Exploring Proof Coinage

Posted on 2/14/2013

The US Mint has been striking what are universally considered Proof coins since at least 1817.

As most of you know, Proof coins are made for collectors and in most cases are distinctly different in appearance to coins made for circulation. The coins are struck multiple times on polished planchets, with specially prepared dies. Great care is taken by the US Mint to create the most perfect coins possible.

The US Mint has been striking what are universally considered Proof coins since at least 1817. When coin collecting became popular in the US in the late 1850s, most early collectors confined their acquisitions to purchasing examples of these specially made coins from the Mint. It was not until at least 50 years later that collecting coins by mintmarks became popular.

Even the US Mint collected coins in this manner. The National Coin Collection, which is now housed in the Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution, includes the original Mint collection that was transferred to the museum in the 1920s. The collection is spectacular and probably the finest in the world. It is, however, relatively weak in the quality of branch mint coins. The US Mint employees faithfully set aside Proof coins struck each year at the Philadelphia Mint starting in 1817. There are a few coins struck prior to that year with claims to Proof status, but that will be discussed later. Collectors today are extremely lucky that the US Mint took such great pride in the quality of its work. It is a miracle of numismatics that so many great coins were so carefully preserved for future generations to study and observe.

Around 1856, coin collecting in the US exploded with the discontinuation of Large Cents. Until then, there were very few individuals interested in coin collecting. This also explains why so many of the great coin collections formed in the late 19th century focused on early copper coins. Large Cents were all the rage as were Colonials and Washingtonian material. Prior to this period, Proof coins were sold by the Mint individually and as demand dictated. Some early complete Proof sets are known, but they are very rare. Starting in 1858 the US Mint sold Proof sets to collectors annually. The sets could be purchased in a variety of ways as the Mint sold minor coin sets, silver sets, and complete sets including gold. The coins were sold for a small premium over face value to cover the extra production costs of these special coins. Occasionally, an original Proof set will enter the market from the late 1850s or 1860s and include the original packaging and documentation. Some were housed in leather boxes, but I believe these were privately made outside of the Mint.

For many years, serious collectors of US coinage would attempt to purchase complete Proof sets of coins struck from 1858 to 1915. These sets would include Seated coinage struck from 1858 to 1891 and Barber coinage struck from 1892 to 1915. This period also includes complete sets of many popular minor series, such as Indian Cents, Matte Proof Lincoln Cents, Two Cents, Three Cent Nickels, Three Cent Silvers, Shield Nickels, Liberty Nickels, and Matte Proof Buffalo nickels. As could be imagined, a complete run of Proof sets from 1858 to 1915 would cost a fortune in today’s market. Incredibly, from the time when I began collecting coins in the 1970s and through the late 1980s, it was not unusual to see complete runs of these Proof sets appear at auction with regularity. Collections formed in the old days would be sold with great runs of early Proof sets. The Stack’s family in New York City sold the majority of those great collections that entered the market from the 1950s to the mid-1980s. A great one that comes to mind is the 1976 ANA sale with the Proof sets from the Garrett Collection (no relation unfortunately). Anyone interested in Proof coins should try to acquire this catalogue and others from the time period.

Today, collectors generally pick a denomination to collect as Proofs. This can be quite challenging, but has been made easier over the years as most of the aforementioned sets were broken up and the coins sold individually. Some collectors or dealers like to reassemble early Proof sets from coins offered in the market. When sets are well matched they become quite desirable, and usually sell for a premium over the prices for individual coins. Collectors of Proof coins sometimes assemble type sets of different denominations as well. A complete type set of 20th century US coins in Proof is a great idea and is very impressive when assembled. The set includes everything from a Proof Lincoln Memorial Cent to a Proof Morgan Silver Dollar. More advanced collectors can venture into 19th century coinage.

The overriding appeal of Proof coinage is the exceptional quality of the coins. This started with the careful attention the US Mint took producing the coins, and the fact that they were made for collectors and saved as such. The coins were not struck for circulation and by some miracle, survived for present day collectors to enjoy. The coins are in most cases deeply mirrored in appearance, well struck, and beautiful. Some are wonderfully toned; others bright white from conservation at some point. Many are somewhere in between. Collectors also appreciate the low mintages of 19th century Proof coinage. Nearly all issues were struck in numbers lower than 1,000 coins. The coins are also very affordable in most grades and, in general, no dates are impossible to obtain in most series. Collectors love to aspire for complete sets, and Proof coinage is an ideal pursuit for most.

When I began collecting there was really no distinction or premium attached to coins with a Cameo effect. Today, Deep Cameo Proof coins are extremely sought after. Huge premiums are sometimes paid for coins with what is now called “Ultra Cameo” devices. It makes sense, as these coins have incredible eye appeal. Some of the Seated and Barber coins with ultra cameo devices look like modern day productions. An Ultra Cameo Morgan Dollar in high grade is one of the most spectacular coins in the marketplace.

Finally, one area of the Proof market that should be mentioned in more detail is Proof US gold coins. These coins are the caviar of numismatics and usually purchased on a coin-by-coin basis. Very few collectors in the last 50 years have even attempted collecting the complete series of Proof US gold coins struck from 1858 to 1915. One such collector was the late Ed Trompeter. His collection was virtually complete and one of the best ever assembled. The set was sold after his death by the US Government in the 1990s to settle tax issues for his estate. Ed was quite the character, and liked to say, “only real men collect Proof gold.” He was a bit old school and certainly not politically correct.

Proof gold coins are extremely attractive for their rarity. The Mint struck these as demand dictated, and because of the high face value, mintages were generally quite low. Some issues in the 1870s were stuck in quantities as low as 20 coins. Others sometimes entered circulation due to lack of demand or were spent by collectors needing money. Even the most common Proof gold coin is rare by most standards. Some gold dollars in the 1880s were struck in highest numbers of all gold coins (around 1,000 coins). These can be purchased for under $10,000 in gem condition. Gold coins generally tend to become more valuable as the denomination increases. Proof Double Eagles are understandably the most desirable and often sell for six figures. Many rare coin advisors suggest that serious collectors or investors purchase one or two “great” coins when building a collection. Proof United States gold coins are in my opinion the epitome of “great” when it comes to numismatics!

Next time I will discuss the fascinating Pre-1858 Proof coinage struck by the United States Mint. Lots of great coins there as well!

Questions about the rare coin market? Send them to wmr@ngccoin.com.

Jeff Garrett bio

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