In the art world, proofs are usually defined as prints made prior to an official production run. The goal of such proofs is to give artist and printer alike a sneak peek at the planned edition so they can fine tune colors, registration, and other crucial details. The resulting imperfect proofs are thus variants of the final product, although they are often collected as enthusiastically as prints in the final signed-and-numbered edition.

With U.S. coins, proofs are roughly the opposite. In fact, proof coins are not even considered a part of a coin’s overall production run since the methods used to create them are completely distinct from those used to make the coins themselves.

To begin, proof coins are struck with dies that have been carefully selected for their perfection. These dies are cleaned and polished throughout the production process. Similarly, the planchets or blanks that the dies strike are usually stamped out of highly polished metal sheets and then hand fed into the press. Proofs are typically struck twice so that their features exhibit sharp relief, from their edges to their portraits, often with mirrorlike surfaces, or fields, in between.

Although some proofs were struck prior to 1856, many of these coins are museum pieces, which is why most collectors focus their attention on proofs minted between 1856 and 1916, 1936 and 1942, 1950 and 1964, and 1968 until the present day. The date of 1936 is significant because that was when the Mint began to actively market proof sets to the public in addition to individual proof coins.

In general, there are three types of proofs. The most desirable kind is known as a frosted or cameo proof. Coins of this type have the classic mirrorlike fields, which are interrupted by portraits and other devices that have a frosted appearance, which makes the contrast within the coin especially dramatic. The surface of matte proofs appears to have been sandblasted, while the so-called “brilliant” proofs have mirrorlike fields and portraits, giving them an overall shiny look.

Of the late-19th-century coins, some proofs are actually less prized than regularly minted coins of comparable grade. Examples of this anomaly include most proof quarters struck in Philadelphia between 1866 and 1891, especially in the earliest years. For most pre-1936 coins, proofs are more sought-after by collectors than their uncirculated counterparts. Matte Buffalo nickels from 1913 to 1916 are a good example of the value placed on proof coins, as are most Barber dimes from 1892 to 1915.

World War I put the brakes on proofs, but it’s unclear why it took Mint officials 20 years to get the program going again. Whatever the reason—some blame bureaucratic inertia, ot...

Another world war halted the release of proof sets until 1950, when the Mint raised the price of a set from $1.89 to $2.10 while more than doubling production. Retail prices for the sets, which included the same five denominations as the 1936-1942 sets and were now packed in Pliofilm, held steady through 1964, but the Mint had noticed how buyers had been snapping up its sets and selling them for a fast profit. So, in 1968, it began to pack its proof sets in plastic holders and raised the price to $5.

Higher prices combined with radically increased productions runs (three million was not uncommon after 1961) conspired to suck the air out of the proof-set market. Especially hard hit were the top-of-the-line Prestige Sets, which in most cases are actually worth less today than what collectors paid for them when issued—the notable exceptions being the 1983S set with an Olympic dollar and the 1990S set missing an S cent. Proof sets that appear to have held their own include the five-piece state quarter sets issued since 1999 (that first set has proved most popular among collectors).

One final bit of terminology to pay attention to is the word prooflike, which describes a regularly minted, uncirculated coin with a mirrorlike surface. Some of the most dramatic examples of prooflike coins are Morgan dollars minted at the end of the 19th century. In some cases, the prooflike coin will have valuations well into five or six figures (the 1894 and 1901 Morgans, respectively), while proof coins from those same years can be picked up for four.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Legendary Coins and Currency

Legendary Coins and Currency

This online exhibition from the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History is a great way to get an overview… [read review or visit site]

Society of U.S. Pattern Collectors

Society of U.S. Pattern Collectors

Home to the Society of U.S. Pattern collectors, this well-organized site provides in-depth information on pattern c… [read review or visit site]



