Buffalo Nickels, Lincoln Cents, and the Coin Boards Meant to Hold Them

June 9th, 2010

In this interview, David Lange—coin collector, author, and director of research for Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC)—talks about the history of the Buffalo nickel, including its use as a canvas for creating caricatures in the folk art form known as hobo nickels. He also discusses Lincoln head cents and coin-collecting boards. Lange can be contacted via his website, coincollectingboards.net.

I started collecting coins when I was about 7 years old. I took over my brother’s collection of Lincoln cents. At that time, the early 1960s, it seemed like every boy collected coins for a week or two and then got bored just like my brother did. I kept at it, collecting a little bit of everything over the years—from ancients to metals to tokens to paper money. I learn as much as I can, but usually my interest in a particular area runs out before I finish the collection. Very often I sell things to start something new.

That said, I’ve retained a few things through the years. For example, I still have my circulated sets of all the 20th-century coins, from Lincoln cents through silver dollars. I have my type set, which is partial but fairly nice. And I’m still trying to put the finishing touches on my collection of circulated Barber silver coins.

When I want to buy something really nice, I usually look for some gem foreign coin. There seems to be a lot better value these days in the world coins. I have quite a few of them, particularly British coins from the 19th and 20th centuries.

David Feigenbaum, who put out the “The Complete Guide to…” series on U.S. coins, asked me to write about Buffalo nickels and Lincoln cents. He wrote the original books himself. He’s since passed away. He did ones on the three Barber silver coin series and then wanted to expand the line into other popular series. I was asked to write about Buffalo nickels since I was already fairly well known in that field. That book went so well that I wrote one on Mercury dimes a year later. A couple years after that, I wrote the “The Complete Guide to Lincoln Cents.”

Whitman Buffalo Nickel collectors coin board

Coin boards were popular in the 1930s and ’40s. This one for Buffalo nickels was made by Whitman, still the biggest publisher of coin books and related materials.

I also collect and sell coin boards and have a website devoted to them. The object of the coin board was to hold a complete date and mint series of a particular coin type. Most of the titles were for coins that could still be obtained in circulation at the time the boards were made in the 1930s. Very few boards were made for coins that were no longer circulating, and the ones they did make were generally poor sellers. Of course, those are the most rare today for collectors.

The business of selling them was somewhat of an unplanned offshoot of the publication of my book, “Coin Collecting Boards of the 1930s and 1940s: A Complete History, Catalogue and Value Guide.” For about 25 years, I bought every coin board I could find. The coin-board business was primarily a way to move the 400 to 500 duplicates I’d acquired.

I bought my first coin board purely on impulse around 1980 in a coin club auction. It was beautiful, but inexpensive, and I thought it was part of the hobby’s history. In the course of researching my books, I routinely go through decades of hobby publications, looking for little bits of trivia and old advertisements. So it’s only natural for me to collect something that’s so evocative of the hobby’s history.

Over the last 25 years I’ve bought just about every one I’ve seen. I’m the only person regularly dealing in them, but they turn up from time to time in coin shops. When dealers buy old collections, they sometimes come in boards, but the backing paper is very fragile, and they’re often full of holes.

Collectors Weekly: What is the oldest coin board you’ve come across?

Lange: It was a prototype made in 1934 by the inventor of coin boards, Joseph Post. It actually has his copyright number stamped on the back. The copyright was dated in January of 1935 when he first tried to market it.

“‘Penny’ is a variation of the Latin word ‘denarius’, which was an ancient Roman coin.”

The biggest name in coin products then and now is Whitman. They probably sold more coin boards over a period of five or six years than any other publisher, but they had two fairly large competitors at the time. The first was Colonial Coin and Stamp Company. It was quite big in its time, but it ceased operations beginning in World War II and is almost completely forgotten today. They put out the finest quality coin boards. They actually had clear backings so that you could see both sides of the coins.

The other big competitor was Joseph Oberweis & Company. He produced coin boards that were meant to be filled and sold back to him for a cash premium over the value of the coins. He used it as a means to get coins for his coin shop. He distributed thousands of them. He also was the longest running publisher of them. He put them out at least as late as 1948, which is perhaps five years after everyone else dropped out.

