Buffalo Nickels Counterfeit & Altered Coins

[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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As long as there have been coins there have been counterfeiters, and the Buffalo Nickel was not immune to this threat. As early as April of 1913, The Numismatist could report that “Already the counterfeiters are at work on the new five cent piece, and a number of leaden imitations have been placed in circulation.” Cast lead counterfeits of the Buffalo Nickel may still be found in accumulations of old coins, and a couple of these are illustrated here more for amusement purposes than to educate. Such relics of a bygone era are far too crude to fool most collectors. More dangerous is the counterfeit or altered coin intended for the numismatic marketplace. These are generally more sophisticated in technique than circulating fakes.

Quality counterfeits that could deceive experienced authenticators are thus far unknown for the Buffalo Nickel series. Or, perhaps, they have not yet been detected. A more urgent concern is the problem of clever alterations of otherwise genuine coins. The simplest method of adding value to a common date in the series is to apply a mintmark to a Philadelphia Mint coin.

For instance, 1924(P) is only slightly scarce as a date, yet when an S mintmark is added it becomes one of the keys to the series in grades VF and higher. This can be done by removing the mintmark from a common date San Francisco Mint nickel such as 1936-S and bonding it in the appropriate position on the PMint coin. The mintmark can be soldered on or cemented with epoxy. This usually results in a mintmark that has the appearance of floating on the coin’s surface rather than flowing directly into it as a genuine mintmark would. Of course, the skill with which this operation is performed will determine its relative success. Some very deceptive examples have been found. Included in this rogue’s gallery are 1913-S Type 2, 1915-S, 1918/7-D (altered date, as well), 1920-D, 1920-S, 1921-S, 1924-S, 1925- D, 1925-S, 1926-D, 1926-S and 1927-S.

Another method through which a mintmark may be added is more elaborate. An entire section of a coin bearing the desired mintmark is cut from it and a similar portion is removed from another piece that possesses the desired date. A swap is then made, leaving one coin that bears a valuable combination of date and mint. Since the amount of rotation between obverse and reverse dies will vary from one nickel to another, the section removed is cut only halfway through the thickness of each coin, thus leaving the corresponding portion of the obverse intact. Of course, this method will leave obvious signs of tooling where the cut was made and along the coin’s edge. Attempts to smooth out this alteration will always be imperfect, and further tricks to conceal the deception such as the application of polishing, artificial toning or tiny nicks and scratches may also be employed.

Similar in concept but distinctive in method is the halving of two entire nickels to make up one valuable piece. Such an example is the 1926-S Buffalo Nickel shown here. It is really comprised of a 1926(P) obverse bonded to the reverse of a common and extremely well struck S-Mint coin from the 1930s. The seam along its edge is all too obvious, once one has thought to check this third surface. Unfortunately, most collectors and dealers do not check the edge when a coin is sealed in a tight-fitting holder. This particular specimen was one of several dated 1913-S Type 2, 1914-D and 1926-S that were deceptively sold to some very knowledgeable dealers before they began to suspect that these key dates were suddenly becoming too common.

Yet another variation on this theme is to hollow out most of one entire coin, leaving something that resembles a shallow bottle cap. Another nickel having the desired date or mintmark (depending on whether obverse or reverse is needed) is then turned down on a lathe, reducing its diameter enough that it may be inserted into the bottle cap. The seam is less likely to be detected with this method, as it’s hidden in the coin’s rim and can be more easily smoothed over.

By far the most diabolically clever alterations to appear for the Buffalo Nickel series are the infamous “embossed” mintmarks that turned up in the early 1980s. Several key date issues were simulated by pushing up mintmarks from within the coins. A common date such as 1919(P) was made into a scarce 1919-D by having a small hole drilled into its edge directly adjacent to where the mintmark should appear. A pair of narrow pliers was then used to raise the mintmark. One jaw bearing a mintmark in relief was inserted into the hole, while the other jaw was wrapped in some protective material such as hard leather or plastic and placed against the mintmark area of the nickel (ANAAB). When the handles of the pliers were squeezed, the inside jaw pushed an impression of the mintmark up through the thin layer of metal between the hole and the coin’s surface.

