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The Smithsonian Buffaloes
By Len Ratzman

Like so many rewarding discoveries, this one started out with a simple search on the Internet for the Smithsonian Institute’s Web site: info@si.edu. In all probability, I was never going to make it the 3,000 miles from LA to Washington, DC to visit the Smithsonian’s coin collections, so I decided that the next best thing was viewing my favorite buffalo nickels on the institution’s Web site.

The first mild surprise came when I learned that the coin collections weren’t housed at the Smithsonian proper at all, but rather in the National Museum of American History’s Kenneth E. Behring Center.

The second surprise/disappointment came when I first started surfing the Web in 2007 only to learn that the building housing the collections was closed from 2006 to November, 2008, for renovation.

Right on schedule the opening occurred, and keying in [3] http://americanhistory.si.edu/collections in December of last year brought me to the starting point that had been unavailable for two years.

Once the page is displayed, there are two boxes you need to fill out before you finally get to the “goodies.” The first box entitled Keyword I filled with (no surprise) “buffalo nickels”. The box below it (defaulting to “All Subjects”) has to be modified by clicking on the pull-down arrow which displays a menu containing our ultimate goal – “Coins and Currency.” By clicking on Go, the next screen will finally display various photographs of some of the collection’s coins.

It was probably naive to hope that every coin in the collection would be registered and available for viewing. When only the 1913 raised-mound buffalo was displayed, the crusader in me predictably triggered the motivation to try to determine why the entire collection wasn’t displayed, coin-by-coin. Was the collection even complete?

After a series of forwarded e-mails, I finally heard from the senior curator of numismatics at the National Museum of Natural History, Mr. Richard Doty. It should be noted here that without Mr. Doty’s informative e-mail responses over the next few weeks, none of this article’s contents would have been possible. His perseverance and patience with my flood of questions should be recognized and gratefully noted.
For those readers who weren’t already aware of the facts surrounding the Smithsonian’s Buffalo Nickel collection, the following assumptions/ facts pairings are offered:

Assumption #1—The collection is complete.

Fact #1—Although most of the coins are in various levels of uncirculated condition, there are five uncirculated coins missing altogether and 4 proof coins yet to be acquired even after all these years the collection has existed.

Fact #1a—Missing Uncirculated: 1913-S, type 1 1916-P, double die obverse 1920-S 1926-S and D Fact #1b—Missing proofs: 1914, 1915, 1936 and 1937

Assumption #2—All specimens in the collection are uncirculated, have been registered, and given MS and PF grades.

Fact #2—None of the coins are registered because of the cost to do so and the low priority assigned to the need to grade them. In addition, several of the specimens in the collection are even less than uncirculated. Graded by Mr. Doty, the specimens in the collection that are not uncirculated include:
1914-D – XF45
1916-S – AU50
1918-P – XF40
1918-D – XF40 with pitting
1918-D over 17 – Fine 25
1918-S – XF45
1925-S – AU55
1937-D, 3-legged variety – AU50

In an e-mail, Mr. Doty explains, “We do have a set of Buffalo nickels, but lacking a few coins and varieties. Most of the coins are mint state, but their precise condition is largely irrelevant to us for purposes of research.

In time, I’d hope that we can display the entire series on-line. But with 1.6 million (numismatic) objects spanning six continents over twenty-six hundred years, and with (only) two full-time employees to handle the lot, it may take a while.”

Assumption #3—The collection is on display for visitors to view.

Fact #3—Because of the lack of funding to create acceptable minimum- security standards, the collection is housed in the Smithsonian Institute’s coin vault, not available to view by the public. In another explanatory e-mail, Mr. Doty explains, “I have to tell you we’re not admitting members of the public to the coin vault where most stuff is stored. We don’t have the manpower to meet minimum security requirements.”

Assumption #4—All coins in the collection came from the same source.

Fact #4—Mr. Doty explains, “The coins came from a variety of sources—most from the Treasury (i.e. Mint), some from individual donors, and occasionally from who-knows where (we use [the code] FIC, Found in Collection, to identify such mavericks.”

Assumption #5—The staff in the museum responsible for the countless numismatic objects stored there is large.

Fact #5—At the present time there are only two individuals in this group—Mr. Doty and one full-time assistant. The curator laments, “The size of my staff has shrunk from 12 in 1986 when I arrived to just two in 2009.”

How satisfying it would be for some numismatic philanthropist to “go down in history” for being known for his or her donations to the Smithsonian which would bring the collection that much closer to completion? What an enviable legacy that gesture would leave the numismatic community.


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