Counterfeit Detection: 1924-S Buffalo Nickel
Posted on 1/20/2015
Prominent sculptor James Earle Fraser created an iconic design deeply rooted in Western Americana for the Buffalo Nickel, which was struck from 1913 to 1938. Not surprisingly, the Buffalo Nickel has long been popular with both coin collectors and the general public.
Depending on the date or variety, Buffalo Nickels can range from extremely affordable (under a dollar for circulated common dates) to very expensive (tens of thousands of dollars for better grade key dates). Along with several interesting varieties, such as the famous 1937-D Three Legs variant, there are Buffalo Nickels for collectors of virtually all means and interests.
In most years, the Philadelphia Mint produced the bulk of the Buffalo Nickels needed for circulation. The Denver and San Francisco Mints also struck Buffalo Nickels, but these mintages were typically a fraction of the Philadelphia issues. This disparity was particularly pronounced from 1921 to 1931. The greatest difference occurred in 1926 when the San Francisco Mint struck only 970,000 nickels—the lowest emission of any date in the series—compared to 44,693,000 nickels produced by the Philadelphia Mint.
When there are significant disparities between different mints in the same year, there is an opportunity for a counterfeiter to alter one mint’s issue to make it appear like another’s. Typically, this involves an added mintmark, but in the case of many US gold coins it can take the form of a removed mintmark.
In 1924, only 1,437,000 nickels were struck at the San Francisco Mint—the third-lowest mintage in the series—compared to 5,258,000 struck in Denver and 21,620,000 struck in Philadelphia. Not surprisingly, the 1924-S trades for significant amounts in all grades; in VF, the NGC US Coin Price Guide reports a value of $365 and in AU 50 values climb to $1,800.
This makes the 1924-S a prime target for counterfeiters; a mintmark can be added to a 1924 or altered on a 1924-D in order to make the coin look like the rarer S-mint issue. The 1924-S pictured here, for example, features an altered mintmark.
At first glance the “S” mintmark on this piece looks a little too sloppy to be a genuine US Mint product. Under a loupe, it becomes clear that the “S” was hand carved out of the field around it. This fairly crude alteration does not look like the mintmark on any authentic 1924-S.
Added or altered mintmarks (as well as altered dates) can be very deceptive because the host coin is legitimate—only a tiny area has been changed. Careful inspection of the date and mintmark is particularly important, but the entire piece should be examined under magnification.
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