USA Coin Album: Distinguishing Early Proof Coins - A Blend of Science and Intuition (Part 1)

Posted on 11/11/2014

Since the beginning of modern proof coin sales in 1936, there has been little difficulty in establishing whether or not a coin is indeed a proof.

Though the first emission of proof cents and nickels that year were not as fully brilliant as later pieces, they were nonetheless distinguishable from currency strikes, and that has been the rule ever since. But when collectors attempt to identify pre-1936 coins as proofs there may be some difficulty. Therein lies the theme of this month’s column.

Some disagreement still exists as to when the US Mint made the first coins which would qualify as proofs under current definitions. Scholar Walter Breen pegged this date as 1817, as proof cents are known of Newcomb variety N-6. Indeed, NGC has certified one such coin as PF 63 BN. Some earlier issues have been certified by both of the major grading services as SP (specimen) strikes, but it’s not certain whether their special status was intentional or just a serendipitous coincidence. An examination of coins from the 1790s and early 1800s struck at other nation’s mints suggests that somewhat prooflike surfaces were the norm under the technology of that period, unless the dies were severely worn or pitted. The SP designation is typically reserved for coins that combine reflective fields with superior strikes and surfaces.

Proofs of various denominations are known from the 1820s and ‘30s, but these were made sporadically and appear to have been struck on request rather than as a matter of routine. Proof coin minting accelerated during the 1840s and early ‘50s, and by 1854 the US Mint was making proofs of its silver and copper coins on a regular basis. Gold proofs are not known for all denominations until the Mint began to advertise complete or partial proof sets for sale in 1858.

In older auction catalogs, let’s say those before about 1980, it was a common practice to identify any early U. S. coin having prooflike fields as “proof.” A few of these have stood the test of time, but most have since been correctly identified as simply early strikes from fresh dies or coins struck from dies that had been vigorously repolished to remove erosion lines or clash marks. This was a learning process that accelerated with the creation of certified/encapsulated grading in the 1980s. I daresay that some of the coins labeled as proofs during the first couple years of certified grading would fail to make the cut if submitted raw today, but most of these have been weeded out through resubmissions at a later date. Other coins that were cataloged at auction as proofs and then submitted for grading were instead certified as MS DPL (Mint State, Deep Prooflike).

Though I’ve been around coin collecting nearly my entire life, prior to joining NGC my access to early United States proof coins had been limited by their rarity and cost. I’d never been in a position to collect or deal in pre-1850s proofs, though in my youth I’d seen many of them displayed as part of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Numismatic Collection. The fabulous Lilly Collection was exhibited there for many years, but under less than ideal viewing conditions. One had to get down almost to the floor for the light to reflect properly off of the coins’ fields, and at that distance they were too far away to make out any details. A similar display of the former U. S. Mint Cabinet proof coins was also presented not far from the Lilly pieces, but the same challenge existed in viewing them.

In 1996 I had the opportunity to finally examine these coins close up and actually handle them as I would coins at NGC. I was joined by then-NGC grader Jeff Isaac for a tour of the NNC’s storage cabinets which was guided personally by Curator Richard Doty. Our mission was to examine and take notes on all of the early proof coins that had been preserved by the Philadelphia Mint for its own cabinet, which was ultimately transferred to the Smithsonian in 1923. If any doubts existed in my mind regarding my ability to distinguish true proofs from prooflike pieces, they ended that day. Seeing undisputed proofs that were traceable to the Mint’s own collection forever cemented in my mind what qualities constituted true proof status. This knowledge has served me well, as NGC continues to get coins that rest right on that fine line between MS DPL, Specimen and Proof.

Determining whether a coin having reflective fields is a true proof is more a matter of studying its die state and strike than one of measuring the depth of its mirrors. Striking sharpness, however, may be unreliable in some instances. I’ve seen a number of weakly struck coins that were unquestionably proofs, an example being the 1845 cent NGC-certified as PF 62 RB which was sold by Heritage Auctions as part of the Adam Mervis Collection. This cent is rather poorly struck, and it would be hard to convince a novice that it’s a proof, yet it was from the N-14 die marriage which is known to have been coined only as proofs.

David W. Lange's column, “USA Coin Album,” appears monthly in the Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.

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