These days, people really don’t use the traditional 11-by-14 coin boards to store coins. The materials they’re made of aren’t good for long-term storage. They were simply the first product of their kind. It took rising values and sophistication to improve on the product.

Their modern successors are the coin folders and albums, which are still being produced by several publishers. The materials are generally better, and they’re more likely to preserve the coins.

I store my boards in large binders for vintage magazines. Coin boards have the same dimensions as many popular magazines of a century ago, including “Life” and “Saturday Evening Post.”

Collectors Weekly: Is coin-board collecting growing as a hobby?

Lange: It’s still in its infancy, but it has a lot of potential. Even the most rare pieces are still very affordable compared to other areas of collectibles.

Before the publication of my book in 2007, it wasn’t really a structured hobby at all. The people who were saving boards didn’t know one another and didn’t have any kind of central way to exchange information. Since the book came out, I’ve been sending out price lists and regular newsletters. So it’s a hobby that’s attracting more people as they come across my website.

For years, collectors and dealers have been curious about them, and people know better than to throw them in the trash. The book is really the only way to make sense of who, what, and where in terms of coin boards. I’m actually doing a follow-up on the same theme, but the new book will cover coin folders and albums.

Collectors Weekly: Turning to the coins themselves, why was the Lincoln cent created?

Lange: It came out in 1909 to mark the centennial of Lincoln’s birth. It was actually the first American coin to depict a real person instead of an allegorical figure. It was only the significance of the Lincoln centennial that prompted that action. Even then, it was somewhat controversial at the time.

Victor David Brenner, a well-known Russian-American sculptor, created the Lincoln cent. The obverse design was actually not original. Brenner had created a Lincoln memorial plaque in 1907, and he simply adapted the very same portrait from the plaque for the coin. He shortened it a bit because of the small size of the cent, but it was almost identical to the original plaque.

As it turns out, Brenner’s plaque itself was not completely original. Brenner borrowed his image from an 1864 photograph by Anthony Berger, who worked for the Mathew Brady studio. Both the photograph and the image on the plaque and coin were very well known.

Collectors Weekly: How did the coin’s design change?

Lange: The obverse of the Lincoln cent has remained pretty much the same over the years. In 1918, Brenner’s initials, VDB, were added to the truncation of the bust on the obverse, but the same elements have been present more for more than a century. The only modification has been to lower the relief slightly in order to increase the life of the die. As for the reverse, that was changed in 1959 on the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth. For the next 50 years, it showed the Lincoln memorial, which didn’t exist in 1909 when the coin was created.

In 2009, the mint created four commemorative reverses for the Lincoln cent to mark the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth. A new reverse has been adopted for 2010 and will continue as long as the Lincoln cent remains in production. It shows the Union shield with the words “one cent” written across it over a banner. The design is actually more than a hundred years old. It was used in 1896 for pattern coins, which are experimental pieces, but it was never made for circulation until now.

Frank Gasparro designed the Lincoln memorial reverse of 1959 through 2008. At that time, he was an assistant engraver at the U.S. Mint and then shortly afterward became its chief engraver.

Collectors Weekly: When and where was the first Lincoln cent actually struck?

Lange: The first Lincoln cents came off the press at the Philadelphia mint in June of 1909. The San Francisco mint began coining them a few weeks later. Those were the only two mints that made them in 1909.

1919-D Louis Eliasberg Lincoln Cent obverse

The Lincoln cent, first minted in 1909 to celebrate the centennial of the president’s birth, was the first U.S. coin to depict a real person rather than an allegorical figure.

For the first 50-plus years the coin was made out of what’s known as French bronze—95 percent copper and 5 percent tin and zinc. The amounts of tin and zinc varied over the years, but it was primarily zinc with a small percentage of tin. That composition was used for cents from 1864 for about a century until the tin was eliminated in 1962.

