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The 1937-D 3-Legged Buffalo Nickel – A Small Error in Very Large Demand

One of the most iconic coins in American history is the Buffalo Nickel, designed by the legendary James Earle Fraser. The emblematic designs of an American Indian Chief on the obverse with an American bison on the reverse of this historic coin were the inspiration for Fraser who was commissioned to create the design by Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

In 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt wanted the then-uninspiring U.S. coinage to capture the grandeur and style of classical Greek and Roman designs. Roosevelt turned to Saint-Gaudens, one of the greatest sculptors of his time. Unfortunately, Saint-Gaudens was in poor health and subsequently died in 1907 so the work was left to U.S. Mint designers, such as Charles Barber, and outside designers such as Fraser. The competition was fierce between the U.S. Mint employees, led by Barber, and the outside designers as the five previous approved coin designs were not created by a mint employee.

Barber created a coin bearing the likeness of President George Washington, whose image had not yet graced an American coin but was very familiar on Large Size U.S. Silver Certificate currency. But the Fine Arts Commission, which selected the winning designs, sought something different and a Native American and an American bison were the nearly unanimous choice.

Buffalo Nickel Coin

The Buffalo Nickel went into production in 1913 and was then been minted continuously, except during 1922, 1932 and 1933. During many of those years the nickels were minted at the Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco Mints simultaneously. The coins were very popular among the public and the designs inspired positive comments worldwide. In many foreign countries, the “Old West” was how America was best represented.

There were two major designs of the first year Buffalo Nickels. The first type, Buffalo on a mound, was popular but during the first year of mintage the dates and denomination were wearing off at a very rapid pace. This led to a redesign that had the date numerals widened and the denomination to be minted in exergue, meaning a line was placed above the denomination meant to protect it. These adjustments were only moderately successful but remained in effect until production of these coins was stopped in 1938.

In 1937, an error was created that became one of most well-known American coins. It is believed the coin feeder, malfunctioned and failed to send blank planchets to the coin press. This resulted in the two 1937-D Buffalo Nickel dies clashing against one another causing the dies to receive impressions of the designs from either side.

A mint employee, trying to eliminate these clash marks, began to polish off these marks rather than switching to the unused Buffalo Nickel dies that were being held in reserve. Unbeknownst to the employee, this over-polishing removed details from the Bison’s front right leg.

1937 Buffalo Nickel Mintage

It is unknown how many of the 18 million Buffalo Nickels produced at the Denver Mint in 1937 were struck with those damaged dies.  The number is surely fairly small as the majority of these coins have surfaced from all known Buffalo Nickel hoards. What is also known is many of these coins were shipped to the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and then to the sub-branch in Helena, Montana.

These coins were first reported to the coin collecting fraternity in 1937. Through the efforts of many prominent coin dealers, this coin caught the imagination of coin collectors of the day and its popularity began to soar. The first advertising for this variety was in the November 1937 issue of the Numismatic Scrapbook magazine.

Many dealers continued to popularize this man-made rarity throughout the 1950s and 1960s and the coin collecting public frantically searched for this coin in circulation for decades. Its popularity today stems from the notoriety this coin received 60 years ago.

This rarity is one of the keys to the Buffalo Nickel series and one of the most popular American coins today.

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