[The following excerpt is published courtesy of DLRC Press and its author, David W. Lange. This information was originally published in 2006 in The Complete Guide to Buffalo Nickels.]
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The future creator of the Buffalo Nickel was born in Winona, Minnesota in 1876. Raised on the northern prairies of the Midwest, he was a witness to the sorrowful plight of both the Native American and the bison.
Fraser displayed a precocious talent for fashioning three-dimensional figures from materials at hand and was accepted as a student at the Art Institute of Chicago when not yet sixteen. His first major work was destined to remain his best known, despite a lifetime of achievement. Fraser completed “The End of the Trail” while still in his teens, a feat which attracted the attention of the art community and earned him an invitation to study at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris.
After a memorable five years in the City of Light, Fraser returned to America and continued his studies under the guidance of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who was hailed as the most brilliant sculptor of his age. In turn, Saint-Gaudens considered Fraser his most gifted pupil. During this period Fraser completed numerous portrait busts and other works, in addition to teaching at the Art Students’ League in New York City from 1906-11.
The opportunity to create a circulating coin memorializing both the American Indian and the bison was a commission Fraser took to heart. Driven to near extinction just fifteen years earlier, the bison still existed in a total population of little more than one thousand animals. While this number grew rapidly after 1913, Fraser and his contemporaries feared the loss of such a uniquely American symbol.
In the same year that the Buffalo Nickel entered circulation Fraser married Laura Gardin, a fellow artist of renown and the future sculptor of several commemorative half dollars and numerous medals. In the forty years that followed, until his death in 1953, Fraser completed dozens of commissioned works in a variety of sculptural forms. He returned to the familiar themes of the Native American and the bison only rarely. His Theodore Roosevelt Memorial at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City included the full figure of an Indian chief. A smaller work titled “Buffalo Herd” was completed in 1950. Cast in bronze, it depicts a stampede of adult bison and calves. Perhaps the most intriguing work from his later years was a revised obverse bust for the Lincoln Cent. Dated 1952, Fraser created it in anticipation that changes would be made to the cent in 1959 on the sesquicentennial of Lincoln’s birth. He was correct in that respect, though it was the coin’s reverse that was ultimately changed.
James Earle Fraser left behind a rich legacy of both completed and proposed works. Many examples of his preliminary work in plaster have survived. Perhaps the finest collection of these resides within the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center in Oklahoma City. Originally part of the collection that both Frasers maintained in their Westport, Connecticut studio, these items were willed to Syracuse University in New York following the death of Laura Gardin Fraser in 1966. The Oklahoma City museum purchased the artworks for its collection, though the Frasers’ personal papers remained with the university.
In 1981, some thirty lots of the Frasers’ plaster models, including several for the Buffalo Nickel, were auctioned by Joseph Lepczyk in Lansing, Michigan. In speaking with the assistant curator of the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, Lepczyk learned that numerous shattered works had been left behind at the Westport studio as junk, but evidently some intact works had been overlooked. Exactly how these were obtained was never established, but no one stepped forth to challenge their sale or the right of the new owners to hold them. As the most desirable pieces, the Buffalo Nickel models brought prices ranging from $1900 to $4100. Now widely dispersed, these only rarely appear on the market and may be expected to bring somewhat higher prices.