By 1982, the price of copper had risen so much that the mint decided to eliminate it from the coin. Since that time, there’s only been a small amount of copper on the surface of the coin. The core is made of pure zinc.

The Lincoln cent replaced what’s popularly known as the Indian head cent, which was coined from 1859 to 1909. It depicts the goddess Liberty wearing an Indian headdress, not a true Native American. That was an extremely popular coin with the public, and there were grumblings when the Lincoln cent came out. People were not happy, but when they saw the finished coin, they grew to like it.

In terms of its value and composition, the coin was identical to the Indian cent. The reason for putting Lincoln on the coin was twofold: It was the centennial of his birth, and President Theodore Roosevelt had been asking the mint to redo all of its existing coinage to replace the antiquated Victorian designs with the best work of American artists. Since 1907, the U.S. coin denominations had received new designs, not from the mint’s own artists but from the finest outside sculptors of the day. The Lincoln cent was the fourth in that series to be updated.

Collectors Weekly: Where did the name “penny” come from?

Lange: It’s a variation of the Latin word “denarius,” which was an ancient Roman coin. It came down through Europe under various names, and in English-speaking countries became known as the penny. Since most of the founders of America were from England, Ireland, or Scotland, they were familiar with this coin. Although the coin we know today as the penny was officially labeled a cent and has always been called such on the coin itself, it was popularly called a penny.

Collectors Weekly: Was the Indian head cent also called a penny?

Lange: Yes. The general public has always known the U.S. cent as a penny. Only numismatists call it by its proper name. Even the U.S. Mint’s own literature calls it a penny today.

Collectors Weekly: Have they always been the same size?

Lange: The Lincoln cent has always been the same size. That size was adopted in 1857. Prior to that time, the one-cent piece was a heavier, pure-copper coin that was about the size of a half dollar. As the price of copper rose, this large cent, as it’s known today, was replaced with a much smaller coin, initially one made of copper and nickel. From 1864 onward, it was made of the French bronze composition that was used for most of the Lincoln cents.

In 1943, because of World War II, the cents were made from a blank with a zinc coating over a steel center. The goal was to save copper for the war effort. Copper was needed for electrical equipment and, to a certain extent, armor, but the change in the coin’s composition was really most valuable in terms of its propaganda value, to build a spirit of sacrifice on the home front. The real impact on the supply of copper was negligible.

The public didn’t like the steel cents at all. When the coins were new and shiny, they looked like dimes. Once they got old and dark, they looked like nickels. That only lasted a year. After 1943, the mint went back to the old composition.

Collectors Weekly: How has the cent managed to stay in circulation all these years?

Lange: It’s hard to say whether the cent truly is in circulation. People do sometimes still get exact change, but very often they don’t actually re-circulate those coins. They tend to end up in jars, ashtrays, and buckets. The cent is really a coin that has almost immeasurably low value today.

Despite that, it continues to be coined through a combination of government inertia and outside influences. There are lobbyists for the various metals industries that push hard to keep making cents. The U.S. Mint has also been very reluctant to stop producing it because it would mean laying off quite a few people. The cent is our most widely produced coin. Without it, demand for mint employees would be reduced tremendously.

Collectors Weekly: Do you think the denomination is obsolete?

Lange: It’s completely obsolete. Most nations have dropped their lowest-value coins, gradually replacing them with higher-value coins and retiring paper money of those denominations. But the U.S. continues with the cent and the nickel, both of which now cost more than their face value to produce, which has traditionally been the test for whether a coin serves any useful purpose.

Collectors Weekly: Do a lot of people collect cents?

Lange: The Lincoln cent has served as the introduction to coin collecting for generations of collectors at least since the 1930s. It still remains very popular today. Despite the facts that the coin is now made in huge numbers and that the current issues will never be rare, there are still a great many people who try to put together complete sets back to 1909.

Collectors Weekly: What makes a Lincoln cent rare?

Lange: There are no truly rare, regular-issue Lincoln cents. Some pieces are relatively scarce because their mintages were much lower than those of other years. The key low-mintage issues are the San Francisco cent of 1909 with the designer’s initials on the back, the Denver mint cent of 1914, and the San Francisco cent of 1931. They were always scarce in circulation. There are enough of these to supply the demand from serious collectors, and they still bring fairly good prices today.

