Exploring US Proof Coinage with Jeff Garrett
Posted by Jeff Garrett on the Numismatic Guaranty Corporation Weekly Market Report …..
The US Mint has been striking what are universally considered Proof coins since at least 1817.
As most of you know, Proof coins are made for collectors and in most cases are distinctly different in appearance to coins made for circulation. The coins are struck multiple times on polished planchets, with specially prepared dies. Great care is taken by the US Mint to create the most perfect coins possible.
The US Mint has been striking what are universally considered Proof coins since at least 1817. When coin collecting became popular in the US in the late 1850s, most early collectors confined their acquisitions to purchasing examples of these specially made coins from the Mint. It was not until at least 50 years later that collecting coins by mintmarks became popular.
Even the US Mint collected coins in this manner. The National Coin Collection, which is now housed in the Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution, includes the original Mint collection that was transferred to the museum in the 1920s. The collection is spectacular and probably the finest in the world. It is, however, relatively weak in the quality of branch mint coins. The US Mint employees faithfully set aside Proof coins struck each year at the Philadelphia Mint starting in 1817. There are a few coins struck prior to that year with claims to Proof status, but that will be discussed later. Collectors today are extremely lucky that the US Mint took such great pride in the quality of its work. It is a miracle of numismatics that so many great coins were so carefully preserved for future generations to study and observe.
Around 1856, coin collecting in the US exploded with the discontinuation of Large Cents. Until then, there were very few individuals interested in coin collecting. This also explains why so many of the great coin collections formed in the late 19th century focused on early copper coins. Large Cents were all the rage as were Colonials and Washingtonian material. Prior to this period, Proof coins were sold by the Mint individually and as demand dictated. Some early complete Proof sets are known, but they are very rare. Starting in 1858 the US Mint sold Proof sets to collectors annually. The sets could be purchased in a variety of ways as the Mint sold minor coin sets, silver sets, and complete sets including gold. The coins were sold for a small premium over face value to cover the extra production costs of these special coins. Occasionally, an original Proof set will enter the market from the late 1850s or 1860s and include the original packaging and documentation. Some were housed in leather boxes, but I believe these were privately made outside of the Mint.
For many years, serious collectors of US coinage would attempt to purchase complete Proof sets of coins struck from 1858 to 1915. These sets would include Seated coinage struck from 1858 to 1891 and Barber coinage struck from 1892 to 1915. This period also includes complete sets of many popular minor series, such as Indian Cents, Matte Proof Lincoln Cents, Two Cents, Three Cent Nickels, Three Cent Silvers, Shield Nickels, Liberty Nickels, and Matte Proof Buffalo nickels. As could be imagined, a complete run of Proof sets from 1858 to 1915 would cost a fortune in today’s market. Incredibly, from the time when I began collecting coins in the 1970s and through the late 1980s, it was not unusual to see complete runs of these Proof sets appear at auction with regularity. Collections formed in the old days would be sold with great runs of early Proof sets. The Stack’s family in New York City sold the majority of those great collections that entered the market from the 1950s to the mid-1980s. A great one that comes to mind is the 1976 ANA sale with the Proof sets from the Garrett Collection (no relation unfortunately). Anyone interested in Proof coins should try to acquire this catalogue and others from the time period.
Today, collectors generally pick a denomination to collect as Proofs. This can be quite challenging, but has been made easier over the years as most of the aforementioned sets were broken up and the coins sold individually. Some collectors or dealers like to reassemble early Proof sets from coins offered in the market. When sets are well matched they become quite desirable, and usually sell for a premium over the prices for individual coins. Collectors of Proof coins sometimes assemble type sets of different denominations as well. A complete type set of 20th century US coins in Proof is a great idea and is very impressive when assembled. The set includes everything from a Proof Lincoln Memorial Cent to a Proof Morgan Silver Dollar. More advanced collectors can venture into 19th century coinage.
The overriding appeal of Proof coinage is the exceptional quality of the coins. This started with the careful attention the US Mint took producing the coins, and the fact that they were made for collectors and saved as such. The coins were not struck for circulation and by some miracle, survived for present day collectors to enjoy. The coins are in most cases deeply mirrored in appearance, well struck, and beautiful. Some are wonderfully toned; others bright white from conservation at some point. Many are somewhere in between. Collectors also appreciate the low mintages of 19th century Proof coinage. Nearly all issues were struck in numbers lower than 1,000 coins. The coins are also very affordable in most grades and, in general, no dates are impossible to obtain in most series. Collectors love to aspire for complete sets, and Proof coinage is an ideal pursuit for most.
