Counterfeit Detection: 1913 Buffalo Nickel

Posted on 9/1/2021

To create this deception, two coins became one.

By Numismatic Guaranty Corporation®

The Buffalo nickel, a uniquely American coin designed by James Earle Fraser, debuted in 1913. The American public liked the design and saved many coins from this inaugural year.

The rollout of the new nickels hit a bump when rapid wearing of the date was discovered on circulating examples. This gave United States Mint Chief Engraver Charles Barber the opportunity to modify the design. Among other changes, Barber cut away the mound under the buffalo at the bottom of the reverse, truncating it in a horizontal line just above the words FIVE CENTS.

A rumor spread that the initial “Variety 1” nickels would be recalled in favor of Barber’s modified “Variety 2” design, which heightened interest in collecting the originals. As a result, an ample supply exists of “Variety 1” examples struck at the Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco Mints.

All three facilities also produced 1913 “Variety 2” examples. The high mintage from Philadelphia means these carry little premium today. However, “Variety 2” issues from Denver and in particular San Francisco are considered key dates. The latter approach $1,000 in low mint state grades, making them some of the more expensive coins in the series. Such rarities, differentiated by a tiny mintmark, create an incentive for counterfeiting.

A purported 1913-S “Variety 2” Buffalo nickel was recently sent to Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC) for certification. This particular coin is a bit light. A true nickel should weigh 5g, and this example comes in at a mere 4.44g.

The reason for this becomes clear after examining the edge, which numismatists sometimes call the “third side” of a coin. A close inspection reveals a thin line with numerous toolmarks, which are often left behind after a counterfeiter tries to conceal a significant problem with a fake. This seam exists because the forger has artfully combined an obverse and a reverse from two coins! NGC refers to this unusual alteration as “two halves joined.”

This “two halves joined” nickel combines a Philadelphia obverse with a San Francisco reverse. Artificial toning was applied to achieve a more uniform appearance.
Click images to enlarge.

The obverse most likely came from a 1913 Philadelphia nickel, while the reverse was separated from a relatively common late-date San Francisco issue. By combining these two pieces, the counterfeiter was able to approximate a higher-priced 1913-S Buffalo nickel.

In addition to the incorrect weight and edge seam, other telltale signs include artificial toning (to give both sides a uniform look) as well as the absence of the typical “ring” sound that is heard when a coin is lightly tapped.

A seam on the edge shows where the two halves were brought together.Click image to enlarge.

If you are uncertain whether the coin in your hand is the real deal, remember that NGC backs its determinations of authenticity and grade with the NGC Guarantee.

Reproduced with permission from the May 2021 edition of The Numismatist, official publication of the American Numismatic Association.

Did you know? NGC has created a comprehensive Counterfeit Detection resource to help collectors and dealers identify counterfeit and altered coins. Visit

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