Nickel is a five-cent coin of 25% nickel and 75% copper. The production of the very first nickel in the United States began in 1866 and has been an integral part of American currency ever since.

The buffalo nickel (also known as Indian Head nickel) is a coin the United States government minted between 1913 and 1938. It is the successor of the Liberty Head nickel and was the first ever U.S. coin to feature an American Indian as the main design element.

These were tumultuous years in the States and the entire world. World War I would break out the following year, and the United States would find itself in conflict with Germany — although that only came in 1917.

In 1913, the U.S. Mint hired the sculptor James Earle Fraser to design a new nickel, as the old one had been in production since 1866. The new coin would feature an American bison, a prevalent symbol of the American West at that time.

This design became known as the buffalo nickel and featured a Native American chieftain on the other side. The fabled coin entered minting shortly after America had begun its push to understand better and appreciate the cultures of the Native Americans.

The buffalo nickel is one of the most popular U.S. coins, as it’s worth far more than its face value to collectors and investors alike. This is especially true if you have a rare version of the coin.

This article will teach you more about buffalo nickels and what differentiates them from other coins. You will also learn about the various factors that affect their value.

The History of the Buffalo Nickel

The history of the buffalo nickel began in 1911 when the Taft administration commissioned the minting of a new nickel. This would replace the Liberty Head nickel in production since 1866.

The Mint Director at the time, George Roberts, was responsible for hiring artists to design the coin. James Earle Fraser won this position and designed both sides of the coin: one side features an American buffalo (or bison), and the other side has an American Indian chieftain. The design was approved in 1912, and production of the new nickel began in 1913.

During its 25-year run, the coin had a few minor changes, specifically to its reverse design. During the first year of production, the buffalo nickel had a dotted border around it; this would be dropped in 1914 and replaced with a raised rim. The buffalo nickel would continue to be produced until 1938, when the Jefferson nickel, in honor of U.S. President Thomas Jefferson, replaced it.

The buffalo nickel is not just a coin with an appealing design and high value that collectors love; it also played an essential role in the history of America’s relationship with Native Americans during this period. 

Evaluating a Buffalo Nickel

Learning to evaluate coins is essential for two reasons:

  1. Spotting fakes
  2. Avoiding frauds

You don’t need to be exceptionally accurate in your evaluation — but you should be able to gauge the quality and rarity of a coin so that you don’t get ripped off. You will need a magnifying glass and some coins of the same type that you can use for comparison (pictures on the internet will suffice).

When evaluating a buffalo nickel, analyze the following factors:

  • Conditions. A coin’s conditions are the main factor in its value. The closer it looks to the state it was in when minted, the more valuable it will be. This is why you need a magnifying glass. Carefully examine a buffalo nickel’s surface, and see if it is free of any significant flaws. Any scratches, stains, dirt, or other marks can drastically reduce a coin’s worth.
  • Mint mark. The buffalo nickel was only minted by three different mints: Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco. The Mint mark is on the coin’s reverse — look at the bottom right above the “FIVE CENTS” text. Generally, most currencies were minted in Philadelphia, so mint marks for other mints are much rarer.
  • Color. Every coin color is unique — a bright and vivid metallic glow does not necessarily mean that the coin’s value is high. The color of buffalo nickels depends on their year of production: 1913 to 1914 had a lighter bronze hue, while 1915 to 1920 were darker and copper-like.
  • Strike. The buffalo nickel was a low-strike coin, meaning that the design is not as sharp and defined as other coins’ designs.

Here’s a video showcasing a few valuable buffalo nickels:

When it comes to buffalo nickels, there are several different things you can look for that will help you determine if a coin is real or fake.

Spotting a Fake Buffalo Nickel

Fakes abound, and learning to spot them is essential to avoid getting ripped off.

First, look closely at the coin’s surface and see if there are any scratches, stains, dirt, or other blemishes. These can potentially reduce a coin’s value.