Collectors Weekly: Are any mint errors specific to the cent?

1919-D Louis Eliasberg Lincoln Cent reverse

The mirrored pair of wheat ears on the Lincoln cent’s reverse is why this coin is known as the Lincoln Wheat.

Lange: I can’t think of any error types that are unique to cents or to Lincoln cents in particular. But you do see incomplete planchets, which are also known as clips because it seems that a piece was clipped out of the blank. Also common are off-center coins that didn’t meet properly and show a blank area with the design pushed off to one side.

I’d say the most desirable Lincoln cent errors would be multiple-struck pieces, ones that show several different images from the die when the planchet failed to eject from the press. Another very popular one is what we call a double-denomination error. That’s when a dime is struck, and it finds its way into the cent press and gets struck over again with the cent dies. You’ll see a silver-colored cent but with the underlying image of a dime on it.

The double-denomination errors are very rare. Capped die coins are also quite rare and desirable. That’s when a cent is struck, and it sticks to one of the dies and continues to strike the incoming blinds while it gradually gets thinner. It actually wraps itself around the die from the constant impressions.

Collectors Weekly: Is it possible to put together a set from 1909 up until now?

Lange: Yes, but only by buying coins from dealers or by trading with other collectors. It’s very rare to find any Lincoln cents in circulation with the ears of wheat on the reverse. Those were last made in 1958, and most of them have been taken out of circulation, although there are still millions of them in private hands. A collector today would probably be able to put together a set from circulating coins going back to the beginning of the memorial design in 1959, but all of the earlier pieces would have to be acquired.

Collectors Weekly: Did you come across anything unusual about the cent while writing the book?

Lange: I learned a lot more about the rarity of particular issues with full strikes and coins made from fresh dies that have full details. During the 1920s, the U.S. mints in Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco were under budgetary constraints. They tended to let the dies go way too long. So it’s very hard to find coins from those years, particularly from Denver and San Francisco, that aren’t blurry or indistinct.

It was also very interesting to read the correspondence between Victor David Brenner and U.S. Mint officials. It was quite challenging because like most artists, Brenner’s handwriting was almost illegible, but he turned out to be a very interesting and idiosyncratic person with definite ideas about how to do things. He ran afoul of the mint personnel on a number of occasions.

Collectors Weekly: When was the Buffalo nickel design introduced?

Lange: The first Buffalo nickels appeared early in 1913. Although the initial models were dated 1911, it took some time to refine the design and get it approved by all of the interested parties.

James Earle Fraser designed it. He was a renowned sculptor then and for several decades afterward. He’s best known for some of his beautiful monumental works in various cities around the country.

Collectors Weekly: What was the significance of the design?

Lange: The central elements were the most important things about the Indian head and Buffalo nickel designs: Both images were of a uniquely American people or animal.

The Buffalo nickel replaced the Liberty head nickel, which had been made since 1883. There was nothing wrong with that design, but it was changed as part of Theodore Roosevelt’s project I mentioned earlier. That project was continued under President Taft.

Collectors Weekly: Did the design change much while they were refining it?

Lange: Fraser revised his models a number of times, but by early 1912, the coin was basically as we know it, and it was produced the following year. There were a lot of experiments with the relief—the depth of the coin and the amount of space between the central elements and the coin’s rim—conducted at the behest of vending machine manufacturers who were concerned that the new design would not work as well in their machines. About a year or so was lost arguing that point before they finally realized the coin was fine as originally designed.

Collectors Weekly: Who sat for the portrait on the obverse?

Colonial Buffalo Nickel collectors coin board

Coin boards made by Colonial Coin and Stamp Company of New York were considered top of the line and cost a dime more than those made by competitors—35 cents instead of a quarter.

Lange: James Fraser claimed it was a composite of three Native Americans who had modeled for him in previous years. He took elements from those various design studies when coming up with a composite portrait. However, the coin is almost a dead ringer for a profile photograph of a Native American named Iron Tail. The facial features are very similar. Iron Tail is instantly recognizable when compared with the nickel.

