by Bill Fivaz, NLG (Presented by Mark Watson, WINS#13)
1. The key area to look at to determine wear on this series is the Buffalo's hipbone and the flank underneath it.
2. If the hipbone shows the "Mesa Effect," it is not technically mint state. This "Mesa Effect" is illustrated below in drawings of a cross-section of the buffalo's hip:
3. Look closely for the flatness on the hipbone which, when accompanied by a dullness in color on this spot and the flank underneath, denotes wear. Note: If there is a hip flatness but it is rather "shiny," this could be the result of coin-against-coin in the roll. When in doubt, check that flank for the confirmation that it is not mint state. Color is a key factor in all grading, and it is of utmost importance on the Buffalo Nickel.
4. Because of the nature of the metallic content of this series (75% copper, 25% nickel), a Buffalo Nickel need not be fully brilliant to achieve a MS-65 (or better) grade. It must, however, have original luster, be relatively mark free and be well struck for the date.
5. In this series, strike is a very important grading factor. Many of the late teens and early to mid twenties mintmarked issues are horribly struck, the result of using the dies well past their effectiveness for proper striking. The same is true for many of the 1935 Denver and San Francisco products, and some latitude is necessary when grading these coins. A fully struck or well struck piece will show the incused depression just above the tie on the braid on the obverse. Weaker struck specimens will have this area flat, with no such definition. On the reverse, the areas of weakness (last areas to strike up) are the Buffalo's upper front leg and shoulder and the hair on the head in front of the horn. These are areas of high relief on the coin (deepest portions of the die) and are therefore the last parts of the design to strike up.
Generally speaking, the better the strike, the more attractive the luster (or original toning), and the fewer the contact marks, the higher the grade - once the coin is determined to be uncirculated. This, of course, may be said of any series, but the biggest problem here seems to be identifying the AU / BU difference.
A well struck coin is generally considered one that exhibits much more detail on both the obverse and reverse than the majority of that issue. For example, an 1926-D without the "mushy," ill-defined appearance, but still not having the characteristics of a full struck coin, may be classified as "well struck." Similarly, a 1935-D specimen without the broad, flat, grainy surface on the hair above the braid on the obverse and the bison's upper leg on the reverse could also be called "well struck."
Suggested definitions for the various grades are:
MS-65 Well Struck: A coin exhibiting attractive, full, natural luster with no wear and a minimum of contact marks, none of them detracting. It may have (natural) toning, but the original luster must be present. The "groove" in the hair immediately above the tie on the braid should be well defined on those coins that are generally well struck, but it need not be as prominent on those that are usually found with weak strikes or struck from worn dies.
MS-64: A coin with the above characteristics, but if normally weakly struck or struck from worn dies, may have no evidence of the groove above the braid tie.
MS-63: Usually coins that fall into this grade are suffering some luster loss and / or have some fairly noticeable contact marks (in the prime focal areas). Also, the strike might not be up to par compared to the usual specimen encountered for the date / mintmark.
MS-60: A coin with no trace of wear on the hip bone, flank, or hair in front of the horn but with more than the usual contact marks, impaired or poor luster, or much more weakly struck than average.
Special note: It is strongly recommended that this series be graded primarily by examining the reverse side first and then confirming your opinion by examining the obverse. Very slight wear first shows up on the bison's hip and the flank underneath (the "Mesa Effect"), which will be accompanied by a difference in color (dullness) in those areas. This "dullness" is from the loss of original luster. Don't ignore the obverse, but if there is wear on the reverse in these two spots, there will be wear on the obverse, albeit more difficult to see.
On Proof Buffalo Nickels, very often there will be "flyspecks" on them, probably the result of saliva or water droplets falling on the coin years ago. These are also seen on high grade business strikes, and they are impossible to remove without destroying the original luster on the coin.
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