USA Coin Album: Distinguishing Early Proof Coins - A Blend of Science and Intuition (Part 2)

Posted on 12/16/2014

In most instances, vintage proofs will be fully struck and reveal every subtlety of the dies. These include the finest irregularities that are never evident in currency strikes.

In the past 30 years or so, the U. S. Mint’s proofs have been essentially flawless as made, their dies showing no lines, lumps or depressions. In 19th Century proofs, and even those coined for most of the 20th Century, there were almost always some imperfections. These might have been as subtle as faint erosion lines emanating from the coin’s center, what the Mint calls “starburst,” or it could be as obvious as sharp die polishing or filing lines.

Some researchers have gone overboard in using various irregularities to claim that they are irrefutable evidence of a coin’s proof status. For example, the proof Buffalo nickels of 1913-16 typically reveal a fine die line on the reverse border from 7 to 9 o’clock, and some have claimed that the presence of this feature is by itself confirmation of proof striking. The problem is that this flaw was on the master hub used to create the master dies for each year and will transmit to any coin that is sharply struck enough to fully fill the die cavity. While few currency strikes are ever that sharp, I’ve seen some 1917 nickels that do show this distinctive line. These were most certainly not proofs, though hopeful owners have occasionally made such a claim. To date no USA coin dated 1917 has been certified as proof by a major grading service, yet several pieces continue to make the rounds with letters of authentication from Walter Breen or other experts of a past generation.

The Philadelphia Mint is known to have used the same working dies to strike both proofs and currency pieces, usually in that sequence. This practice has resulted in quite a problem for collectors in distinguishing proofs of the minor coins dated 1877-89. This problem is particularly acute for the years 1877-81, as there are several issues that are quite rare as currency strikes. The proofs of these dates are actually more common and of lesser value. This resulted from a redundancy of minor coins which developed during the 1870s, since these coins has only limited legal tender value and could be refused by banks for deposit. Their coining for circulation thus slumped or was discontinued altogether, as with the nickels of 1877-78. Unfortunately, this period of low mintages coincided with the nadir of quality control for the U. S. Mint’s proof coins. Many of the proofs from this period are dull and/or less than fully struck. At the same time, the small mintages of currency pieces were accomplished using the same dies, which still retained some of their brilliant polish. The result was a perfect storm in which less than fully brilliant and fully struck proofs are almost indistinguishable from the slightly prooflike currency pieces. Professional certification is an absolute requirement to sort this out, and even experienced graders can have a tough time with these coins.

In my periodic role as an educator I’ve always emphasized that die diagnostics are the least reliable method of determining proof status, for the very reason that the same dies may have been used for both editions. I always ask my students to determine what the coiner’s intent was in producing each subject piece and use that as a guide in distinguishing between proof and non-proof coins. Even prooflike coins from retired proof dies will never have exactly the same surfaces as true proofs, as the planchets were not prepared for the proofing process. They lack the proper texture of a proof, which is something that’s almost impossible to describe in words. A collector has to see actual examples to learn the difference between real proofs and deceptive wannabes. It is quite risky to purchase raw those coins which are known to be deceptive by nature, such as the rare non-proof nickels dated 1880-81. Many of the certified proofs for these dates have been resubmitted multiple times by the same or different owners in an attempt to get the coveted MS designation.

A more recent example of the U. S. Mint recycling its proof dies may be found in the Washington quarter series. Beginning in 1956, as the mintages of proof coins rose dramatically, the Philadelphia Mint no longer retired its proof dies when they became too worn for proof production. Instead, it simply put them into use coining currency pieces. This would have gone unnoticed by collectors had not a separate master hub been created years earlier for proof dies of the quarter dollar’s reverse. This hub had the letters ES of STATES clearly separated, while on the hub for currency pieces they almost touch. Currency coins struck from the retired proof dies will show this separation, and more often than not they will also display slightly prooflike or satiny fields as a residual effect of the polishing given to proof dies. Of course, the planchets for production coins were not polished in the same manner as proofs, so there is no difficulty in distinguishing the two editions, but these “Type B reverse” Philadelphia Mint quarters dated 1956-64 are highly sought by collectors.

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

Stay Informed

Want news like this delivered to your inbox once a month? Subscribe to the free NGC eNewsletter today!


You've been subscribed to the NGC eNewsletter.

Unable to subscribe to our eNewsletter. Please try again later.

Articles List

Add Coin

Join NGC for free to add coins, track your collection and participate in the NGC Registry. Learn more >

Join NGC

Already a member? Sign In
Add to NGC Coin Registry Example
The NGC Registry is not endorsed by or associated with PCGS or CAC. PCGS is a registered trademark of Collectors Universe, Inc. CAC is a trademark of Certified Acceptance Corporation.