Modern Proof Coins—The Hunt For Perfection Continues

Posted on 5/11/2017

Viewing countless modern proofs gives the collector a greater appreciation for perfection!

As we roll into the month of May, we in New England can finally say good riddance to old man winter who, much like the unwanted house guest, didn’t seem to ever want to leave. With the season in transition, we can now rejoice in longer and warmer days. Numismatically we are also approaching an active summer agenda. As I have written numerous times, there is no longer a true “down” time in our hobby. The business of numismatics is now seemingly a rapid fire foray into a never ending coin cavalcade of "live on line only" and "live" floor auctions. Millions of dollars in certified coins sell each week in this fashion. Then as each new issue is released by the US Mint (and other world mints) a bevy of established collector’s, dealers and those new to the hobby prime their respective Wi-Fi ready devices to be the first to place their orders. Dealers who make the majority of their sales in modern material always seem to be looking for "outside assistance" when ordering limits are minimal as these professionals aspire to secure sufficient stock for their customers.

With each new coin the demand for NGC'S First Day of Issue or Early Releases status is a must. To make it even more exciting for the collector, a plethora of specialized and themed NGC labels are available for many modern issues. Of course every submitter is hoping for perfection: MS or PF 70!

While the perfect designation of "70" is rarely encountered on classic US series, it is now almost a given that a proof coin produced today has nearly a fifty-fifty chance of receiving the ultimate grade.

Now things were quite different when I was knee high to a quarter eagle; coins were adjective driven...Choice, Brilliant or Gem hand-scribed on white 2x2 cardboard beckoned us to look closer at the dealer’s wares in his showcase. The hope or desire of finding a perfect coin was not on my agenda. As it was then and still is to a great degree, perfection is subjective.

In regards to proof coinage produced after I was born, the chances of locating an unequivocal perfect proof collector coin is certainly possible and without much effort.

Since the so-called modern era of US proof coinage 1936-to date, the hunt for Red perfection reveals that the first PF 70 Red Ultra Cameo to register in the NGC Census is a 1978-S Lincoln Cent. The first "perfect" Jefferson nickel is the 1976-S PF 70 UC. The dime reveals a 1974-S Ultra Cameo Roosevelt was first to receive the numismatic perfect score by NGC. The Washington quarter reveals the 1964 ranking as the earliest PF 70 example graded by NGC. The NGC Census numbers four Washingtons graded PF 70 and a single coin achieving PF 70 Cameo in the final year of 90% silver! The Kennedy half returns to 1974-S as the first year receiving the perfect score of PF 70 Ultra Cameo. Topping off the regular circulating issues, the Ike dollar reports a single 1974-S PF 70 Cameo as the first in that series.

Generally from 1980s to date I find the percentages have increased dramatically for PF 70 coins as the Mint’s fastidious quality control and production procedures resulted in a high degree of numeric numismatic perfection in the modern era proof US commems produced 1982 and after. It is really quite amazing. The following figures are for PF 69 and PF 70 Ultra Cameo designation!

1982-Date US Commems

US Commems PF 70 UC PF 69 UC Total Graded NGC (5-10-17)
$10 Gold
2,839 (17.5%)
13,052 (80.5%)
$5 Gold
44,869 (46.0%)
52,126 (53.5%)
83,858 (25.9%)
233,852 (72.0%)
Half Dollar
19,238 (24.5%)
58,279 (74.0%)
150,804 (29.0%)
357,309 (69.0%)

It is rather amazing that until 1978 there were only a handful of modern regular circulating proof coinage that achieved PF 70! As you can see by the above chart, nearly a third of all modern proof commems graded have claimed PF 70 Ultra Cameo!

The situation with Modern bullion—proof American silver and gold eagles—is even more of an eye opener. The ever popular silver eagle (1986 to date) with slightly over a million Ultra Cameos graded by NGC finds 45% received PF 70 UC! The quality of the American gold eagles is even more spectacular as nearly 57.5% of the coins submitted have been graded as numeric perfection!

American Gold Eagles

Denomination Total Graded PF 70 UC
$5 (1/10 oz)
56,622 61.8%
$10 (1/4 oz)
44,463 61.0%
$25 (½ oz)
45,866 55.0%
$50 (1 oz)
50,891 52.4%

Yet as a price guide and auction data maven, it is truly fascinating to view the subtle yet obvious differences on a coin-per-coin analysis, those that ultimately affect market/auction value, even for "70" coins. While a small percentage of gold eagle coins can develop minor spotting and toning or the occasional milk spots on silver eagles for example, these occurrences developed post encapsulation. So even perfect coins project subtle differences. Viewing countless modern proofs gives the collector a greater appreciation for perfection! Deeper mirrors, bolder strike, delicate or more vibrant coloration are all distinctive and tantalizing.

Though thousands of modern proof commemoratives and American Eagles are designated as PF 70 Ultra Cameo, it is the one grading point, from 69 to 70 that can result in a tremendous valuation price hike. Take the 1995-W Silver Eagle, the NGC Price Guide for a PF 69 Ultra Cameo is a rather formidable $4,500 that jumps to $18,300 for a PF 70 Ultra Cameo! At present there are 474 perfect 70 Ultra Cameos on the NGC Census.

The 1990 and 1993 $25 Gold Eagles race from about $1,000 in PF 69 UC to $9,250 for the former and $13,500 for the latter in PF 70 UC. The 1993 claims 291 and the 1990 still a rather modest 426 as the ultimate grade. Yet considering the multitude of American Eagle collectors these are very small quantities to satisfy this throng. The market prices for the top graded examples reflect spirited demand as collectors and those looking to claim top notch registry sets will continue. There are also numerous modern US commems that reveal tremendous price escalation from the "also ran PF 69 UC" to PF 70 UC. I invite you to take a closer look at the NGC Price Guide for yourselves! This is why it is common to see collectors and dealers scouring modern US commems still in their original holders and capsules at shows hoping to submit and get the perfect coin! As for me, I do not own a single PF 70 coin! I think it is time I secure one for my collection.

Until next time, happy collecting!

Jim Bisognani is an NGC Price Guide Analyst having previously served for many years as an analyst and writer for another major price guide. He has written extensively on US coin market trends and values.

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