It's hard to believe that it's been 100 years since the Indian Head (or Buffalo) nickel first appeared. James Earle Fraser's iconic design, long a collector's favorite, is perhaps the first modern coin to achieve celebrity status, dating back to the Michael Higgy Sale in 1943. Incidentally, some - including Q. David Bowers - believe this famous auction led to the birth of the modern coin market.
The Indian Head nickel is one of the 20th century's most beautiful coins. Rugged yet dignified, it displays a perfect balance of design, with neither side dominating the other. It also marks the zenith of a period of American coinage dominated by Native American motifs. Ironically, this period started at the end of the fifty year run of James Longacre's Indian cent; had that design stuck around but a few more years, the U.S. would have produced cents, nickels, quarter eagles, half eagles, and eagles all featuring Native motifs.
From a purely historical perspective, this period of American history is not especially known as a high point in relations between indigenous American tribes and state and federal governments. Years of persecution and forced assimilation had taken a heavy toll on the tribes, most of which were living in poverty by the 1910s and 1920s.
One notable exception came in 1924, when President Calvin Coolidge signed the Indian Citizen Act, which granted American citizenship to Native Americans born in the United States. This measure was designed to clarify tribal legal status and improve the economic situation of American Indians. The image below shows President Coolidge wearing a Sioux headdress after becoming an honorary member of the Sioux Nation, having been given the name "Chief Leading Eagle".
Despite the obvious irony of the federal government minting coins bearing the likeness of Indians with inscriptions of Liberty, Americans saw the motifs as a connection to the pioneer spirit and rugged individualism of the Old West, hearkening back to the days of "cowboys and Indians".
The coin enjoyed a federally-mandated 25 year production run. Like the Standing Liberty quarter which was introduced three years into the production of the Indian Head nickel, adjustments had to be made to the design in order to render the date legible after a certain degree of wear. In 1933, the Roosevelt Administration suspended the manufacture and circulation of all American gold coins, leaving the Indian Head nickel as the sole coin bearing the motif. In 1938, a design bearing the likeness of President Thomas Jefferson and his Charlottesville, Virginia home at Monticello was chosen to replace Fraser's spartanly symbolic nickel design.
A favorite of both beginner and advanced collectors, new life was breathed into Fraser's design in 2001, when Congress authorized the release of the American Buffalo commemorative silver dollar. The program was a huge success, selling through the authorized mintage limit of 500,000 coins. The design joined Adolf Weinman's Walking Liberty half dollar obverse and Augustus Saint-Gaudens' double eagle obverse on American bullion coinage. But unlike those two releases, the American Gold Buffalo features both original sides. It's hard to imagine one without the other.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Mint conducted a survey to gauge interest in a two-coin 100th Anniversary American Gold Buffalo Set, which would contain proof and reverse proof specimens of the popular one ounce, .9999 fine $50 gold bullion coin. If this idea comes to fruition (as yet, it remains unannounced), it would mark the first time an American gold coin was released as a reverse proof. With an expected price tag exceeding $4,000, there's no telling how much demand such a set will ultimately create. If history is any indicator, however, $4,000 might be the lowest price this set will ever see.