Background and History
The “Three Legged” Buffalo Nickel represents an intriguing and highly collectible variety of the Buffalo Nickel series. As implied by the name, on the reverse of the coin it appears that the Buffalo, or American Bison, has only three legs. The right foreleg appears to be missing, while the other three legs are present. The variety was accidentally created by a Mint employee and has remained extremely popular with collectors since its initial discovery.
During normal production of 1937 nickels at the Denver Mint, excessive clashing of the dies occurred. This was noted by a newer and somewhat inexperienced Mint employee, Mr. Young. Normally, when dies were severely clashed, they would be replaced, but Mr. Young tried to solve the problem by re-polishing the dies. This was a common practice at the early United States Mint, and was still done to remove minor imperfections from the dies, but the problem was severe enough that extensive re-polishing was needed for the reverse die.
During the re-polishing process, part of the area of the already much used reverse die was over-polished and not only the die clashes but some detail of the design was removed. This detail turned out to be the right foreleg of the buffalo, resulting in the creation of the well known variety. Perhaps overlooked or not deemed important at the time, the now erroneous reverse die was put back into production, and the coins that were struck were quickly dispersed into circulation. By the time inspectors discovered the error many thousands of coins were already circulating and it would not take long until the public discovered this mistake.
There are some key diagnostics to look for when identifying a genuine 1937-D Three Legged Buffalo Nickel. First of all, as the reverse die had been heavily used before the die clashing occurred, part of it is worn, most notably on the back of the Buffalo which appears mushy. Additionally, the right hind leg of the buffalo appears extremely weak, although not completely missing. There also is what appears to be a “cloud”, or irregular line, which is seen behind the legs, coming from the Buffalo and moving down to the bottom. Finally, unlike the majority of 1937-D nickels, the letters U and P in E PLURIBUS UNUM should not be touching the Buffalo.
Key Date Coin Mintage
Given the fact that there was only a single reverse die which was missing the right foreleg, it should not come as a surprise that only a minority of all 1937-D Buffalo Nickels are the 3 Legged variety.
The total mintage for the issue was 17,826,000 coins, a reasonable number within the series, indicating the importance of the nickel denomination within American commerce. The exact number of these which were the 3 Legged variety is unknown, although it is generally assumed that the total number struck may have been around 20,000 examples.
As the variety was not discovered immediately and virtually all pieces quietly entered circulation, it took some time before they were noticed by the general public. However, once the variety became more widely known, values rose and the pieces were quickly pulled from circulation, especially since the variety was easy to spot and visible without magnification.
Many people found something magical or intriguing about a “three legged” buffalo on a circulating coin, a sentiment that persists to this day. In fact, many collectors decide to include this popular variety as the only variety in a set of Buffalo Nickels, leaving out other varieties such as the rare 1914/13 overdate and 1916 Doubled Die.
Finest Known and Values
The 1937-D 3 Legged Buffalo Nickel is a scarce issue, but not extremely difficult to find. Most of the examples that are encountered, however, are in circulated condition, and only a minority have survived in uncirculated grades. Most of these, as the population reports testify, are in the lower mint state grades, with major bagmarks and perhaps some luster breaks. Gems, meaning those graded MS-65, are very rare and trade for a big premium. Examples graded at higher levels are usually accepted as a major rarity and are seldom offered for sale.
The PCGS population reports shows that the finest pieces graded by the company as four pieces certified in MS66. One grade lower, there are around 50 examples graded MS65, although it appears that as much as one-third of this number consists of resubmissions. The population numbers at NGC are slightly higher, but their report also appears to be heavily influenced by resubmissions. One coin has been graded as MS 67 * (the star denoting extraordinary eye-appeal) with two others are graded MS 67, although it is possible that all of these are the same coin or perhaps two different which have been resubmitted. One grade lower, there are 19 examples graded as MS 66, again possibly inflated by resubmissions.
The highest price realized for this major variety/error was $97,750 for one of the NGC MS 67’s. One of the PCGS MS-66’s sold in 2005 for $86,250. Other high grade examples have sold for lower amounts, with MS-65 coins usually selling for approximately $ 30,000 to 40,000. Circulated examples of this issue are much more easily found and depending on the grade can be found priced under the $1,000 level.