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By Paul Vanguard, for BullionMax.com
We know that the American gold buffalo is probably the second-most popular U.S. Mint gold coin by a wide margin, trailing the iconic American eagle. It’s not really a fair comparison, though, as gold American eagles are available in fractional weights as well as the standard 1 oz weight.
Less familiar to some bullion buyers: the exceptional popularity of buffalo silver rounds. In the absence of a true sovereign counterpart with an official face value, we might wonder why buffalo silver rounds are as popular as they are.
Because they really, really are popular… Dozens of private refiners and mints crank out millions of silver buffalo rounds every year. Here’s a brief list:
There are more. Some mints add a mintmark to their silver rounds, others do not. Obviously there’s a massive supply of buffalo silver rounds – what about demand?
Yes, in spades. Based on the last six months of sales data, buffalo silver rounds are, month after month, one of the single most popular products BullionMax sells. Seems like silver stackers and collectors who want to buy silver bullion are plenty happy with silver buffalo rounds!
That, at least, explains why so many mints create their own take on the 1 oz silver buffalo.
So the question becomes: Why did this particular design grow in popularity? As we often find, the answer can be summed up as: it used to be unpopular.
The design of the buffalo silver round can of course be traced to the buffalo nickel, possibly the greatest coin design of all time.
James Earle Fraser’s buffalo nickel design was first issued in 1913.
You’re probably familiar: an unspecified Native American chief on the obverse, a buffalo on the reverse.
Fraser’s portrait combined features of three different Native Americans he met and sketched, specifically Iron Tail, Big Tree and Two Moons. Once the coin began to circulate, many others claimed to’ve been the true subject of Fraser’s portrait. Fraser himself swore he couldn’t remember with certainty all the subjects he’d drawn, so the real answer is lost to the mists of time.
The buffalo, though? We actually know the buffalo’s name! Fraser stated unequivocally the famed American bison Black Diamond of the Central Park Menagerie (now the Central Park Zoo) posed as his subject.
Fraser’s masterpiece was released in 1913. Despite its masterful design, the buffalo nickel was so poorly received by numismatists that the U.S. Mint pulled the plug on it after 25 years, the minimum circulating timeframe for any coin. The original nickels suffered from a mistake of measurements. They were what we’d today call “high-relief” coins, meaning that elements of their designs rose above the protective rim of the coin. This led to rapid wear of two key elements: the date on the obverse, and the coin’s face value on the reverse.
Rapid revisions to the coin’s dies, intended to remove these defects, weren’t enough to save the day. The U.S. Mint ceased buffalo nickel production in 1938.
As these things tend to unfold, no sooner was the coin pulled than numismatists began appreciating what was gone. The normally mild-mannered coin-collecting crowd began to agitate for a resurrection of Fraser’s masterpiece (warts and all).
By 2001, the U.S. Mint had little choice but to meet demand in the form of a limited-mintage commemorative silver coin. Finally, in 2006, the now-revered American gold buffalo, the 24k "purer" counterpart to the gold eagle, became the norm.
The Mint issued only 500,000 of the 2001 commemorative silver coins – not a single one in the over-two-decades since.
Looks like private mints have stepped up to meet this demand.
The design itself is likewise something we imagine coin, or round, enthusiasts have come to appreciate. For all the negative reviews it initially garnered, it's not difficult to see how something that bears so much symbolism of American history would gain a huge following.
And, of course, accessibility and convenience aren't to be dismissed. The 1-ounce American Buffalo silver rounds in our inventory are sold just over spot price, making them an easy choice for any silver investor. The 0.999 silver content guarantees IRA eligibility, paving the way for a product one essentially can't go wrong with. Not to mention, the Sunshine Mint clearly went out of its way to make an intricate design that can rival any popular sovereign.
While we don't know how the round's shape would do if it was placed in circulation, it's not a particularly important point. The buffalo silver round is unlikely to move from its spot as the go-to silver alternative to the American gold buffalo (almost exactly the design you love at a fraction of the price of gold).
With premiums this low, why not add a little sparkle to your silver stockpile instead of going for plain old bars?
Paul Vanguard is a lifelong precious metals enthusiast and a proud member of the BullionMax team.