United States Proof Coins
This History of the U.S. Mint’s Finest
Why Purchase U.S. Proof Coinage?
The United States Mint Proof Coins represent the finest coinage specimens produced in terms of overall quality and eye appeal. A proof coin is a specially made coin distinguished by sharpness of detail, usually with brilliant mirror-like surfaces. The term “proof” does not actually indicate the condition of a coin, but the way in which the coins are manufactured. Unlike “business strike” coins that are made for general circulation, proof coinage is specifically created as collector pieces that often demand higher premiums than average uncirculated coins. Understanding proof coins and why they are very popular, will help when making coin purchasing decisions. This article will explain what a proof coin is, why they were originally made, and the role they play when building a collection for enjoyment and as an investment in gold and silver.
“Proof” Specimen Coins
Proof coins are not coins intended for general circulation, they are made for collectors, special occasions, and other numismatic purposes. Nearly all countries have issued proof coinage, however, United States Mint proof coinage is some of the most popular and are widely collected coins today. It’s easy to get spoiled when buying proof coins because all other coins seem to pale in comparison and look much less appealing then proofs.
The surfaces are highly-polished, shiny and mirror-like. There is a sharp contrast in the foreground and background areas, with bold, sharp details. The finished frosted look on the raised parts of the design (devices), with the contrasting mirror-like finish on the background (field), is called “cameo,” which is quite rare on some older coins. The softly frosted and highly detailed images seem to float above the surface, giving the coin a spectacular reflective effect. From 1936 until approximately 1972, only the first few coins made from a fresh set of dies had the cameo contrast of the deep mirrored fields and frosted devices. New technology introduced in the early 1970’s enabled the United States Mint to produce all proof coins with the distinctive cameo contrast.
Minting Proof Coins
A proof coin is manufactured in a special way that causes a noticeable difference in the coin’s appearance that qualifies the coin as a “proof” specimen. Special burnished coin blanks (planchet), are manually fed into coin presses and struck multiple times at slow speed and with extra pressure, on specially polished and treated dies. By striking proof coins more than once, the metal is forced into all the crevices of the die, thereby giving a very fine detail to the image on the coin. This fine detail does not appear on some business strike coins.
Every proof coin is carefully handled with protective gloves and individually inspected for quality and strike. They never touch another coin and are carefully packaged a protective lens to showcase and preserve their exceptional finish. Today United States Mint roof coins come with an official Certificate of Authenticity and are sold in Proof Sets. Currently, proof coins are made at the Philadelphia, San Francisco or West Point mint facility. Using modern high-tech equipment and processes all proof coins now have mirrored surfaces contrasting with frosted (cameo) designs.
Origins of Proof Coins
The concept of proof coins goes back to the early minting of U.S. coins. When the U.S. Mint first opened in 1792, one of its first employees was a young machinist and die maker named Adam Eckfeldt, who took special care and extra time to prepare the coin dies to assure the finest quality for the first U.S. coins. These prototype “proof” coins were studied for any problems, so adjustments could be made if needed prior to mass minting. These first minted coins from the initial minting checks were often kept as souvenirs. Eckfeldt put aside these “master coins” which he struck with extra care using new dies and polished planchets, in hopes to someday establishing a conservatory of coins.
Eckfeldt worked at the Mint for 47 years before he retired in 1839. A year before retiring, Eckfeldt turned his personal collection of “First Strike Master Coins” over to the Mint, which was the birth of the Mint Cabinet Collection. Today, it is now the Smithsonian National Numismatic Collection in Washington DC.
Proof Coin Popularity
Early U.S. Mint employees first took notice of Adam Eckfeldt’s early sample “proof coins” because they were shiny and unique, and they began to collect them. Over time, these special coins were given to special mint visitors, politicians and early pioneering coin collectors who could get special access to these special coins through connections at the mint, or they were wealthy enough to could buy them at a premium. These coins were not called “proof coins” back then but were generally referred to as “specimen” coins, as there was no proof designation, standardized process, or any other official program at that time. But eventually the popularity of these specimen coins spread and the demand for them increased.
Today, United States proof coins are among the rarest and most beautiful coins produced by the U.S. Mint and are highly popular an in great demand. The exceptional coin detail, combined with their aesthetic appeal, makes proof coins extremely popular with collectors, so they are always in demand even at high price premiums. Collectors of proof coins can pick a denomination to collect or assemble type sets of different denominations in proof condition. Proof collecting can be a bit challenging without the right connections. When sets are built with well-matched coins, they become very desirable and can sell for a premium over the prices for the individual coins. Many collectors collect proof coins by type; Copper Cents, Silver Nickels, Silver Dimes, Silver Dollars and Gold Dollars.
The First Proof Coins
The United States Mint has been producing proof coins since around 1817. To appease collector demand, the U.S. Mint started to specifically make these special coins, which was the official beginning of proof coinage. As coin collecting started getting very popular by the late 1850s, many early coin collectors preferred to purchase these specially made proof coins over the regular issues. Beginning in 1861, The United States Mint began selling sets of several proof coins directly to collectors. These were not comprehensive sets of every coin minted, but subsets of the current coinage. For example, you could buy a set of just the minor coinage or silver coinage or all the gold coins. This practice ended in 1901.