It would appear that Iron Tail was certainly the major contributor in terms of facial features. Fraser probably didn’t want to name a specific individual, both to protect that person’s privacy and to maintain his artistic integrity, but it’s clear that the features of Iron Tail must have impressed him the most because the resemblance is very close.

Collectors Weekly: Does the coin feature a particular Buffalo?

Lange: Yes. Fraser modeled that bison after Black Diamond, who was a resident of the Bronx Zoo in New York City. Of course, bison tend to look very similar; an adult male bison will pretty much look like any other, but Fraser did specifically state that Black Diamond was his model. It probably had more to do with availability and proximity. Fraser’s studio was in New York. Black Diamond was in New York.

Collectors Weekly: What were some of the problems with the early design?

Lange: The first issue of Buffalo nickels had “5 cents” written in very shallow lettering that was also fairly high in the coin’s design, which means that the letters were almost as high as the rim of the coin. That offered the words very little protection. So early in the 1913 production, the mint revised the reverse to set “5 cents” within a cutaway at the bottom of the coin so that more of the design would protect it.

The mint was very sensitive on that point because the first Liberty nickels of 1883 had come out without the word “cent” on them at all. Con artists quickly realized they could plate them and pass them off as $5 pieces, which were almost of the same diameter.

Collectors Weekly: Who did the redesign on the nickel?

Lange: Charles Barber, the mint’s chief engraver at that time, both lowered the lettering and made the letters bolder so the face value could be determined even on a worn coin.

In 1916 the mint’s engraving department sharpened the word “Liberty” because it was very faint. Starting around 1919, the thickness and the depth of the date were increased because after five years of circulation, it was wearing off. There are millions of dateless Buffalo nickels now because it took only 15 to 20 years of circulation for the dates of the early pieces to wear off.

Collectors Weekly: When was the nickel first minted and circulated?

1915-D Bufflo Nickel reverse

The model for the reverse of the Buffalo nickel is thought to be a bison named Black Diamond, who lived in a New York City zoo.

Lange: The first issue came out in February 1913, and it was produced for the next 25 years. There have been no more Buffalo nickels since that time, although the design has been revived twice now for other coins. In 2001, the U.S. Mint produced a commemorative silver dollar, honoring Native Americans and the bison itself. That was sold directly to collectors; it wasn’t a circulating coin.

Since 2006, the U.S. mints have also put out a pure-gold series—bullion coins for the investment market in various sizes. That includes an even more accurate re-creation of the original design. Instead of copying it as they did in 2001, they actually went back to the original models and made mechanical reductions. So the gold bullion piece is much more accurate.

Collectors Weekly: Would one be able to find a Buffalo nickel in circulation today?

Lange: Not unless somebody was making a concerted effort to spend them. I do that from time to time just out of curiosity to see whether people will accept them. Quite often they’re rejected as being either counterfeits or foreign coins. The coin disappeared from general circulation sometime during the 1960s. I believe the last one I got in the course of normal activity was around 1971.

Collectors Weekly: Why did they stop producing the Buffalo nickel?

Lange: As much as we love the Buffalo nickel today, it was considered old fashioned by the late 1930s. With the introduction of the Lincoln cent, the door had been opened to depicting real Americans on our coinage. The social climate of the time seemed to favor that over showing allegorical depictions of persons and themes. In 1938, a new nickel honoring Thomas Jefferson replaced the Buffalo nickel. He remains on the nickel to this day.

Both types were actually made in ’38, but since that time, only the Jefferson nickel has been made.

Collectors Weekly: Why weren’t there any Buffalo nickels made in 1922, ’32, or ’33?

Lange: No additional coins were needed for circulation. Those were years of economic depression, and the existing coin supply was more than adequate to meet the limited demand for circulation. In 2009 and ’10, we’ve experienced the same situation in which the mint has greatly cut back on the production of coins, nickels in particular.

