The American Buffalo, also known as a gold buffalo, is a 24-karat bullion coin first offered for sale by the United States Mint on June 22, 2006, and available for shipment beginning on July 13. The coin follows the greatly admired design of the Indian Head nickel and has gained its nickname from the American Bison on the reverse side of the design. This was the first time ever that the United States Government has minted pure (.9999) 24-karat gold coins for the public. The coin has a legal tender (face) value of US$50. Due to a combination of the coin’s popularity and the tremendous increase in the price of gold since its creation the coin’s value has increased considerably in a short time of just a few years. The initial 2006 U.S. Mint price of the proof coin was $800. In 2007 the Mint proof coin was $899.95, $1,410.00 in 2009, and $2,010.00 in 2011.
In addition to requiring a presidential dollar coin series to begin in 2007 and redesigning the cent in 2009, the Presidential $1 Coin Act of 2005 mandated the production of a one-ounce 24-karat gold bullion coin with a face value of $50 and a mintage limit of up to 300,000 coins.
The design of the American Buffalo gold bullion coin is a modified version of James Earle Fraser’s design for the Indian Head nickel (Type 1), issued in early 1913. After a raised mound of dirt below the animal on the reverse was reduced, the Type 2 variation continued to be minted for the rest of 1913 and every year until 1938, except for 1922, 1932, and 1933 when no nickels were struck. Generally, Fraser’s Indian Head nickel design is regarded as among the best designs of any U.S. coins. The same design also was used on the 2001 Smithsonian commemorative coin.
The obverse (front) of the coin depicts a Native American, whom Fraser said he created as a mixture of the features of three chiefs from different American Indian tribes, Big Tree, Iron Tail, and Two Moons, who posed as models for him to sketch. The obverse also shows the motto “LIBERTY” on the top right, the year of mintage on the bottom left, and below that the letter F for Fraser.
Atop a mound of dirt on the reverse (back) of the coin stands an American Bison, which commonly are referred to as buffalo. The animal depicted on the reverse is believed by most to be the bison named Black Diamond, who lived in the New York City Central Park Zoo during the 1910s. It is said that Fraser had to have someone distract the buffalo while he sneaked to a position beside it to draw. Otherwise, the buffalo would turn to face him and Fraser couldn’t get the profile he wanted.
The American Buffalo gold bullion coin further has in common with the nickel the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM above the buffalo’s lower back and the device UNITED.STATES.OF.AMERICA along the top. Differences that can be noted between the nickel and the fifty dollar piece are, on the gold American Buffalo coin the mound area of the reverse of the Indian Head nickel bearing the words, FIVE CENTS, has been changed to read $50 1 OZ. .9999 FINE GOLD. Also, the motto, IN GOD WE TRUST, appearing on all U.S. gold coins since 1908, can be seen on the reverse of the newer coin to the left of, and beneath, the buffalo’s head.