Written by Rafa Sánchez
During the years 1913 to 1938, the 5 nickel cents known as the Buffalo (or Indian Head) was minted. This small coin presents one of the most beautiful, original and collectable designs of the American coins.
James Earl Fraser’s design lived through the Great War, the Great Depression, and ended at the dawn of World War II. Therefore it is not surprising to see well-weathered specimens with no visible date, due to their high circulation.
If you want to know which 5 cents Buffalo nickels are the most valuable, according to their dates, mints and variants, you should not pass-up the information we offer you below.
- 1 Buffalo nickel value – List of highest auction prices
- 2 First of all… How do you identify a buffalo nickel?
- 3 Key aspects to consider about Indian Head Nickel gradings
- 4 Top 7 most valuable Buffalo nickels
- 4.1 #1 – 1913-S Type 2 Indian nickel head – $49,938
- 4.2 #2 – 1916 DDO (Double Die Obverse) – $281,750
- 4.3 #3 – 1918/7-D Indian Nickel – $350,750
- 4.4 #4 – 1921-S – $51,750
- 4.5 #5 – 1924-S – $105,750
- 4.6 #6 – 1926-S – $322,000
- 4.7 #7 – 1937-D Three-legged Buffalo Nickel – $97,750
- 5 Other valuable types and errors
- 6 Conclusion
Buffalo nickel value – List of highest auction prices
|1913-S Type 2||$49,938||MS67|
|1937-D 3 legged||$97,750||MS67|
First of all… How do you identify a buffalo nickel?
Before delving into the prices of this type of currency, you may want to know the characteristics of this historical currency:
- Composition: 75% copper and 25% nickel
- Weight: 5 grams
- Diameter: 21.2 mm
- Mints: Philadelphia (no mint mark), Denver (“D”) and San Francisco (“S”)
- Obverse: Right-hand bust of a Native American Indian with feathers. The word appears “Liberty” between 2 and 3 o’clock and below about 7 o’clock, the date, and under that the initial “F” for the surname of the designer. There are conjectures about the identity of the bust but it does not correspond to any specific character or model – it is an imaginary portrait.
- Reverse: Full-body buffalo depicted standing on a mound on the left, under the legend “United-States-Of-America” and “E Pluribus Unum”. At the bottom is the value in letters, “Five Cents”.
Key aspects to consider about Indian Head Nickel gradings
What key ideas have influence over the value of a Buffalo (nickel with an Indian head)?
Here you can find some important info about the coin’s dates and mints:
- The largest production of units of this coin during its lifetime was by the Philadelphia mint, followed by Denver and finally San Francisco, the scarcest mint of all.
- The issue with the least number of units produced of all is the 1926-S, with only 970,000 units.
- Apart from the rarest variants and dates, to which we will dedicate our own sections, it is important to know that the first years of its coinage are, as a rule, the most demanded and valued in the collector’s market.
- The pieces in Proof qualities were minted at the Philadelphia Mint from 1913 to 1916 and from 1936 to 1937, with a total of 16,148 units produced.
Top 7 most valuable Buffalo nickels
#1 – 1913-S Type 2 Indian nickel head – $49,938
The original design of the Buffalo nickels represented on its back an American bison or buffalo standing on a hill or promontory. The coinage had excessive relief so that the value and other areas of the back were quickly worn away by use.
Although production of 5 cent Buffalo nickels had already begun in 1913 with the original design (the so-called type 1), it was decided to modify the design of the back to preserve the characters from wear and tear by circulation.
The main difference between type 2 and the original type is the inclusion of a line under the ground where the buffalo stands, with a little more relief, which demarcates the value of “FIVE CENTS“.
A total of 1,209,000 5-cent Buffalo nickels were minted at the San Francisco Mint in 1913. This is the third smallest mint issue of any year.
The high price reached by a 1913-S type 2 Nickel Buffalo was $49,938 for an MS67 graduation in 2013. The PCGS company only has 7 copies in MS67 quality, and only one in MS67+ quality.
During the year, this date and type has appeared several times at auction, having been auctioned off at the prices shown in the table. The maximum value reached this year is $8,225, for one copy in a MS66+ graduation.
1913-S Type 2
#2 – 1916 DDO (Double Die Obverse) – $281,750
In 1916, 63,498,066 5-cent Buffalo nickels were minted at the Philadelphia Mint, making it a very common and undervalued year for circulating specimens.
However, some units of this same year and mint have a scarce variant much-valued by collectors, consisting of a double minting on the obverse (Double Die Obverse), very evident especially on the date. In fact, it is one of the most famous double mints of the 5-cent Buffalo nickels.
The most valuable specimen of this 1916 DDO Buffalo nickel variant reached $281,750 with an MS65 graduation in 2006.
So far this year, there have been few examples of this variant on the market and only in low quality. But this variant has high prices even in low qualities.