Wherever there’s a redundancy of a particular coin type, the mint at some point realizes there’s no need to make additional pieces. In the era of the Buffalo nickel, they stopped making them altogether. These days the mint wants to keep date continuity, if only for the sake of collectors who want to have one for each year.

Collectors Weekly: What has made the Buffalo nickel so popular?

1937-D three-legged Buffalo Nickel reverse

Though generally affordable, error varieties such as the 1937-D three-legged Buffalo nickel reverse command a premium.

Lange: The uniquely American aspect to the design is endlessly appealing. Fraser was being very bold when he decided to fill both fields of the coin almost entirely with design. Coins with very prominent design elements tend to wear out the dies quickly. The mints don’t like them for that reason.

Often the dies for Buffalo nickels were quite worn, and the features of the coin were distorted. For collectors, the signal to a desirable Buffalo nickel has been one that still shows a full horn on the bison. That design feature in particular didn’t always strike up well. Certain dates, even uncirculated ones, don’t have a fully struck horn. So that’s really been the dividing line between a nice Buffalo nickel and an average one. I always look for a coin struck from fresh dies that shows the design as the artist intended.

As an aside, it’s very curious that this coin is mainly known as the Buffalo nickel. After all, we know almost all of our other coins by the obverse or head design. In fact, in my own inventory, I always enter Buffalo nickels as Indian head nickels, but I realized I was bucking the trend, so I didn’t want to title my book “Indian Head Nickels.”

Collectors Weekly: What are some of the coin’s most common errors?

Lange: Probably incomplete planchets and off-struck pieces. Coins that are double-struck or struck on the wrong planchets are far scarcer. Occasionally one will find a nickel struck on a cent blank or even over a previously struck cent or dime. Those would probably be the most desirable errors.

If one omits varieties and errors, the most desirable Buffalo nickel is the 1913 San Francisco issue with the revised reverse having “5 cents” reset. That’s known as the Type 2 nickel. The San Francisco edition had a very low mintage. Most people at the time hoarded the Type 1 nickels because of their novelty and the fact that the reverse had been changed so quickly. So Type 1 nickels from all three mints remained very common, even the uncirculated ones.

The Type 2 nickels are quite a bit scarcer, and San Francisco has the rarest one. If you extend the collecting into varieties, the most desirable is the 1918 over 1917 from the Denver mint. It actually shows both dates, one underneath the other.

Collectors Weekly: How many different varieties exist?

Lange: It depends on how far you want to take the definition of varieties. In terms of major varieties—the ones that make it into the standard catalogs—four or five are popular with collectors. The overdate is the most popular of all. There are also doubled dies that show a doubling of certain design features. The 1916 and 1935 doubled dies are very popular.

Collectors Weekly: Why did Barber redesign the nickel instead of Fraser?

Lange: By the time the initial design finally went into circulation in February of 1913, Fraser was pretty exhausted by the entire process. He considered it one of his lesser commissions since he was very much in demand as an artist at the time. He was simply frustrated with dealing with bureaucrats and commercial interests. By the time the coin finally entered circulation, he really didn’t want anything more to do with it. The mint realized that and didn’t bother him with the minor changes made later on.

Collectors Weekly: What do you know about hobo nickels?

Lange: Hobo nickels were unknown prior to the introduction of the Buffalo nickel. Simply put, a hobo nickel is a re-carving of the original design to fashion it into some other design. There was something about the Buffalo nickel that simply prompted people to do that. I think it may have had to do with both the large size of the portrait and also certain features of the Native American depicted on it.

Naturally enough, he had a fairly large, broad nose, and in that rather unenlightened era, that prompted quite a few people to fashion the nickels into unflattering caricatures of African Americans or Jews. This is something that catalogers of Buffalo nickels usually omit in their descriptions today, but the first generation of hobo nickels from the 1913 to 1920 period usually depicts unflattering caricatures of ethnic stereotypes.

Also common in that era, particularly during World War I, were coins that were sculpted into an image of the Kaiser. Americans were stirred up into a frenzy of hatred for Kaiser Wilhelm and the German empire. So quite a few of the nickels from that period have been turned into portraits of the Kaiser with his distinctive upside-down mustache.