When I began collecting there was really no distinction or premium attached to coins with a Cameo effect. Today, Deep Cameo Proof coins are extremely sought after. Huge premiums are sometimes paid for coins with what is now called “Ultra Cameo” devices. It makes sense, as these coins have incredible eye appeal. Some of the Seated and Barber coins with ultra cameo devices look like modern day productions. An Ultra Cameo Morgan Dollar in high grade is one of the most spectacular coins in the marketplace.
Finally, one area of the Proof market that should be mentioned in more detail is Proof US gold coins. These coins are the caviar of numismatics and usually purchased on a coin-by-coin basis. Very few collectors in the last 50 years have even attempted collecting the complete series of Proof US gold coins struck from 1858 to 1915. One such collector was the late Ed Trompeter. His collection was virtually complete and one of the best ever assembled. The set was sold after his death by the US Government in the 1990s to settle tax issues for his estate. Ed was quite the character, and liked to say, “only real men collect Proof gold.” He was a bit old school and certainly not politically correct.
Proof gold coins are extremely attractive for their rarity. The Mint struck these as demand dictated, and because of the high face value, mintages were generally quite low. Some issues in the 1870s were stuck in quantities as low as 20 coins. Others sometimes entered circulation due to lack of demand or were spent by collectors needing money. Even the most common Proof gold coin is rare by most standards. Some gold dollars in the 1880s were struck in highest numbers of all gold coins (around 1,000 coins). These can be purchased for under $10,000 in gem condition. Gold coins generally tend to become more valuable as the denomination increases. Proof Double Eagles are understandably the most desirable and often sell for six figures. Many rare coin advisors suggest that serious collectors or investors purchase one or two “great” coins when building a collection. Proof United States gold coins are in my opinion the epitome of “great” when it comes to numismatics!
Early Proof United States Coinage
The first gold coins struck by the US Mint that are unquestionably Proof were struck in 1821.
To begin a conversation about early United States Proof Coinage we should first discuss the definition of “Proof.” The Guide Book of United States Coins (the “Red Book”) defines the term as: Proof, A specially made coin distinguished by sharpness of detail and usually with brilliant, mirror like 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.
The first gold coins struck by the US 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 US 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 United States silver 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. 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 if the coin is Proof or Mint State. 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 collection of early Proof coins in the Smithsonian collection is the finest in the world, but it is inconsistent as to dates and denominations included. At the end of this article, I have included the list of early Proof coins in the Smithsonian collection along with my estimate grades. This is the first time this has been published and readers should 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 recently sold $10,000,000 1794 Silver Dollar 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 in comparison to the latter issues. Some years are represented by a single example. The standard issue of the Guide Book of United States Coins 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 twenty 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 Professional Edition of the Guide Book of United States Coins also lists every Proof coin struck by the United States Mint with estimated mintages.
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.
Branch Mint Proof Coinage
In the last two installments of my articles I have discussed US Proof coinage. The first was a general overview of Proof coinage and some of the common ways to collect them. My second article was about Early US Proof coinage, pre-1858. Early Proof coinage is a complicated subject, and hopefully readers found the information enlightening. The final article in this series is about what is commonly referred to as Branch Mint Proof coinage. Prior to 1968, nearly all Proof coins made for collectors or presentation purposes were struck at the Philadelphia Mint. These are well documented after 1858, with mostly exact mintage figures provided by the Mint. On rare occasions, however, Proof coins have been struck at mints other than Philadelphia. These coins are usually struck to recognize a special occasion or event. I have included in this list coins that have been deemed as true Proofs by most researchers. There are quite a few other issues known that have been certified as Specimens. Many of these were clearly specially struck, but lack the proper surfaces and strike to qualify as Proof.
In many cases there is no official documentation of why Branch Mint Proof coins were made. For some coins the reasons for their existence is easy to assume, such as the last or first year of issue for the design. It is my guess that some were struck for collectors’ friends as well. Regardless of why many of these coins were struck, they are among the most intriguing and ultra rare coins ever created by the US Mint. Most are out of reach for average collectors, but everyone can agree they are quite interesting. The following is a brief overview of each of the known Branch Mint Proof coins struck by the US Mint prior to 1968.
1851-O Three Cent Silver. There are two or three coins of this issue with claims to having been struck as Proof examples. The coins are sharply struck with partial, mirror surfaces. None have been certified as such, but this could change in the future. The coins could have been struck as the first of the denomination from the New Orleans Mint.
