The U.S. Mint would like to believe their current activities in the 21st Century are a renaissance of coin design, but coin collectors couldn’t disagree more.
Among coin collectors, the true renaissance of U.S. coinage occurred from 1907 to 1921. From the common cent to twenty dollar gold pieces, every coin underwent sweeping design changes that produced some of the most artistic and beautiful coins ever released by the mint. Ask any collector what they believe are the most beautiful coins ever minted and you’ll get a vote for at least one denomination from this period.
One such example is the Indian Head five cent coin, or Buffalo nickel as it was affectionately nicknamed by the public. Designed by James Earle Fraser, with a composition of 75%copper and 25% nickel, the buffalo nickel was produced from 1913 through 1938. The Buffalo Nickel is a true American coin. There are no French or other worldly artistic influence. The coin subjects are true to life American icons that can be found no where in the world.
On the obverse is a profile of a Native American, which was a composite portrait of three Native American chiefs: Iron Tail, Big Tree, and Two Moons. Additionally, the obverse design shows the word LIBERTY and to the lower left of the neck are the designers initial “F” (for Fraser) to the right of the neck.
The reverse design features a "buffalo" or American Bison. It is commonly believed that Frasier modeled his design after the real life buffalo Black Diamond, from the Central Park Zoo. Additionally, the reverse design shows the legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA FIVE CENTS near the rim, the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM above the right of the buffalo and as well as a mint mark located below FIVE CENTS (Philadelphia issues carried no mint mark).
Soon after the Indian Head nickel went into circulation, it became apparent that the reverse design was problematic. The "FIVE CENTS" inscription, which was on a raised mound at the bottom of the reverse, was one of the highest spots on the coin, and thus wore away very quickly(Variety 1). This first coin variety is sometimes referred to as the “Bison Standing on Mound”.
As a result, the design was modified by Charles Barber during its first year of production. Barber removed the raised mound and lowered the relief of the inscription so that it would not wear away as quickly (Variety 2). This second coin variety is sometimes referred to as the “Bison Standing on Plain”.
Error Variety 1 - An interesting design variety was produced in 1937. On the reverse design of some 1937-D issues the buffalo's right foreleg is gone. This was produced when the leg was accidentally ground off in the process of removing marks from the die. This is the most popular error coin amongst collectors who nicknamed the coin as the "3-Legged" buffalo nickel and many consider a set of Buffalo nickels incomplete without this error.
General Market Notes
The Buffalo series is the most popular among all all 5 cent series coinage and its prices reflect the demand. Error coins (such as over-dates) command the highest prices. Excluding errors, the key to the series is the 1926-S issue and the semi-keys are the 1924-S, 1918-S, 1920-S, 1921-S, 1925-S and 1927-S issues. If affordability is a concern then look no further than a late 1930's issue where you can pick up a high grade (AU or better) at a reasonable prices.