Clubs & Associations

Other Great Reference Sites

Most watched eBay auctions    

1876 Twenty Cent Piece Proof, Stunning Solid Gem Pf++, Key Date Pr ** Free S/h!1879-s Morgan Silver Dollar, Proof-like, Gorgeous Rev. Rainbow, Gem Bu++ Pl!1862 Indian Head Penny, Proof, Outstanding Solid Gem Pf++, Gorgeous Key Date Pr!1873 Trade Dollar, Proof, Scarce Choice Pf++, Just 865 Minted ** Free Shipping!2016 Us Mint Silver Proof Set1880 Us Seated Liberty Silver Dime Proof 10c - Pcgs Pr661883 Indian Head Penny Proof, Outstanding Superb Gem Pf++, Great Look, Free S/h!1940 Walking Liberty Half Dollar, Proof, Gorgeous Solid Gem Pf++ ** Great Look!1896 Morgan Silver Dollar, Proof-like Pcgs Ms 64 Pl * Old Green Holder, Pq Look!1898 Indian Head Penny, Proof, Beautiful Solid Gem Pf++, Low Pr Mintage!1893 Barber Half Dollar, Proof, Scarce Choice Gem Pf++, Only 792 Pr's Made!1887 Indian Head Penny, Proof, Beautiful Solid Gem Pf++ ** Free Shipping!1892-s $20 Liberty Gold Coin.. Ch/gem Bu "proof-like"1868 Seated Liberty Dollar, Proof, Very Tough Choice Pf++, Mere 600 Pr's Struck!2012 U.s. Mint Limited Edition 8 Coin Silver Proof Set With Silver Eagle1892 Morgan Silver Dollar, Proof, Solid Choice Pf++, Just 1245 Pr's Struck!1871 Two Cent Piece, Proof, Gorgeous Solid Gem Pf++ Rb, Very Pq Pr, ** Free S/h!1888 Proof Indian Penny Icg Pr-63 Red1895 Barber Half Dollar Proof, Beautiful Superb Gem Pf++, Just 880 Pr's Minted!1876 Proof Indian Cent, Pcgs Pr64 Bn, Wonderfully Appealing Davidkahnrarecoins2016 United States Mint Silver Proof Set Coins - Authentic1882-o Morgan Silver Dollar, Deep Mirror Proof-like, Pcgs Ms 64 Dmpl! ** Tough!2014 W Baseball Hall Of Fame $5 Gold Curved Proof Coin2012 U S Mint Proof Set1950 Lincoln Cent Wheat Penny Proof, Red Gem Pf ** Free Shipping!1938 Pcgs Pr 64 - Pr66 Proof Set Walking Liberty Silver Half Dollar Quarter Dime1886-s Morgan Silver Dollar, Proof-like, Gorgeous Solid Gem Bu++ Pl Better Date!$10 1964 Proof Kennedy Halves - 90% Silver 20-coin Roll2012 United States Mint Limited Edition Silver Proof Set 8 Coins Ogp Coa A0775Morgan Silver Dollar 1903 P Ch Unc Dmpl Die Details Ultra Rare Looks Proof1950 Lincoln Cent Wheat Penny Proof, Lovely Gem Pf ** Free Shipping!1955 Us Mint Franklin Silver Proof Set1986 Statue Of Liberty Gold And Silver Proof And Uncirculated Six Coin Set1942 Pcgs Walking Liberty Half Dollar, Proof, Pcgs Pr 65 ** Nice White Pf!2015 W $5 Us Marshals Service Proof Gold First Day Of Issue Ngc Pf69 Ucam Coin1906 Indian Head Penny, Red Proof, Flashy Rd Superb Gem Pf++, ** Free Shipping!1994 U.s. Veterans Commemorative Silver Dollars Set- 3 Proof Silver Coins W/ Box9 Set Lot Of 1962 Silver Proof Sets....nice!!!2017 P Pcgs Pr70 Lions Club 100th Ann. Commem. Proof Silver First Strike Fs1983 10c Roosevelt Dime No S Proof Deep Cameo Key Error Pcgs Pr68dcam Rare!2013 P Proof 5 Star Generals Marshall Eisenhower Commemorative Silver Dollar $1Complete 2012s United States Mint Silver Proof Set W/certificate Of Authenticity2015 S U.s. Mint Silver Proof Set (14) Coins - Lowest Mintage! Not Available1956 Us Proof Set W/u.s. Mint Original Envelope, Super Nice And Clear Coins.2016 Silver Proof Set Comes With Box And Coa1881-cc Morgan Silver Dollar, Ultra Proof-like, Solid Gem Bu++ Dmpl Better Date!1881-cc Frosty Cameo Proof Like Unc++++ Morgan Silver Dollar 1940 Walking Liberty Half Dollar, Proof, Impressive Superb Gem Pf++, Blast White9 Set Lot Of 1958 Silver Proof Sets....nice!!!Huge Lot 200+coinusa&world~mercury~buffalo~franklin~indian~proof~token~wl Silver2015 Silver Proof Set Comes With Box And Coa1873 Proof Seated Half Dime Grade Gem Bu Cameo *as Pictured* Inv 3911991 Mount Rushmore Anniversary 3 Piece Gold And Silver Proof Set1987 United States Constitution Commemorative Proof Silver & Gold 2-coin Set1898 Barber Quarter, Proof, Gorgeous Solid Gem Pf++, Only 735 Pr's Minted!1879 S $1 Pcgs Ms 64 Morgan Silver Dollar Obverse Looks Deep Mirror Proof Like9 Set Lot Of 1964 Silver Proof Sets....nice!!! 1880 S Dmpl Morgan Silver Dollar Ultra Proof Like, Stunning Ch Gem Pl 41251956 Franklin Half Dollar Proof Ngc Pf 68 Cameo.. Pq .. Deep Mirror Fields1878 8tf Morgan Silver Dollar, Proof-like, Gem Bu++ Pl ** Free Shipping!