The result was an extremely deceptive mintmark that blended directly into the coin’s field as would a genuine mintmark. The only obvious sign that an alteration had occurred was a series of tooling marks on the nickel’s edge. These could be reduced through smoothing but not entirely eliminated. Dates for which edge examination is mandatory include 1913-S Type 2, 1914-D, 1915-S, 1919-D, 1920-D, 1924-S, 1925-D, 1926-D and 1926-S. Other key dates may yet turn up. Examples of this kind of alteration are illustrated.

In addition to tooling marks, another diagnostic of the embossed alterations is that the mintmark will show the same surface irregularities inherent in the host coin. Note that the metal flow lines present in the die appear also on the highest points of the mintmark for several examples. This is not normal, as the sunken relief of the mintmark in a die should normally protect its highest points from this form of erosion. At the very least, the flow lines will not be as strong as in the coin’s field, yet these alterations show very heavy flow lines in their mintmarks. In a more normal situation, the base of the mintmark will be drawn or distorted, as this part receives the greatest effect from metal flow.

Another trick for enhancing the value of a Buffalo Nickel is to raise its grade. This has been done by re-engraving the bison’s horn, this being a key element in the grading of Buffalo Nickels. Getting the perfect shape is, of course, quite tricky. Even when the work is done skillfully, an experienced buyer should recognize that the horn detail is inconsistent with the overall wear on the coin. Potentially more deceptive is the engraving of a horn on a less worn coin that was weakly struck and lacking this feature as made.

Collectors and dealers should beware also of faked variety coins. Popular varieties such as the 1918/7-D overdate have been targeted by those who make deceptive alterations. The simplest method to simulate this rare coin is by chasing or manipulating the date of a normal 1918-D nickel so that it has the appearance of an overdate. Such shortcuts produce a very crude product that may deceive the inexperienced but will be no match for those familiar with how the real overdate occurred (see Chapter 6). A more complex method of faking this variety is to make a negative impression of a genuine 1918 nickel obverse and then compress it onto the obverse of a genuine 1917-D nickel. This procedure is difficult to perform successfully, and the end product is again no match for the knowledgeable.

In one instance, a Buffalo Nickel may be made more valuable through the removal of a feature rather than its addition. This coin is, of course, the popular 1937-D “three-legged” nickel. When coin collecting was at its most popular during the late 1950s and early 1960s, this variety was frequently faked by simply grinding off the bison’s foreleg. Such alterations deceived many of the less experienced collectors so prevalent then, and they may still pose a problem for newcomers even today. An example of this crude work is shown. In an attempt to cover his work, the coin surgeon has added myriad tiny nicks and has given the coin a deep, artificial toning. Of course, a review of the correct diagnostics for this variety as presented in Chapter 6 will protect potential buyers from these boiler room jobs.

Appealing to a more sophisticated taste is the alleged die trial piece shown. It appears to be a copper impression of a reverse die for the Buffalo Nickel made on some foreign coin. While it is indeed copper, and there is in fact some faint image remaining of a host coin on the plain side, the likelihood of this piece having been struck at a U. S. mint is slim. Not evident from the enlarged photographs is that the die impression is itself slightly oversize, and no explanation exists for how this could be. While the exact nature of this piece remains unknown, it is probably a fabrication made for purposes of whimsy or deception.

Periodic references have been made over the years to the reeded edge cents and nickels of 1937. It is now known that these were alterations of genuine United States coins and were made to be given away or sold as harmless novelties. A more complete explanation may be found in Chapter 6 under the listing for 1937(P).

