When Proofs Were New

The Smithsonian collection sheds light on some of the earliest examples from the US Mint.

To begin a conversation about early United States Proof Coinage we should first discuss the definition of the term.

The Guide Book of United States Coins (Redbook) defines the term as such: Proof: A specially made coin distinguished by sharpness of detail and usually with brilliant, mirrorlike surfaces. Proof refers to the method of manufacture, and is not a grade.

This sounds easy enough, but experts can differ greatly on whether or not a coin can be designated as a Proof example. These disagreements are usually reserved for coins struck before 1836 when minting technology was less advanced. Some early United States issues are very clear cut, as the coins are extremely well struck with deep, mirror fields. Others display super sharp strikes, but have less-defined mirror surfaces.

Click images to enlarge.

The first gold coins struck by the United States Mint that are unquestionably Proof were struck in 1821. The Smithsonian collection contains an 1821 Quarter Eagle and Half Eagle.

The Quarter Eagle is a bit mishandled, but the 1821 Half Eagle is superb, with completely original surfaces. The coin does not have the appearance of what most would consider traditional Proof surfaces. The coin is extremely well struck, but with slightly striated mirror surfaces. There is no question the coin was specially made to be preserved as part of the Mint collection.

The 1821 issues are the beginning of a great run of early gold coins in the Smithsonian collection. Present day collectors and scholars are extremely fortunate that U.S. Mint employees had the foresight to produce and save these national treasures for future generations. Without this reference collection of unquestionable Proof coins, scholars would have a much more difficult time deciding whether or not a coin should be designated as a Proof.

The first Silver United States coins that are universally agreed to be Proof productions were struck in 1817. These coins are extremely well struck with deep mirror surfaces. The Smithsonian collection of confirmed Proof coins begins in 1818. The collection contains a Bust Quarter and Half Dollar that are without doubt struck as Proofs.

Click images to enlarge.

After 1818, the collection has an inconsistent run of Proof coinage until around the late 1830s, when every year and denomination is represented by a Proof example. Some of the early coins in the Smithsonian collection are very difficult to determine as Proof or Mint State. Most of the early gold coins in the Smithsonian collection are original and unmolested. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the silver coinage.

As everyone knows, silver coins tarnish over time, and early curators of the Smithsonian collection rectified this problem with heavy doses of silver polish. This seems barbaric today, but early museum staff considered it standard practice. The result is that some of the silver coins have lost their original surfaces to the point that it is difficult to determine with absolute certainty the coins’ status as a Proof or Mint State coin.

It also appears that sometime over the last 200 years, some of the Proof coins in the collection may have been swapped out for Mint State examples of some issues. As I have stated, the early collection of Proof coins in the Smithsonian collection are the finest in the world, but it is inconsistent as to dates and denominations included. I have included the list of early Proof coins in the Smithsonian collection. Many are unaware of the exact holdings, and will find the information quite interesting.

For coins that appear to have been specially made, but lack the qualities to be clearly designated as Proof, the term Specimen is sometimes used. This is usually reserved for Pre-1817 coinage. The 1794 Silver Dollar that sold for over $10,000,000 is a good example of this. The coin is well struck with mirror surfaces. Most would argue that the coin lacks the qualities to be designated as a Proof, but there is little doubt the coin was specially made and preserved.

The term Specimen would seem appropriate in this case. NGC has used the designation for several early examples of Bust coinage over the years. For instance, they have graded 1821, 1829 and 1837 Bust Half Dollars as Specimens.

In most cases, coins that have been designated as Specimen bring less at auction or private sale than coins that have been deemed as Proof examples. These coins are special, and were most certainly struck with extra care. The designation of Proof, however, is reserved for coins that clearly meet the criteria of strike and deeply mirrored surfaces.

Pre-1858 United States Proof coinage is highly desirable and very rare. The mintages are tiny by comparison to the latter issues. Some years are represented by a single example. The standard issue of the Redbook only lists Proof coins starting in 1858.

Until recently, there was very little information available on the early Proof United States coinage. The only book on the subject was written by the late Walter Breen in the 1980s. The book is an excellent reference work, but filled with inaccurate information. Walter Breen was known to create much of his research work from memory, and this was not always a reliable source.

In the last 20 years, there has been much study of this subject. Students of early Proof coinage can refer to the NGC website for a complete listing of every coin they have designated as Proof or Specimen. This is an excellent guide of what might be available on the market at some point. The Mega edition of the Guide Book of United States Coins also lists every Proof coin struck by United States Mint with estimated mintages.

