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The Most Famous Error Coin
The Three Legged Buffalo Nickel
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The 1937 Three Legged Buffalo Nickel is perhaps the most famous error coins ever created, and it is a highly desirable coin for all collectors. It gets its name from the fact that the reverse side of the coin depicts a buffalo that appears to only have three legs. This unusual mint error has fascinated collectors for years and it has become one of the most sought-after and famous coins in the 20th century.
The error was made when a Denver Mint employee, just recently hired, was attempting to remove some die marks from one of the reverse dies. He was able to successfully remove the marks, but he also inadvertently erased one of the buffalo’s legs. This blunder was not caught until most of the coins had already gone into circulation.


Both major grading systems, NGC and PCGS, identify this particular coin by including the words “3 Legs” on the Three Legged Buffalo Nickel. These are in high demand regardless of grade, but are especially popular in mint-state. There have been approximately 20 coins that have been graded MS66, and two have been graded MS67 by NGC. (This grading means that they are in near perfect shape; i.e. ‘mint condition.’) Coins with this grade can easily be sold for at least $50,000. In 2007, an auction was held which saw one of the coins be purchased for a price of $80,500.


In order to make sure you are getting a genuine error coin, as opposed to an altered one, there are certain things to look for. The buffalo is smaller on a genuine coin, and larger on an altered coin. This is quite visible to the naked eye upon comparison. Also, the back legs on the genuine coin are narrow and look ‘bumpy.’ They are not completely rounded. The beard tips are even and blunt on the genuine coin. The “P” in Pluribus and the “U” in Unum do not touch the Buffalo, as they do in altered or counterfeit coins. Also the rear leg on the Buffalo is weak – the altered version has strong details on the hind leg.


If you order the Three Legged Buffalo Nickel from a reputable dealer, they will check to ensure that it is a genuine artifact, not an altered one. PCGS, for instance, will guarantee the authenticity and grade of the coin. Unfortunately, there are some disingenuous dealers who may try to sell you an altered coin. It’s important to know the subtle differences so that you can make an informed decision about your purchases.


The Buffalo coin first came into production on March 4, 1913. James Earle Fraser, a reputable and famous sculptor of the time, learned that the Mint was considering a replacement for the Liberty Nickel. He wrote a letter to them in 1911, suggesting that a Native Indian and a Buffalo on the same coin was a purely American idea. His lobbying paid off, and his vision became a reality. After its debut in 1913, they continued to be in production on an intermittent basis. None of these coins were made in 1922, 1932 or 1933. The last of these coins were minted in 1938, one year after the famous error coin went into production. You may also here these coins called Indian Head nickels.


There is an act in Congress that was recently passed that required the word COPY to appear on all reproductions. This was done in the hopes that collectors will be alerted when non-genuine coins are trying to be passed as genuine.


The mint error made by the new employee at the Denver Mint was no doubt fired for his blunder; but it has certainly created fame and fortune for collectors who have spent years trying to track down this error coin and either keep it for their own, or sell it for a profit. The value of these coins will of course depend on their condition and whether or not they’ve been in circulation. The grading companies, such as NGC and PGCS assign grades to all coins, and one of the considerations when they assign a grade is what kind of shape the coin is in. The value can range from a few dollars to tens of thousands of dollars.

 

Among the many key diagnostics to look for on a genuine coin are these:

Obverse: Rust pits, flaws, and die crack. Although few of the references mention it, this issue always shows patches of roughness on the obverse, apparently created from die rust. One patch is on the top of the Indian's neck, just below the juncture with the hair. Another shows to the left of the longest feather about midway down, in the hair. Other patches are just above the obverse rim at 6 o'clock, and on the front of the neck, beneath the jawline. A small die crack runs southeast through this patch, with a small, comma-shaped lump near its lowest point.

Reverse: Beard, hoof and leg, die lumps, spindly rear leg. The reverse of a genuine 1937-D Three-Legged Buffalo also has numerous diagnostics that are easy to spot. The buffalo's beard is pointed, and longer on the right (facing) side than the left. Although a Mint employee removed the front leg with an emery board, the hoof is still present. There is a stream of raised die lumps running downward between the front and rear legs.

Compare your three leg nickel to a normal 1937D and look for these differences:
1. The coins' outstanding feature is the buffalo's missing front leg. Both stump and hoof remain, but the leg is entirely gone! There should be no scratches or file marks in the area of the missing leg.
2. Also, there will be a raised line of "bumps" arching from the Bison's belly to the ground.
3. Lastly look at the "P" in the word Pluribus and the "U" in the word Unum found on the left side of the buffalo.
On a genuine "three leg," they will be further away from the buffalo's back than on a normal 1937-D.

1937-D Buffalo Error Identifying Characteristics

1937-D FIVE CENTS
Mintage:

Circulation strikes: 17,826,000
Proofs: 0
Designer: James Earle Fraser
Diameter: 21.2 millimeters
Metal content:
Copper - 75%
Nickel - 25%
Weight: 5 grams
Edge: Plain
Mintmark: Small "D" (Denver) on reverse below Five Cents



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