Another quite innocent, albeit profitable alteration of the Indian Head/Buffalo Nickel was the manufacture of so-called “hobo nickels.” Originally, such pieces were carved by hobos or prisoners from genuine nickels, and they were made both to pass the idle hours and to sell for a small profit. This activity occurred mainly from the 1910s through the 1950s, when coins of this type were still commonplace in circulation. Many such alterations are crude and hardly worthy of notice, while others are truly examples of American folk art at its most amusing. Hobo nickels made after this time are typically mass-produced items of little artistic merit that were not crafted by real hobos. These are designed to cash in on the popularity of legitimate pieces.

Of the few hobos who can actually be identified with their work, perhaps the most famous and talented was “Bo.” His real name was George Washington Hughes, and he lived circa 1900-80. He frequently signed his work with the initials GWH, or simply GH, as on the example shown. His many finely crafted nickels are avidly sought by collectors in this specialized field. Among the few contemporary references to hobo nickels may be found in the June 1918 issue of The Numismatist:

Collectors frequently have brought to their attention coins on which the device has been altered by someone skilled in the use of engravers’ tools, giving the piece a humorous or satirical effect. The present type of nickel seems to offer a splendid field for these artists to display their ability, and some ludicrous specimens have been turned out. The latest of these alterations, according to the New York Times, is one on which the head of the Indian has been transformed into the head of the Kaiser by the addition of a spiked helmet, and upturned mustache and a close-fitting uniform, with other slight alterations. Some of the altered coins have been found in circulation in Hoboken, N. J., and the Department of Justice has been asked to apprehend the distributors.

Sooner or later, one is likely to encounter an “acid date” nickel. Back when collectors were less conscious of a coin’s grade, the name of the game was simply filling the holes in an album or folder. At the time, Buffalo Nickels still circulated, and dateless pieces were frustratingly common. Some enterprising individual discovered that certain acids could etch a coin’s surface just enough to bring back a faint image of the date. Bottled under various trade names, this magic formula seemingly gave new life to otherwise useless nickels.

Nickel date restorer was a fixture in coin shops from about the 1950s until quite recently. The reason for its decline is twofold. First, there are fewer coin collectors these days, and their tastes more often lean toward quality rather than quantity. A second factor, one that has appeared only recently, is that dateless Buffalo Nickels now have value to the Native American and western jewelry industry. They are generally worth more dateless than if scarred by acid, and the lure of date restoration is quickly fading.

Finally, there are the completely implausible alterations or fantasy pieces. A good example is the “Texas” nickel illustrated. The coin on the right has been hammered between two strips of leather until its diameter was greatly expanded. The amount of distortion in the design was kept to a minimum, which could fool less experienced collectors. The same may be said of the often seen magician’s coins that have two heads or two tails. The editors of question-and-answer columns continue to receive inquiries about these fantasy coins despite efforts to educate collectors that such pieces are fabricated outside of the Mint.

In addition to coins that have been mechanically altered in some manner, there are countless Buffalo Nickels that have been abused in one way or another and have been ruined for numismatic purposes. Among the latter are a dozen coins for whose destruction the author must take full responsibility. When the first edition of this book was issued, I prepared six leather-bound copies that featured actual Buffalo Nickels mounted on their front covers. One each was placed heads or tails, with two coins per book.

Many Buffalo Nickels have simply been cleaned at one time. The manner in which this was done and the severity of the cleaning will determine whether the coin can eventually return to a natural appearance. The major grading services will not certify coins that have obviously been cleaned, while the lesser services will grade them but with qualifying statements that reduce their value.

One notable instance of the widespread cleaning of Buffalo Nickels may be found in the July 1956 issue of The Numismatist. Reporting a story from the April 5 edition of the New York World Telegram, the following notice appeared:

As part of the promotion of its new picture “The Last Hunt,” MGM planned to affix a shiny buffalo five cent piece to each of 2,000 letters to be sent to foreign distributors. Coin Auditing System, Inc., of New York City undertook the job of providing the coins and reportedly checked a million coins to find 2,000 suitable specimens, which “were put through a burnishing process at a Newark plant to make them nice and shiny. That part of the job cost $17.00.”

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