There are many interesting ways to come across some relic of our past, and none are more captivating than a dusty, old, long-forgotten coin one may happen to find deep down in one of my grand-dads numerous coin boxes up in the attic. Just staring at it sets the imagination off and running, delving into the whys and wherefores of not only its origin, but how it came to be a part of his collection. Since I couldn't really imagine how he might have come to posses this wonderful coin, I was left finding out about its history on my own. And here is what I found.
Not long after the old Liberty Head nickel production had been brought to an end at the close of 1912, the Buffalo Nickel, commonly known as the Indian Head, was first put in circulation in February 1913. Designed by a renowned sculptor named James Earl Fraser, it portrayed the countenance of a Native American Indian chief, along with the word 'Liberty' inscribed on the obverse, and of course, the iconic buffalo on the reverse, which in reality was an American bison.
The distinctive profile on the Nickel's obverse is in actually a combination of images drawn from three infamous individuals from our past, Cheyenne chief Two Moons, Kiowa leader John Big Tree, and Lakota chief Iron Tail, who defiantly opposed Custer during the general's renowned and fruitless final stand. Two of the Indians who modeled for Fraser as he fashioned the coin were named by the designer before his death, Chief Iron Tail and Chief Two Moons. Although many have professed to have posed for Fraser for the coin's design, he could not recall the name of the third person, and much speculation still exists as to the third being definitively that of John Big Tree. It is widely held that the 'buffalo' on the coin's reverse was none other than Black Diamond, a popular denizen of the New York Zoological Gardens at the time.
The Buffalo Nickel was only the second occasion when a minted coin would ever honor a Native American on either side of any type of circulated currency. The first time was back in 1908 on gold Quarter Eagles and Half Eagles, which were also referred to as Indian Heads. The next time would not come until almost a century were to pass by, on the Sacagawea dollar in the year 2000.
When 1938 came along, the United States Treasury decided to have a competition to alter the Buffalo Nickel's 19th century portrayals by using images having more to do with the 18th. What they had in mind specifically was an illustration of Thomas Jefferson and his famed residence called Monticello. While these coins have also been subject to several redesigns, Jefferson nickels have managed to stay in circulation ever since. Therefore, any Buffalo or Indian Head Nickel fan will find a captivating variety of challenging mintage dates, along with a few rarities to hunt for out there. Naturally, having a good grasp of mintage statistics is crucial if you are thinking about scarcity.
A bit more research reveals that a full set of circulated Buffalo Nickels, not counting the die variations, could be had for a reasonable amount of money. A good collection in Extra-Fine condition at today's valuation may cost you very near to $8,000. In Very-Fine condition, in which the tip of the Buffalo's horn is just about visible, could set you back around $4,300. Another tempting but more affordable challenge might be a series of Very-Good Buffalo Nickels, which might be put together for around $880.
While coin grades and values do fluctuate, Buffalo Nickel aficionados who want to get their hands on uncirculated specimens along with die varieties should be prepared to fork over a considerable investment. Any set of Buffalo Nickels in mint condition, including the 'Big-4' die types, will surely cost them an impressive $281,500 or more for Choice Uncirculated condition.
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