1839-O Seated Dime. One or two examples of this issue exist. A PF 65 example sold in 2008 for about $75,000. Probably struck as the first of the denomination from the New Orleans Mint.
1876-CC Seated Dime. Surprisingly, there are four or five examples of this issue known. No one knows the reason for the coins being struck. These are quite popular, and have sold for over $100,000.
1891-O Seated Dime. One or two probably struck to mark the end of Seated Dimes struck in New Orleans. A Gem Proof example was recently offered privately for $150,000.
1894-S Barber Dime. This issue is one of the most famous US coins ever produced. Supposedly, 24 coins were struck and there is great debate as to whether the coins were struck as Proofs. The surfaces vary on the known examples, and the issue is unresolved. At least one or two of the known examples are unquestionably Proof in my opinion. Choice examples of this great rarity sell for solid seven figures!
1875-S Twenty Cent Piece. There are two to three examples of this issue that were clearly struck for special purposes. The coins have mirror surfaces, and very broad and sharp rims. The coins are not as fully mirrored, however, as the Philadelphia issues. These were probably struck to mark the first of the denomination from the San Francisco Mint. A Choice Proof example sold for around $100,000 in 2009.
1855-S Seated Quarter. This extremely rare coin is represented by a single known example. For some reason, the San Francisco Mint struck a Proof set for the year 1855! Other denominations are known of this issue and will be mentioned later. The known example is fully mirrored and there is no doubt of its Proof status. The coins sold at auction in 2011 for $276,000.
1838-O Bust Half Dollar. This issue is another great US classic and is highly desirable. The reported mintage figure for the issue is 20 examples, but none were struck for general circulation. Interestingly several examples are known that have been circulated to various degrees. Choice examples have sold for over $500,000 in recent years.
1839-O Bust Half Dollars. Unlike the 1838-O, over 100,000 1839-O Bust Half Dollars were struck for circulation. There are several examples known with deeply mirrored surfaces, but with striking problems that disqualify them as true Proofs. Five or six coins have been certified as Proof examples, and these usually sell for high five figures.
1852-O Seated Half Dollar. One or two examples of this issue are known with deep, mirror surfaces and a sharp strike. The reason for this issue is unknown.
1855-S Seated Half Dollar. Two or three examples of this rare coin are known. These were clearly struck for special purposes, and are highly desirable. An example sold for over $275,000 in 2011.
1876-CC Seated Half Dollar. A single example has been certified by NGC. The coin is deeply mirrored and nearly Gem. The reason for this issue is unknown. It was possibly struck for presentation purposes.
1879-O Morgan Dollar. These were struck to mark the first of the denomination from the New Orleans Mint. Four or five examples are known, with one in the National Collection at the Smithsonian. A choice Proof example sold at auction in 2010 for nearly $200,000.
1883-O Morgan Dollar. Two or three examples of this date and mint are known to exist. NGC has certified two examples. The reason for the issue is unknown. A superb example sold for $121,000 in 1997.
1883-CC Morgan Dollar. The reason for this issue being struck is unknown. A single Gem example has been certified by NGC. A popular issue from the Carson City Mint.
1884-CC Morgan Dollar. Two gem examples of this incredible rarity have been certified by NGC. The reason for the striking is unknown.
1893-CC Morgan Dollar. These were probably struck to commemorate the end of the denomination being struck in New Orleans. Surprisingly, four or five examples are known of this really cool issue. The known coins are deeply mirrored and their Proof status is unquestioned by anyone viewing them.
1895-O Morgan Dollar. There is some debate of the true Proof status for this issue. The known coins are deeply mirrored and extremely well struck. I have seen one or two examples that are truly special, and were clearly made for presentation purposes. This issue is extremely rare in high grade for circulation examples as well. These special coins are among the most desirable for the series.
1921-S Morgan Dollar, Zerbe Proof. One or two coins of this issue are known. The coins lack the deep mirror surfaces of traditional Proof Morgan Dollars, but very closely resemble the known Zerbe Proof Dollars struck in Philadelphia. There is some debate among experts as to the Proof status of this issue.
1855-S Three Dollar. Only one example of this issue is known to exist. It first surfaced at the 1984 ANA Convention, and was purchased by me from San Francisco area coin dealer, David Stagg. The coin is deeply mirrored and unhesitatingly a true Proof. As mentioned earlier, the San Francisco Mint created special coins in the Proof format for this year. I sold the coin in 1984 for about $75,000. The coin sold two years ago for over $1,300,000. Not my best long term coin decision!