Collectors Weekly: Would that be considered folk art today?

Lange: It’s always been folk art, but only in the last 30 to 40 years have people really appreciated it enough to give it that label. In the era of the first hobo nickels—the 1910s through the 1930s when the mints were producing these coins—true hobos made them. They were usually done for their own amusement, to pass time, or sometimes they were offered in trade for a meal or for a place to stay for the night.

1943-S bronze Lincoln Cent obverse

In 1943, ostensibly to save copper for the war effort, the mint issued steel cents coated in zinc, but a few pennies were struck on bronze planchets by mistake.

In more recent years, true artists have taken up the craft of creating hobo nickels. They’ve replaced the simple hand tools of the past with power tools, lasers, and other implements that were not available to the original generation of hobos.

The good news is that hobo nickels pose no threat to the overall supply of Buffalo nickels. There are still many hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Buffalo nickels in existence. There are countless dateless ones as well. There’s a seemingly endless supply of Buffalo nickels that have no date and are therefore of no interest to coin collectors. This provides fuel for the market for jewelry and also for the modern hobo nickels.

One way to tell a modern hobo nickel from a vintage piece is that the old ones are usually on coins from the 1913 to 1920 period. Usually the host coin is in fairly high-grade condition, meaning it circulated only a short time. When you see modern hobo nickels, they’re done on either dateless pieces or well-worn common issues from the 1920s and ’30s. That’s an obvious tip-off that they were done long after the coins were made.

Collectors Weekly: What do you consider the most interesting thing about collecting coins?

Lange: I love the history behind the coins. My favorite part about writing books has always been researching the history and the individuals behind the coins. I like to place every coin that I own in its historical context. Usually the acquisition of an old coin prompts the purchase of a particular book or the study of a particular era of world history.

Coins are also very good tools for learning new languages, or at least learning the numismatic portions of the language. They are a very good general introduction to the world’s cultures. The further you go outside of the U.S. in your collecting, the more you’ll learn.

Collectors Weekly: What advice do you have for someone new to coin collecting?

Lange: The first thing that a new collector should do is to try and learn as much as possible about coins before spending too much money. The first impulse of a new collector is to go out and buy everything in sight, without regard to quality or continuity. Very often people realize at some point that they have a whole bunch of coins that don’t relate to one another and are of very poor quality. It’s very helpful to start a good library.

There are two or three core references in any area of numismatics. People should try to get some of these books as they’re acquiring coins. The old expression is “buy the book before the coin,” but that’s hard for an enthusiastic new collector to do. I would modify that to “buy the book with the coin.” Then the coin will provide motivation for reading the book.

Collectors Weekly: Do you have any favorites when it comes to your collection?

Lange: Buffalo nickels have always been a favorite of mine. I keep coming back to the series, starting new sets, and then selling them. I’m also very fond of Charles Barber’s silver coin designs—the classic Liberty head series of 1892 to 1916. I built multiple sets of those coins over the years, but never quite finished any one of them. I come back to them again and again.

Collectors Weekly: Are there any new coins that have caught your attention?

Lange: Well, I’m interested in the new 2010 cent. Lyndall Bass was the designer who created the sketch, and Joseph Menna was the U.S. Mint sculptor who actually created the models from which the coin was made.

The Philadelphia and Denver mints will make them for circulation, while the San Francisco will make proofs for collectors. If you go to the mint’s website, they have all the information on the 2009 cents and how they created four different designs.

I mentioned earlier how the demand for new coins is almost nil because of the recession. The mint is actually having a very difficult time getting Federal Reserve banks to take any new coins. The fact the banks won’t take any additional shipments of cents means that only collectors have seen them so far. It’s virtually impossible to get a 2009 or 2010 coin of any type into circulation right now. If you look through your pocket change, you’ll find very few recent coins, particularly in cents, nickels, and dimes. They’re all 2008 and earlier.

Collectors Weekly: What about quarters?