My good friend John Dannreuther recently published a comprehensive study of United States Proof Coins Volume IV Gold. The book is amazing, and filled with information about Proof gold coins, and other numismatic knowledge in general. Every coin issue is examined in great detail with complete pedigree information. Anyone who collects Proof gold coins should buy a copy.

Click images to enlarge.

The list of great early Proof United States coins struck from 1817 to 1857 with detailed information would fill a book and cannot be done in this short article. Hopefully, I have given enough information to spur your interest in this fascinating subject. If you are seeking an ultra rare coin for your collection, you would do well to consider this exciting segment of the market.

Smithsonian Collection of Early Proof Coinage
with estimated grades by Jeff Garrett

181825CSilverPF 62
181850CSilverO-112PF 64
18201CCopperN-10PF 64
18211CCopperN-1PF 65
182110CSilver PF 60
182125CSilverPF 62
182150CSilverO-107PF 63
1821$2.50GoldLarge DenticlesPF 60
1821$5GoldPF 65
18221CCopperN-10PF 64
182210CSilver PF 63
182225CSilverPF 62
182250CSilver O-103PF 63
18251/2CCopperSP 63
182510CSilver PF 60
182510CSilver PF 63
182550CSilverO-113PF 63
1825$2.50GoldLarge DenticlesPF 66
1825$5GoldPF 67
18261/2CCopperC-1PF 64 BN
182650CSilverO-101PF 63
1826$5GoldPF 67
18271CCopperW-1 PF 64
182710CSilver JR-10PF 63
182725CSilverPF 63
182750CSilverO-121PF 63
182750CSilverO-121PF 63
18281/2CCopperC-3PF 64 BN
18281CCopperN-5PF 64 BN
182810CSilver PF 63
182825CSilverPF 60
1828$5GoldPF 67
18291CSilverLarge LettersPF 65
18291CCopperPF 65 BN
182910CSilver PF 62
1829$2.50GoldSmall Dent.PF 65
1829$5GoldSmall SizePF 66
18301CCopperN-10PF 64
1830H10CSilverPF 64
183010CSilver PF 63
183050CSilverO-111PF 63
18311/2CCopperC-1PF 65 BN
18311CCopperN-7PF 64 BN
1831H10CSilverPF 60+
183110CSilver PF 63?
183125CSilverPF 60
183150CSilverO-103PF 63
1831$2.50GoldSmall Dent.PF 66
18321/2CCopperC-1PF 65 RB
18321CCopperN-1PF 66 RB
183210CSilver PF 60+
183250CSilverPF 63
18331/2CCopperC-1PF 64
18331/2CCopperC-1PF 63 RB
18331CCopperN-4PF 60
183310CSilver PF 60+
183325CSilverPF 60+
183350CSilverO-116PF 63
1833$2.50GoldSmall Dent.PF 65
1833$5GoldLarge DatePF 65
18341/2CCopperC-1PF 65
18341CCopperN-3PF 64 BN
183410CSilver PF 60
183425CSilverPF 63
1834$2.50Gold PF 64
1834$5GoldPlain 4PF 64
18351/2CCopperC-1PF 65 BN
18351CCopperN-1PF 64
18351/2 10CSilverPF 63
183510CSilver PF 63
183525CSilverPF 60+
183550CSilverPF 60
1835$2.50GoldPF 64
1835$5GoldPF 66
18361/2CCopperOriginalPF 64
18362CBillonPF 62
18362CBillonPF 62
183610CSilver PF 60
183625CSilverPF 60+
183650CSilverO-107PF 63
183650CSilverPF 64
1836$1GoldPF AU
1836$1GoldPF 62
1836$1SilverPF 63
1836$2.50GoldPF 66
1836$5GoldPF 66
18371CCopperN-7PF 65 BN
183725CSilverPF 60+
1837$2.50GoldPF 63
1837$5GoldPF 66
183825CSilverPF 60+
183850CSilverReeded EdgePF 63