1844-O Half Eagle. This incredible coin is deeply mirrored and without question a true Proof. The coin first appeared in the 1890 sale of Lorin Parmelee. The coin later showed up in the sale of the Woodin collection. It has remained off the market for decades. It is one of the few coins that I could not round up an image of for my Encyclopedia of United States Gold Coins. This coin will make great headlines when it shows up someday!
1844-O Ten Dollar. This incredible coin is one of the most interesting of this series. Like the 1844-O Half Eagle, the Ten Dollar first showed up in the 1890 Parmelee sale. The coin was sold to William Woodin, and later to Virgil Brand. The coin disappeared until 1994, when it resurfaced and was purchased by the late rare coin dealer, Mike Brownlee. The coin was later handled by my late great friend, Robert Lecee. This amazing coin has been certified by NGC as PR 65 Ultra Cameo. Easily a seven figure coin on today’s market!
1854-S Double Eagle. This amazing coin lay hidden in plain sight in the Smithsonian Collection until it was first noticed by Walter Breen and Stuart Mosher in 1951. The coin has been universally declared a Proof, but in my opinion the coin would be more accurately described as a Presentation strike. The surfaces are deeply prooflike, but lack the deep, orange-peel appearance of true Proofs of the era. The coin was probably struck to mark the first of the denomination from the San Francisco Mint. Luckily for today’s collectors the coin is on display in the Legendary Coins exhibit at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.
1856-O Double Eagle. Although this coin might be classified by some experts as a Specimen rather than a true Proof, it deserves mention in this article. The 1856-O Double Eagle is a major rarity in any grade. The discovery of a deeply mirrored and choice example was a numismatic landmark when it was found in the 1970s. The reason for the coin having been struck is unknown. This coin sold for nearly $1.5 million in 2009.
1907-D Double Eagle. The single example of this rare coin is deeply mirrored and is unquestionably a Proof. The coin was probably struck to mark the end of gold Liberty Double Eagles being struck at the Denver Mint. The lone example known has been graded by NGC as PF 62 and sold for $188,000 in 2012.
Branch Mint Proof coins are an interesting subject for further study by numismatic researchers. New examples have been discovered in just the last few decades. Much more about these intriguing issues is yet to be known. Keep an eye out, maybe you can uncover one of these numismatic treasures!
Questions about the rare coin market? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Jeff Garrett
Jeff Garrett, founder of Mid-American Rare Coin Galleries, is considered one of the nation’s top experts in U.S. coinage — and knowledge lies at the foundation of Jeff’s numismatic career. With more than 35 years of experience, he is one of the top experts in numismatics. The “experts’ expert,” Jeff has personally bought and sold nearly every U.S. coin ever issued. Not a day goes by that someone doesn’t call on Jeff Garrett for numismatic advice. This includes many of the nation’s largest coin dealers, publishers, museums and institutions.
In addition to owning and operating Mid-American Rare Coin Galleries, Jeff Garrett is a major shareholder in Sarasota Rare Coin Galleries. His combined annual sales in rare coins and precious metals — between Mid-American in Kentucky and Sarasota Rare Coin Galleries in Florida — total more than $25 million.
Jeff Garrett has authored many of today’s most popular numismatic books, including Encyclopedia of U.S. Gold Coins 1795–1933: Circulating, Proof, Commemorative, and Pattern Issues; 100 Greatest U.S. Coins; and United States Coinage: A Study By Type. He is also the price editor for The Official Redbook: A Guide Book of United States Coins.
Jeff was also one of the original coin graders for the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS). He is today considered one of the country’s best coin graders and was the winner of the 2005 PCGS World Series of Grading. Today, he serves as a consultant to Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC), the world’s largest coin grading company.
Jeff plays an important role at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Numismatic Department and serves as consultant to the museum on funding, exhibits, conservation and research. Thanks to the efforts of Jeff and many others, rare U.S. coins are once again on exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum of American History. We urge everyone who visits Washington, D.C., to view this fabulous display.
Jeff has been a member of the prestigious Professional Numismatic Guild (PNG) since 1982 and has recently served as president of the organization. In 2009 and 2011, Jeff ran successfully for a seat on the Board of Governors for the American Numismatic Association (ANA), the leading numismatic club in the world. He plans to run for ANA vice president in 2013.