Lange: The quarters tend to get out a little more because it’s still a useful denomination. Quarters are actually worth enough that people will spend them. They won’t just throw them in jars for years and years.

Collectors Weekly: Do you think the 2009 or 2010 cent will eventually go into circulation?

1943-S bronze Lincoln cent reverse

The reverse of the 1943-S bronze Lincoln cent.

Lange: It depends on how many the mint continues to produce. Usually coins are distributed in a last-in, first-out basis. So if you can imagine vaults, you throw a bunch of sacks of coins in a vault. When you need to retrieve coins, you’re going to grab the first sack. You’re not going to go all the way in the back to get the old ones. Eventually those coins will get distributed, but if they persist on making coins just to keep the production rhythm going, all those coins will pile up in front of them.

You can buy them directly from the mint, and a certain number are already in the marketplace from a few rare banking channels. Oddly enough, they were first seen in Puerto Rico. Evidently, there was a regional demand for cents there. So a lot of people were shipping them to us here at NGC from Puerto Rico to have them encapsulated because the demand was so great in the early part of the year.

They’re still making dollar coins. But do you ever see any in circulation? It’s the same thing for the half-dollars. They make millions of these coins every year, and they’re piling up in vaults because many of our current coins really aren’t needed for anything. But they keep making them anyway. They’re on autopilot.

Collectors Weekly: Is that good or a bad for collectors?

Lange: Well, it depends. If you just want to have a wide variety of coins every year, then it’s a good thing. The current series of dollars is honoring all the U.S. presidents at the rate of four a year. It’s a nice series, but I wish they were in circulation as well. There’s no reason they couldn’t be, but as long as dollar bills are available, people will be reluctant to use coins.

(All images in this article are courtesy of David Lange of www.coincollectingboards.net)

8 comments so far

  1. Roger Burdette Says:

    Excellent interview with a top-notch author!

  2. Lee Says:

    It is rare to get a buffalo in change today – but two years ago I got an 1898 V nickel from a Burger King!

  3. Tim Says:

    Great piece! I got three “buffalo” nickles in change just yesterday at the drive-through cleaners. Figuring someone had dumped an entire roll in the cash register draw, I got out of my car and asked the lady for change for a quarter. “I only have nickels” she said and proceeded to hand me five more buffalo nickles.

  4. Jim Says:

    Why isn’t there information on date and name of person that has made a discovery of unique defects in a coin. For example, the famous 3-legged buffalo nickel is well known and was minted in 1937. But who and when was this error first noted.

  5. Dave Lange Says:

    This information is found in my book The Complete Guide to Buffalo Nickels. Before the end of 1937 the 3-legged variety was already being publicized and offered for sale by a dealer named C. L. “Cowboy” Franzen of Montana, which is where these coins were distributed by banks.

  6. Erin Says:

    I’ve got a 1935, 36, and 37 buffalo nickels and they are all “red” in appearance. I have several other buffalo nickels, but these three seem to be struck on completely different material. I have done a lot of reading on the buffalo nickel and can’t seem to find anything even hinting towards a “red” coin. Do you know anything about these? or is there a chemical reaction going on of some kind?

  7. Dave Lange Says:

    Your red nickels were most likely found with a metal detector. Nickels that have been in the ground for a long time typically have a reddish-brown encrustation that is difficult to remove without damaging the coins. If your nickels are a lighter shade of red and somewhat glossy, these may be “house coins,” painted red by the owner of a juke box or slot machine to distinguish them from ones inserted by customers.

  8. Art Hitt Says:

    Greetings, and thank you. Regarding Indian Head nickels, I started “collecting” them when I was about 9 years old (going on 72 now). I have about $35 worth plus a fair number in slightly better condition in a coin book. Sadly, I came to realize a few years ago that none appeared to be of great significance as far as rarity or even excellent condition. Assuming their worth is still basically face value, any thoughts of how I might direct them in a way that people could enjoy them? Thank you for your time & patience. –ADH

Leave a Comment or Ask a Question

If you want to identify an item, try posting it in our Show & Tell gallery.