none so rare that an attractive specimen can't be found with a bit of patience.
From One to Seventy originally ran in The Numismatist, official publication of the American Numismatic Association (www.money.org)
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