183850CSilverPF 64
183850CSilverReeded EdgePF 60+
183850CSilver?PF 60
183850CCopperPF 60
183850CSilverPF 63
183850CSilverPF 63
183850CSilverPF 63
183850CSilverPF 64
1838$1SilverPF 64
1838$10GoldPF 63
183925CSilverPF 60
183950CSilverPF 64
183950CSilverPF 64
1839$1SilverPF 64
1839$10GoldType 1838PF 66
18401CCoppersmall N2 Double 8PF 64
1840H10CSilverNo DraperyPF 63
184025CSilverWith DraperyPF 63
184025CSilverWith DraperyPF 60
184050CSilverNo DraperyPF 62
1840$1SilverPF 63
1840$2.50GoldPF 65
1840$5GoldPF 66
1840$10GoldPF 64
1841H10CSilverPF 64
184125CSilverPF 63
184150CSilverPF 63
1841$2.50GoldPF 55
1841$2.50GoldPF 65
1841$5GoldPF 66
1841$10GoldPF 65
18421/2CCopperPF 63
18421CCopperPF 64
1842H10CSilverPF 63+
184225CSilverPF 60+
184250CSilverPF 60+
1842$2.50GoldPF 65
1842$5GoldPF 66
1842$10GoldPF 65
18431/2CCopperPF 63
18431CCopperN14 Pet-Sm LetPF 64
1843$2.50GoldPF 65
1843$5GoldPF 66
1843$10GoldPF 61
1843$10GoldPF 65
18441/2CCopperPF 64
18441CCopperPF 64
1844H10CSilverPF 63+
184425CSilverPF 63+
184450CSilverPF 63+
1844$1SilverPF 63
1844$2.50GoldPF 65
1844$5GoldPF 65
1844$10GoldPF 64
18451/2CCopperPF 64
18451CCopperN14PF 64
1845H10CSilverPF 64
184525CSilverPF 60+
184550CSilverPF 63
1845$1SilverPF 63
1845$2.50GoldPF 66
1845$5GoldPF 65
1845$10GoldPF 66
18461/2CCopperPF 63
18461CCopperN22PF 63
1846H10CSilverPF 63
184625CSilverPF 63
184650CSilverPF 60
1846$1SilverPF 63
1846$2.50GoldPF 66
1846$5GoldPF 65
1846$10GoldPF 64
1847H10CSilverPF 64
184725CSilverPF 63
184750CSilverPF 62
1847$1SilverPF 64
1847$2.50GoldPF 66
1847$5GoldPF 65
1847$10GoldPF 65
1848H10CSilverPF 63
184825CSilverPF 63
184850CSilverPF 63
1848$1SilverPF 63
1848$2.50GoldPF 65
1848$5GoldPF 64
1848$10GoldPF 64
18493CSilver/CopperPF 60
18493CSilver/CopperPF 63
18493CSilver/CopperPF 63
1849$1GoldNo LPF 63/60
1849$1GoldPF 60
1849$20GoldNo MottoPF 63
1849$20GoldPF 63
18501CBillonPF 62
18503CSilverPF 63
1850$1SilverPF 63
1851$1/2CCopperPF 64
1852$1SilverPF 63
1852$1SilverPF 60
1852$1Copper (Gold Plate)PF 63
1852$1GoldPF 63
1852$1SilverPF 63
1852$1GoldPF 64
1852$1GoldPF 64
18531CCopper NickelPF 63
18531CGerman Silver MixPF 64
185325CSilverPF 63
18541CCopperPF 60 BN
18541CCopperPF 64 BN
18541CCopperPF 64 BN
18541CCopperPF 63 BN
18543CSilverPF 62
185425CSilverPF 63
185450CSilverPF 63
1854$1GoldType 2PF 60
1854$1SilverPF 62
1854$3GoldPF 63
1854$20GoldNo MottoPF 65
18551CCopperPF 64
18551CBronzePF 64
18551CCopper-Nickel MixPF 62+
18551CBronzePF 60
18551COroidePF 60
18551CBronzePF XF
185525CSilverPF 63
185550CSilverPF 63
1855$1SilverPF 63
18561CCopper-Nickel MixPF 64
185625CSilverPF 63
185650CSilverPF 62
1856$1SilverPF 63
1856$1GoldSlanted 5PF 65
1856$2.50GoldPF 65
18571/2CCopperPF 64 BN
18571CCopperLarge CentPF 63 BN
18571CCopperPF XF
1857H10CSilverImpaired Proof
185725CSilverPF 63
1857$1SilverPF 62
1857$1GoldPF 64
1857$2.50GoldPF 66
1857$3GoldPF 64

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