#3 – 1918/7-D Indian Nickel – $350,750
This 5-cent Buffalo nickel variant belonging to the Denver Mint was created by using the 5-cent coins from 1917 and rewriting them with the date 1918. It was not until the 1930s that this rare variant was discovered.
This variant is very rare. PCGS estimates that 7,000 copies have survived, of which only 100 copies are in higher quality than MS60. This can give us an idea of the high value of this superimposed issue.
The record price for an MS65 overdue copy was reached in 2006 at $350,750. PCGS has 2 MS65 copies, 3 MS65+ copies and 1 MS66 copy.
It is the most sought-after and highly valued variant by collectors of the 5-cent buffalo nickel, even more so than the 1916 DDO. In order to have a clear comparison between these two variants, we have done a small study comparing auction prices over the last few years, shown in the following table.
You can see that, with the same variants and graduations, the prices reached before 2008 were significantly higher than the following years. For example, a 1916 DDO MS64 was auctioned in 2013 at $253,000, while in the years from 2004 to 2008, its price did not go below $264,500.
In 2020, the highest-ranking copy that has gone to auction was an MS64+ that was auctioned at $99,875. The great value and scarcity of this variant are evident when we see that some copies with G4 graduation have been valued at auction between $504 and $540.
1917/1918 – D
#4 – 1921-S – $51,750
With one of the lowest runs – 1,557,000 units – of all the years and mints in which the 5-cent Buffalo nickel was minted, the 1921 San Francisco specimen is renowned as a rare date to find in high grade by collectors.
PCGS estimates the existence of 8,500 specimens, of which 700 have been registered in qualities higher than MS60. There are 14 copies listed in MS66, 23 copies in MS65+ and 81 copies in MS65.
The grade above MS60 with the highest number of copies is MS64, with 224 units.
The maximum price of $51,750 was reached for one of the 14 copies in MS66, back in 2006. It’s been 14 years since this price peak for an MS66 copy, so we’ve tracked the 2020 auctions for you to show the current price picture:
1921 – S
#5 – 1924-S – $105,750
As we have previously mentioned, the San Francisco mint made the least amount of rolls each year, so its coins are in higher demand than those of Philadelphia or Denver.
If the year 1921-S was scarce with a circulation of 1,557,000, the 5 cents Buffalo nickel 1924-S was minted in a quantity of 1,437,000 units – making it more scarce and valued than the 1921 edition.
It is estimated that there are 6,000 specimens, 500 of which are in MS60 or higher. PCGS has only 2 copies in MS66+ quality, one of which was auctioned at $105,750 in 2016.
In 2020, the auctions have transpired as shown in the table below. Here you can see that in MS65+ quality, the price of the 5-cent Buffalo nickel of the year 1924 ($14,250) doubles that of the year 1921 ($7,200).
#6 – 1926-S – $322,000
The 1926 San Francisco Buffalo nickel is famous for being the variety with the lowest circulation of all, 970,000 units.
Therefore, it’s no wonder that in 2008, an MS66 coin was auctioned for $322,000.
This year, the auctions of the different graduations of this year and mint are shown in the table below. The highest graduation seen at auction has been an MS64, of which PCGS has registered 187 copies.
The prices of the 1926 San Francisco 5-cent Buffalo nickel, in MS64 quality, have fluctuated in price ranging from $7,200 to $18,600.
#7 – 1937-D Three-legged Buffalo Nickel – $97,750
There are several theories about the origin of this variant. The most plausible one seems to be motivated by the intervention of an employee of the Denver Mint. It seems that out of the total of 17,826,000 Nickel Buffalo 5-cent pieces, the mistake that makes them so valuable for collectors was due to human error.
This employee, when trying to eliminate a defect in the coin’s stamp, made the buffalo’s front-right leg inferiorly minted on the coin, giving the impression that this leg was missing.
This is a very common mistake and is often easily found on the internet. In fact, only in 2020, we have found it in auctions more than 37 times in different qualities, reaching the prices listed below:
List of Buffalo nickel from 1937 prices
As a final note on this error, an MS66+ was auctioned off in 2020 for $72,000, but the record price is $97,750 for an MS67 in 2009.
Other valuable types and errors
The above dates, variants and errors are not the only ones that can reach impressive prices for high or medium-high valuations, i.e. there is no closed list of 5-cent Buffalo nickel types with high value.
You can also find certain errors (DDO in other dates, displaced mintings, minting defects produced by impurity, etc.) that are also much sought-after in the collector’s market and which we should always look for as an investment due to their value.
As a final note, we have noticed that – with some exceptions – the prices of the 5-cents Buffalo nickels have:
- remained relatively stable in recent years.
- had many key dates and rarities decrease in value since 2008.
- provided a pretty good opportunity to buy, if in the future, its value rebounds.
I have a degree in Business Administration and Management and numismatics studies at the University of Murcia (Spain).