The American Buffalo Coinage
Posted by Jay Turner, NGC Grader and Attributor on 7/1/2006
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 then.
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.