Another thing you can look out for is the mint mark on the reverse of the buffalo nickel. Coins that were minted in Philadelphia have no mint mark; coins that were minted in Denver or San Francisco will have a small “D” or “S” on the bottom right of the coin, below the words “FIVE CENTS.”

Finally, examine the color of the coin. Buffalo nickels minted between 1913 and 1914 have a lighter bronze hue, while those minted between 1915 and 1920 are darker and copper-like. Those minted after 1920 tend to have a duller color with no bright shine.

Remember that this is just a general guide — not all buffalo nickels from these years will match these descriptions exactly. And if you’re still unsure whether or not a buffalo nickel is authentic, you can always bring it to an appraiser to get it evaluated for a small fee.

Most Valuable Buffalo Nickel

The first problem with buying buffalo nickels: deciding where to get one. There are three main options:

  • Online auction websites — Pros of this approach are that you can look at the coin in more detail and read other people’s reviews of it. Cons are that it is easy to get ripped off or scammed, and shipping will typically cost a few extra dollars.
  • Local coin shops — Pros here are that you can see and touch the actual coin before deciding whether or not to buy it. Cons are that you might have to pay a bit of a premium, and the coin may not be in excellent condition.
  • Antique stores — This is an excellent option to get your hands on an antique or vintage buffalo nickel. It’s the most expensive option but also the safest one.

We prepared a table with values for some of the most valuable buffalo nickels available today, year of production:

Coin Year & Mint Average Circulated (Poor to Fine) Very Fine, Extremely Fine & About uncirculated Uncirculated & Select Uncirculated MS-60 to MS-63 Choice & Gem Uncirculated MS-64 to MS-66 Superb & Perfect Uncirculated MS-67 to MS-70
1913 – 1918 (P, D & S) $15$150. 1918/7-D ones easily go for a few hundred dollars (1, 2, and 3). VG and F coins from this series can reach a few thousand dollars (1, 2, and 3) Most go for around $26 –160 dollars (1, 2 and 3). Again, the 1918/7-D series’ value is much, much higher. VF coins start at around $1,000 and climb up to a few tens of thousands of dollars (1, 2, and 3) One sold for $2. But the real price starts around $30 and get up to a few hundreds of dollars (1 and 2). The usual suspect 1918/7-D series runs a few tens of thousands of dollars (1 and 2) Anywhere between $79 and $1,140. 1918/7-D series are on a completely different price point, getting up to $350,750. Prices start at around $2,700 and go up to $26,400.
1913 – 1916 (PR) No recent sales No recent sales Between $600 and $2,200 Prices start at around $1,100 and go up to around $5,000 The lowest you’ll pay is between $3-5,000 (1, 2, and 3). Top sellers easily get into the tens of thousands of dollars (1, 2, and 3). The record sale was $69,000
1919 – 1924 (P, D & S) $8$145. A few outliers went for around $300 (1 and 2) $16$2,000. The 1924-S coin is the most valuable of the bunch A 1923 coin sold for $1. But most realistically, prices start around $50 (1 and 2) and go up to $3-4.000 (1, 2, and 3). A 1921-S managed to sell for $8,700 Prices start at around $100-$250 (1, 2, 3, and 4). $1,000 is a popular price point (1, 2, and 3). Prices can easily get in the tens of thousands of dollars (1, 2, 3, and 4), and even get up to $100,000 (1 and 2) Expect to pay at least a few thousand dollars (1, 2, and 3). The record auction was for $138,000
1925 – 1930 (P, D & S) $7$50. Some get up to around $150 $11$66 Some sold for just one dollar. But a more realistic price is between $23 and $150. Another important price point is $4-500 (1 and 2). 1926-S coins go into the thousands (1 and 2), even getting up to as high as $10,000 Prices start around $100-$200 (1 and 2). They easily climb to tens of thousands of dollars (1, 2, 3, and 4). The record auction was $322,000 for this 1926-S MS66 coin Prices start at a few thousand dollars (1, 2, and 3) and climb up to around $15-$24,000 (1 and 2)
1931 – 1936 (P, D & S) Between $7 and $200 Between $8 and $89 Lowest sale was for $0.30, but that was in 1941. You can easily buy one for less than $50-60 (1, 2, 3, and 4). A few get up to around $100 (1 and 2) $24 – $100 (1, 2 and 3). Another big price point is between $300 and $500 (1, 2, and 3). The record sale was for this 1935 Double Die Reverse MS65 coin. It sold for $104,650 The base price is around $2,500 (1, 2, and 3). Some get up to $30-$40,000 (1, 2, and 3). And even up to $63,250
1937 – 1938 (P, D & S) Around $6$16. 3-legged buffalo coins go for around $350 (1 and 2). Fine 3-legged buffalo coins rise up to $600-$700 (1 and 2) Between $15 and $50. 3-legged 1937 buffalo nickels start at around $500 for VF coins (1 and 2). AU ones get to around $1,000 (1, 2, and 3) Between $13 and $69. 1937 3-legged buffalo nickels mostly hover around $1 – $2,000 (1, 2, 3, and 4)  

