What are Proof Coins Anyway?
By Jeff Garrett for Numismatic Guaranty Corporation – with Permission
Two of the most basic terms that anyone new to numismatics needs to understand are Business Strike and Proof. Business strike coins are those made by the mint for general circulation. Proof coins are the numismatic delicacies struck for collectors each year. In general, business strike coins are frosty in appearance and coins struck as proof display mirror surfaces. The United States began striking regular issue coinage in 1793. Proof coins are generally believed to first appear around 1819. The Smithsonian collection, which has the finest group of Proof coins in the world, has a set of 1819 Proof coinage. The US Mint still strikes millions of Proof coins each year for collectors.
From the information above, one might think the subject of Proof coins to be straight forward and easy to understand. The truth, however, is much more complicated; there are dozens of variables to consider. An early Proof coin does not have a special marking or mintmark that distinguishes it from business strikes of the same issue. Also, the surfaces on many early Proof coins do not possess the same deep mirror appearance of later issues. The subject is further complicated by branch mint Proof issues. Several issues of business strike coins were struck using dies used for Proof coinage; these can be extremely difficult to identify. Proof Three Cent Nickels from the 1880s are a perfect example of this. They are sometimes, only half in jest, called PRUNC!
The term “Proof” first appeared in Mint correspondence around 1858. Other terms, such as “Master Coin” and “Pattern” were sometimes used to describe these special coins. It is amazing to me that individuals in the US Mint went to such extraordinary effort to create and save these incredible coins; they were obviously proud of their work. Remember, these coins were struck well before there was an active collector market for American coinage. The early run of Proof gold coins from 1821 to 1915 in the Smithsonian (previously the US Mint collection) is a survival miracle. The coins were struck and saved for the collection for over 125 years! Today it is one of the most important reference collections in existence.
As mentioned above, the exact nature of Proof coins can sometimes be confusing. Many of the early issues do not exhibit the same mirror surfaces that collectors have come to expect from Proof coinage. A Proof 1819 Half Dollar looks very different than a Proof Barber Half Dollar. The strike can be extraordinary, but the surfaces lack much of the reflectivity of later issues. The same can be said for other interesting issues as well. The 1849 Double Eagle in the Smithsonian collection is clearly a Proof; it is sharply struck, but the surfaces are much more satiny than the post-1860 Proof Double Eagles. The same can be said of the unique Proof 1854-S Double Eagle in the collection.
Branch mint Proof issues often do not have the exact same characteristics of the Philadelphia Proof issues. Several Morgan Dollar issues are known to have been struck as Proof for special occasions at the branch mints; they can be very similar in appearance to business strike issues, which have deep, mirrored surfaces. Early issue branch mint Proof coins are among the most desirable American coins. Recently an 1855-S Three Dollar Gold coin certified by NGC as PF 64 sold for over $1.3 million dollars. Most branch mint Proof Morgan Dollars sell for well into six figures. In most cases, just a few of these very rare coins are known. Occasionally, a new, previously unknown issue will appear; experts are always on the lookout for these exciting coins.
I am often asked to render an opinion about the proof status of a coin. Luckily, I have examined untold numbers of US coins over the years, and have come to have an understanding of what a normal business strike looks like. Unfortunately, some coins seem to fall between the cracks, and can be very difficult to declare one way or the other. Close study, and the use of reference collections such as the one contained in the Smithsonian are vital tools. The field of Proof coinage is extremely exciting and ripe for discovery, which is one of the reasons I can’t wait to go to work most days!!!