How rare is a Buffalo nickel? The iconic buffalo nickel with the Native American chief on the face is one of the most beloved classic American coins. If you’ve stumbled upon one in your pocket change recently, you may be wondering – just how rare and valuable are buffalo nickels?

If you don’t have time to read on about the full history and details of buffalo nickels, here’s the quick answer: Buffalo nickels minted between 1913 and 1938 are common, with hundreds of millions produced, but certain dates and mint marks make them more valuable to collectors and dealers.

A pristine, high-grade example could sell for over $100.

The Origins of the Buffalo Nickel

When buffalo nickels were first minted

The famous Buffalo nickel was first minted in 1913, replacing the Liberty Head nickel that had been in use since 1883. The new nickel, with its iconic American bison design by James Earle Fraser, was part of an effort by President Theodore Roosevelt’s administration to modernize and enhance American coinage.

As the 20th century dawned, the Liberty Head nickel had been in circulation for 30 years. Though a familiar coin, some felt its aesthetic was outdated. Calls grew to refresh and distinctly “Americanize” US coin designs.

When Franklin MacVeagh became Secretary of the Treasury under President Taft in 1909, he made it a priority to overhaul US coinage.

Numerous design competitions were launched, inviting artists like Fraser to submit concepts for the 5-cent piece featuring symbolic American themes. Over 30 designs were considered, but Fraser’s realistic bison depiction ultimately won out.

The new coin, featuring Black Diamond of the Bronx Zoo on one side and a composite Native American profile on the other, made its debut to much fanfare in February 1913.

Why the buffalo and Native American designs were chosen

The shift to the Buffalo nickel design was intended to pay homage to the American West, long seen as the epicenter of rugged individualism and pioneer spirit. As the frontier era ended, many viewed bison and Native Americans as iconic symbols of America’s fast-vanishing Old West.

The once vast bison herds were nearly extinct, hunted to near-decimation during westward expansion. Some estimated only 1,000 still existed by 1890. Likewise, indigenous populations had dwindled tragically due to conquest, disease, forced migrations, and warfare.

Honoring bison and Native Americans on the coin was likely both nostalgic and somewhat regrettable, coming so late after their vast suffering. Yet it showed recognition that they were fundamental to American history and identity.

Though decimated, they remained powerful national symbols that lived on in legend and memory.

Beyond memorial symbolism, the designs showcased strength, resilience, freedom and national pride. The bison evoked frontier ruggedness, roaming wild and free. The Native American portrait embodied dignity and tradition passed through generations that lived on.

These symbolic associations resonated with 20th century America. They reinforced deep cultural myths central to the nation’s conception of itself – toughness, individualism, ancestry. Though simplistic and selective, the romanticized symbols on the coin gave millions of Americans a renewed sense they were part of something epic.

Something uniquely American.

How Many Buffalo Nickels Were Made?

The iconic Buffalo nickel was minted from 1913 to 1938, encompassing a tumultuous period in American history. Over this 26-year span, hundreds of millions of Buffalo nickels entered circulation, but the total number remaining today is a small fraction compared to the vast original mintages.

Total Mintage and Amounts Remaining Today

According to the U.S. Mint, the total mintage of Buffalo nickels reached over 1 billion coins. One of the highest production occurred in the 1920 whit over 82 million were struck at three different mints.

However, it’s estimated that only 3-5% of all Buffalo nickels survive in collectible condition today. This substantial loss occurred for several reasons:

  • Heavy circulation and wear – Buffalo nickels saw extensive use in commerce during the Great Depression era.
  • Casual loss – Their low face value resulted in little incentive to preserve many Buffalo nickels over the decades.

So while over a billion were originally made, the collectible population for many dates and mint marks is now measured in the thousands or even hundreds.

Impact of the Great Depression

The Great Depression that began with the 1929 stock market crash played a major role in the availability of collectible Buffalo nickels today. As economic conditions deteriorated in the 1930s, more nickels remained in circulation for transactions while fewer were preserved in mint condition.

Year Buffalo Nickels Minted Estimated Survivors (millions)
1913 23,913,000 0.2
1929 60,068,000 2
1933 20,511,000 0.6

This table shows how mintages declined over time while the number of survivors plunged. By the mid-1930s when mintages dropped below 30 million, it became difficult for collectors at the time to obtain mint state examples even from current circulation.