The real explosion in demand for proofs occurred in the early 1900s. In 1908 matte proof cents, nickels, and gold coins were issued individually for sale to collectors, but proof production virtually stopped by 1916, except for a few specimens that are known to exist like the 1921 and 1922 silver dollar matte proofs are also known to exist. These matte proofs have a granular surface instead of a mirrored finish. As time evolved, coin collectors requested one proof coin of every type of coin minted. So, in 1936 The U.S. Mint started assembling sets of every coin minted and selling them directly to collectors. Demand for proof coins grew from a few thousand to tens of thousands, to eventually hundreds of thousands by the 1950s. Over time, the mint also started making commemorative coins. The Mint produced these coins in business strike and proof finishes. A variety of sets that combined different denominations of commemorative coins or different finishes were made available to collectors, and proof popularity exploded.
U.S. Mint’s Proof Set History
Collector demand officially launched the U.S. Mint’s Proof Set Program in 1936. From 1936 to 1942, proof coins could be ordered individually from the U.S. Mint for set building for five-coin and six-coin sets. The striking of proof coins was temporarily suspended from 1943 through 1949 due to the efforts of World War II. Beginning in 1950, customers could order proof coins only as complete sets. Five coin proof sets were sealed in cellophane bags and packaged in a box until 1955, then the packaging was upgraded to a flat-pack envelope through 1964. After 1964, proof coins were sealed in various styles of hard plasticized cases. There was a three-year intermission between 1965 and 1967 when a nationwide coin shortage that caused the Mint to put a temporary hold on traditional annual coin sets and abolish mintmarks to dissuade collectors from pulling coins out of circulation.
In 1968, the Mint switched the production of the proof coins from Philadelphia to the San Francisco Mint. All proof coins from 1968 and on have the “S” mintmark on them. A few didn’t get this mark in error, and they are very rare and valuable if you happen upon one. The proof sets spanning 1968 through 1972 were the first generation of U.S. Mint proof sets packaged in rigid plastic cases with a dark background to better highlight the coins. All proof sets from 1936-1972 included the cent, the nickel, the dime, a quarter and a half dollar. From 1973 through 1981 and again beginning in 2000, the dollar coin was also included. Proof sets made during the years 1973 through 1979 contain six coins and feature a rectangular lens with a red felt-lined insert. In honor of the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976, a special proof set was released with three 40% silver-clad coins. Beginning in 1980, all six proof coins are encased within a hard, red plastic insert sealed within a two-part clear plastic lens case. Proof sets of the 1980-‘82 era also come with a removable black plastic frame that serves as a display stand. Special Prestige Proof Sets were also sold from 1983 through 1997.
Over the years, there were many refinements in proof coin displays and the coins offered. Proof sets have been released every year, but here are some of the more recent highlights:
- Silver proof sets started in 1992 and include a 90% silver dime, quarter and half-dollar.
- The proof sets from 1999 – 2008 contain 5 different Statehood quarters.
- The 2004 – 2005 sets also contain two Lewis and Clark nickels.
- Beginning in 2007, full proof sets include the four Presidential dollars for that year.
- Sets issued in 2009 contained 18 coins, the most ever included in a proof set.
Grading Proof Coins
Grading proofs are similar to the grading process for uncirculated coins Mint State coins (MS-60 to MS-70). The attribute “PR” or “PF” stands for “proof” and is used instead of the MS (mint state) to indicate a proof coin. Uncirculated proofs are graded from Proof-60 to Proof-70.
- PCGS – Professional Coin Grading Service uses the “PR” grade designation.
- NGC – Numismatic Guaranty Corporation uses the “PF” grade designation.
Proof refers to the method of manufacture and is not a condition. There are 11 grades of proof coins, ranging from Proof-60 to Proof-70. Here are a few of the more popular proof grades:
- Proof-70 the perfect coin, with a full mirror surface and highest quality strike. No flaws are visible or post-production imperfections at 5x magnification.
- Proof-65 is sometimes called “Gem Proof” with a high-quality mirror surface and a few noticeable hairline scratches. The strike of the coin will be well struck, above average.
- Proof-63, which is sometimes referred to as “Choice Proof.” The mirror field may be slightly impaired and it will have several hairline marks. The strike of the coin may be slightly weak or average.
- Proof-60 is the lowest grade on the upper proof grading scale. The coin will have little if any mirror characteristics and have many marks. The strike of the coin will either be weak or average.
Grading Proof Cameo Contrast
Proof or proof-like coins that have deeply mirrored fields (backgrounds), with frosted devices (designs) and lettering, that creates a distinct contrast between the fields and devices, is known as a “Cameo” finish. There are several designations within the Cameo family, including Reverse Proofs and Plus or Star grading enhancements, all which give proof coins incredible eye appeal. The following are several levels of Cameo contrast and proof variations.
- Brilliant Proof (No Cameo); Coins that have large patches of brilliance on the devices or the entire surface (including the devices) have a brilliant mirrored finish will be classified as “Brilliant Proof.”
- Cameo; Coins that exhibit a light to moderate frosting on all the devices. There may be very small areas on the devices where the frosting fades and reflects light as almost mirror-like. Both sides must have adequate levels of frosting.
- Deep Cameo or Ultra Cameo; Coins must exhibit strong and unbroken frosted devices on both the obverse and the reverse. A robust contrast must be consistent and undiminished in all areas. Frosting must be unbroken and complete.
- Reverse Proof; In contrast to a Deep Cameo or Ultra Cameo, in a “reverse proof,” the devices are deeply mirrored, while the fields are frosted.
- Plus (+) and Star (★); Third party grading services may give a proof grade a boost with a “+” (plus) or “★” (star) designation on the overall grade assigned to the coin. Plus designations are assigned to coins at the high end of their assigned grade, approaching the quality requirements for the next grade. Star designations are assigned to coins with exceptional eye appeal for their assigned grade.