Between $25 and $863. 3-legged buffalo nickels start at around $2,500 (1 and 2), and get up to over $80,000 (1 and 2). The record sale was for this 1937-D 3-Legged MS66+ coin that went for $99,875

Between $120 and $30,550. 3-legged buffalo nickels from 1937 all cost at least $66,000 (1, 2, and 3). The highest price fetched in this category was $97,750 by an MS67 3-Legged 1937 coin.
1936 – 1937 (PR) No recent sales No recent sales Between $485 and $1,466 One nickel sold for $3 in 1941. But nowadays you’ll pay at least $336, and up to $10,869 Between $748 and $40,000 (1, 2, and 3). Record sale was $40,250

Buffalo Nickel Minting Errors

Buffalo nickels have been minted for 25 years. Since their production, there have been several minting errors. Since these errors magnify the coin’s rarity, they can also significantly increase its value. Here are some of the most notable mistakes:

  • Over 3 — This minting error occurs when there is an extra nickel on the coin, which can be seen in the “FIVE CENTS” text.
  • Doubled die — This error occurs when the coin’s die does not reflect correctly, resulting in doubling and an irregular appearance
  • 3-1/2 legs — This error occurs when the buffalo’s leg is not fully detailed

Editor’s note: A similar mistake happens when one of the buffalo’s legs is accidentally removed in production, as in some 1937-D versions.

Minting mistakes make coins incredibly valuable, and collectors will pay good money for buffalo nickels with these errors. If you find a buffalo nickel minting error, it is worth bringing it to an appraiser to assess its value.

FAQs about Buffalo Nickels

How much are buffalo nickels worth?

Buffalo nickels can have a wide range of values, depending on their condition and rarity. Some minting errors, such as the 3-1/2 leg error or doubled dies, may be worth tens of thousands of dollars.

How can I tell if my buffalo nickel is genuine?

There are a few things you can for to determine whether your Buffalo nickel is authentic. You should check the coin’s surface for scratches or other blemishes and look for the mint mark on the reverse.

How do I care for my buffalo nickel?

Buffalo nickels should be kept in a cool, dry place to protect them from corrosion or tarnishing. You may also want to keep them in a special coin holder or protective case to prevent damage.

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Wrapping Up

Buffalo nickels are a classic American coin. The rarest ones can be worth tens of thousands of dollars. Others are more affordable and can be bought for a few dollars. Before purchasing one, you should ask whether you’re after a unique piece or want to buy a classic coin.

If you’re looking for a nice coin that costs less, you might want to check out your local antique or coin shop. Make sure they have a refund policy, or you might lose your money to a scammer. Online auction sites are a better option if you’re looking for rare pieces.

Buffalo nickels are a solid piece of American history, so it’s worth investing in a collection. Whether you’re looking for one or want to make money by reselling these unique coins, buffalo nickels are worth a look.

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