Which Dates Are the Rarest

The keys dates and mint marks among Buffalo nickels, with only a few hundred surviving in the top collectible grades, include:

While most Buffalo nickels had original mintages in the tens of millions, these few rare dates now rank among the most prized 20th coins for collectors today.

Grading and Valuing Buffalo Nickels

Mint State (MS) vs. Circulated grades

When collecting and valuing Buffalo nickels, one of the most important factors is the coin’s grade. Buffalo nickels are graded on a numeric scale from 1 to 70, with 70 representing a perfect mint state (MS) coin and 1 being a coin in poor condition.

Mint state Buffalo nickels exhibit no wear and still have their original mint luster. These coins look much like they did when they left the mint over 100 years ago. Mint state coins are graded from MS-60 up to the perfect MS-70.

Circulated Buffalo nickels show evidence of wear and abrasions from being used in commerce. These are graded on a scale from About Uncirculated (AU-50 through AU-58) down to a grade of Good-4. The more wear a circulated Buffalo nickel has, the less collector value it holds compared to high grade mint state examples.

How condition affects collector value

With numismatic coins like Buffalo nickels, the condition greatly impacts the collector and market value. For example, an average circulated 1924 Buffalo nickel in G-4 condition may trade for around $2. But an MS-65 example of the exact same date, mint, and type may trade for over $100!

Higher grade Buffalo nickels are worth exponentially more. This is because pristine, high grade examples are much rarer than well-worn pieces. Out of the hundreds of millions of Buffalo nickels produced, only a tiny fraction remain in true mint state due to damage from circulation and improper storage over the decades.

Top investment-worthy grades and prices

For investors and collectors seeking Buffalo nickels that have strong market value growth potential, some of the best grades to focus on are:

  • MS-65: An MS-65 Buffalo nickel is conditionally rare and has a nice balance of excellent quality without the ultra premium price of higher grades. MS-65 examples trade for anywhere from $100 to $4,000 depending on the date and mintmark.
  • MS-66: Coins graded MS-66 exhibit exceptional quality and start to climb more dramatically in value. MS-66 Buffalo nickels range from $300 to well over $10,000 for the rarest individual issues.
  • MS-67 and up: Any Buffalo nickel graded MS-67 or higher falls into the pinnacle of condition rarity. These pristine gems are worthy of inclusion in advanced collections. Expect to pay at least $1,000 even for common dates in MS-67, with significant six-figure price levels for some of the lowest mintage issues like the 1923-S!

Other Factors that Make Buffalo Nickels Valuable

Better mint marks

Certain mint marks on Buffalo nickels can make them more desirable to collectors. The Denver (D) and San Francisco (S) marks tend to be worth more than the Philadelphia (no mint mark) issues. This is because lower mintages usually came from Denver and San Francisco.

For example, the 1937-D 3 Leg nickel had a mintage of just 2.6 million, making it quite scarce. By contrast, there were over 80 million of the 1937 Philadelphia issues struck. Rarity equals value in numismatics.

Overdates and error varieties

Error coins always generate collector excitement. On the Buffalo nickel series, one of the most famous issues is the 1937-D 3 Leg nickel. On this variety, one of the buffalo’s legs is missing due to an errant, polished die. About a dozen or so authenticated specimens exist.

There is also an 1918/7 overdate, where you can clearly see the 7 underneath the 8 digit. These types of errors and oddities bring strong premiums versus regular Buffalo nickels.

Toning patterns and qualities

Toning refers to the rainbow-like film that develops on the surface of silver coins over decades of storage and exposure to minute amounts of sulfur and other elements. While some consider it unappealing, many others prize beautifully toned vintage coinage.

On Buffalo nickels you may encounter blue, pink, red, orange, yellow, green and purple hues. The most vibrant examples displaying multiple colors in bands, streaks or other patterns are typically worth the highest premiums. Even ugly brown or black toning can be desirable if it is unique enough.

So unusual toning can make a common Buffalo nickel far more collectible.

How Rare Is a Buffalo Nickel – Conclusion

While most Buffalo nickels in circulation are common dates worth a few cents over face value, specially graded high-end examples, rare dates and unusual varieties can be worth much more to enthusiasts and investors.

Circulated buffalo nickels with strong details can still command decent premiums as well. So next time you get one in change, be sure to take a close look – you never know if it might be a valuable rarity or variety worth far more than five cents!

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