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    

2015 S Silver Kennedy Half Dollar 50c Ngc Pf70 From The 14-coin Silver Proof Set2015 S Silver Kennedy Half Dollar 50c Ngc Pf70 From The 14-coin Silver Proof Set2015 S Silver Kennedy Half Dollar 50c Ngc Pf70 From The 14-coin Silver Proof Set2015 S Silver Kennedy Half Dollar 50c Ngc Pf70 From The 14-coin Silver Proof Set2015 S Silver Kennedy Half Dollar 50c Ngc Pf70 From The 14-coin Silver Proof Set2015 S Silver Kennedy Half Dollar 50c Ngc Pf70 From The 14-coin Silver Proof Set2015 S Silver Kennedy Half Dollar 50c Ngc Pf70 From The 14-coin Silver Proof Set2016 S Nickel .5 Ngc Pf70 Ultra Cameo Early Releases From 13-coin Silver Proof2016 S Nickel .5 Ngc Pf70 Ultra Cameo Early Releases From 13-coin Silver Proof1913 * Pcgs Pr65 Rb Red Brown Proof * Cac * Lincoln Wheat Cent 1c * Gorgeous Gem1884 * Pcgs Pr64 Rd Red Proof * Ogh Rattler * Indian Head Cent 1c * Lustrous !!!1876 Liberty Head $20 Gold Double Eagle Nice Uncirculated Proof Like1872 Indian Head Penny, Red Proof, Stunning Superb Gem Pf++ Rd, Scarce Key Date!1964 50c Kennedy Half Dollar Accented Hair Variety Lustrous Cameo Proof Rare!Lot Of 10 1963 Sealed Original United States Silver Proof Sets1907 * Pcgs Pr65 Bn Proof * Indian Head Cent 1c * Gorgeous Gem Colors Appears RbEstate Found Us 1955p Sealed Unopened Proof Set Original Mint Box1887/6 3 Cent Nickel Pcgs Pr65cam Strong Overdate Proof Coin. Nice Cameo! Lot Of 6 1962 Sealed Original United States Silver Proof Sets1956 Us Mint 5 Coin Proof Set (3367)Early U.s. Mint Silver Proof Set Sealed Unopened In Original Packaging Box RareLot Of 8 Sealed Original United States Silver Proof Sets 1960 1961 19632016-s United States Us Mint Silver Proof Set(original Mint Packaging)-free Ship1868 Indian Head Penny, Red Proof, Sharp Gem Pf++, ** Free Shipping!1887 Morgan Silver Dollar Gem Proof++ Rare Pr **free Shipping1950 United States Silver Proof Set. As Issued. Orig Box. Coin Are Sealed. Gem 1956 Silver Proof Set In Original Us Mint PackagingEstate Found Us 1954 P Sealed Unopened Proof Set In Philadelphia Mint Box$10 Mixed Complete Roll Washington 90% Silver State Quarters 40 Gem Proof Coins1993 $1 American Silver Eagle 1 Oz Proof Pcgs Pr70dcam Struck At Philadelphia100 Original Sealed 1961 Proof Sets U.s. Mint Extraordinary Opportunity 2000 W Library Congress $10 Bi-metal Gold & Platinum Proof 69 Ultra Cameo Ngc 1950 Franklin Half Dollar Proof Highly Reflective Solid Gem Pf++, Better Date Pr1964 Half Roll Proof 90% Silver Kennedy Halfs Half Dollars – 10 Proof Coins!!1899 Indian Head Penny Proof, Stunning Rainbow Toning, Superb Gem Pf ** Free S/h1885-o Morgan Silver Dollar, Deep Mirror Proof-like, Solid Gem Bu++ Dmpl!1955 United States Mint Proof Set Flat (3370)1880 Pcgs Proof With Quest.color Indian Cent Very Nice Certified Coin2011 Medal Of Honor Commemorative Coin Silver Proof Dollar W/ Coa & BoxEstate Found 1958 Us United States Sealed Unopened Proof Set2016 S Sacagawea Proof Native American Dollar Pcgs Pr 70 First Strike1888 Ngc Three Cent Nickel Piece Proof Ngc Pf 66 ** Tough This Pq, Cameo Appeal!2012 United States Mint Annual 14 Coin Silver Proof Set 1860 Three Cent Silver Piece, Proof, Beautiful Pq Gem Pf++, Better Date Pr!1880-s Ngc Morgan Silver Dollar Ngc Ms 65 ** Ultra Pq Proof-like Reflectivity!1976 S Silver Proof Bicentennial 3 Coin Set Gem Designer Signed Coa & CaseFull Set 1956-1963 90% Silver Proof Franklin Half Dollars! 8 Total Coins!2016 S Sacagawea Proof Native American Dollar Pcgs Pr 70 First Strike1938 Lincoln Cent Wheat Penny Proof, Red-brown, Pcgs Pr 65 Rb ** Green Holder1955 Flat Pack United States Proof Set/us Mint Philadelphia/silver Proof Set!Niue 2012 24x1$ Albrecht Durer Codex 1kg 24 Coin Kilo Proof Set Only 300 Minted1885 Seated Liberty Quarter Deep Cameo Proof, Solid Gem Pf++ Cam, Deep Mirrors!1950 United States Proof Set Tough!! #s2016 S Sacagawea Proof Native American Dollar Pcgs Pr 70 First Strike1955 Flat Pack United States Proof Set (no Envelope) #s2015 P Reverse Proof John F Kennedy Dollar Ngc Pf70 Ms70 Coin Chronicles Set Ax32016 United States Mint Silver Proof Set 14 Coins In All With Coa1956 Us Mint 5 Coin Proof Set (3300)1958 United States Proof Set Original Unopened Mint Envelope1958 Uncirculated Silver U.s. Philadelphia Mint Proof Set Free S/h