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    

1901-s Morgan Silver Dollar, Proof-like, Choice Bu++ Pl Better Date ** Free S/h!1902 Liberty Head $20 Gold Pcgs Pr60 Extra Rare! Only 114 Minted In Proof!1871 Seated Liberty Dollar Proof, Impressive Superb Gem Pf+++ * Only 960 Struck!1880 S Ngc Ms65* Star Gem Colorful Obverse Toned Semi Proof-like Morgan Dollar1885-cc Morgan Silver Dollar, Proof-like, Gorgeous Gem Bu++ Pl Better Date!1892 Pcgs Pr64bn Colorful Toned Proof Indian Cent With A TrueviewRare 2012 S Us Mint Proof Set - 14 Coins And Coa !!!2014-w 50th Anniversary Kennedy Camelot Gold Proof Half-dollar Pcgs Pr70dcam2014 W Gold Kennedy 3/4 Oz. Half Dollar Anniversary Proof Coin - W/ Coa Gorgeous1939 Walking Liberty Proof Half Dollar 50c Ngc Pf 69 ConditionUs Coin Collection Large Lot Albums Proof Sets Misc Coin Sets And Much More1940 Box Proof Set Unopened Rare 2012 S Kennedy Half Dollar Ngc Pf70 Ultra Cameo Proof Silver Coin1892 Pcgs Ms 62 $10 Gold Liberty Coin / Semi Proof Like Reverse1902 Ngc Barber Dime Proof Ngc Pf 65 ** Gorgeous Color, Only 777 Pr's Minted!2012 S Kennedy Half Dollar Ngc Pf70 Ultra Cameo Proof Silver CoinHuge Lot 150+ Coins Usa/world~tokens~buffalo/"v"~silver~proof~ms~more~look!1880-cc 80/79 Morgan Dollar Us Silver Dollar $1 Carson City Proof Like Fields1881-cc Morgan Silver Dollar, Deep Mirror Proof-like, Gem Bu++ Dmpl Better Date! 2016 100th Anniversary Of The National Park Service Three-coin Proof Set & Gold1905 Gold $25 Eagle Proof Coin (693j)1889 Indian Head Penny Red Proof, Beautiful Solid Gem Pf++ Rd, ** Free Shipping!1901 Barber Half Dollar Proof, Beautifully Toned Superb Gem Pf++, Only 813 Made!1986 Statue Of Liberty Commemorative 3-coin Proof Set $5 Gold, Silver $1886 Pcgs Ms64pl Morgan Silver Dollar, Proof-like!!!2012 United States Mint Limited Edition 8 Coin Silver Proof Set - No Reserve!!1981 S $1 Type 2 T2 Sba Susan B Anthony Dollar Proof Pcgs Pr69dcam1879 S Rev Of 78 Morgan! Ultra Rare Coin! Proof Like! Stunning Toned Pl Ms+++++1862 25c Pcgs Pr 63 Proof Seated Liberty Silver Quarter, Scarce Civil War Year1883 Seated Liberty Quarter Proof, Beautifully Toned Choice Gem Pf++!1883 Indian Head Penny Proof, Razor Sharp Superb Gem Pf++, Super Pq, Free S/h!2014 S Pcgs Pr68dcam Superb Gem Colorful Toned Silver Proof Kennedy Half DollarLarge Mixed Lot Of 10 Graded Coins Pcgs Proof.ms, &70 Grade Coins Ikes Silver #4Proof 1991 S Mount Rushmore $1 Commem. Silver Dollar W/ Us Mint Box+coa An5417 SMorgan Silver Dollar 1878 7/8tf Ch Gem Bu Rare Pl Proof Die Obv Ms Rev Blazing!1964 Half Roll Proof 90% Silver Kennedy Halfs Half Dollars – 10 Proof Coins!!1941 Us Washington Silver Proof Quarter Ngc Pf 67 Condition1972 S Ngc Pf67 Superb Gem Cameo Colorful Rim Toned Proof Eisenhower Dollar1957/1958 Us Silver Proof Sets "two Sets"1942 P Proof Silver Jefferson War Nickel, Scarce Type 2 Proof, Problem Free 5c1941 Box Proof Set Unopened Rare 1942 Walking Liberty Half Dollar, Proof, Very Impressive Superb Gem Pf++, Pq Pr!1954 Unopened Proof Set 1955 P Franklin Half Dollar (ngc) Struck In Especially Cameo Stunning Proof 1880 S Ngc Ms64* Star Frosted Semi Proof-like Morgan DollarHuge Lot 150 Coins Usa/world~tokens~barber~buffalo/"v"~silver~proof~ms~more!!!!1971 S Ngc Pf66 Cameo Gem Colorful Rim Toned Proof Eisenhower Dollar2012 Us Mint Silver Proof Set1880 S Morgan! Superstar Pl! Super High Grade! Proof Like Stunner! Wow Coin! Nr2015 P Ngc Pf70 Kennedy Reverse Proof Dollar From Coin & Chronicles Set1968 S Pcgs Pr67 Superb Gem Colorful Toned Proof Washington Quarter W/ Trueview1884-o Morgan Silver Dollar, Ultra Proof-like, Choice Gem Bu Dmpl Tougher Date!1950 Franklin Half Dollar Proof, Impressive Superb Gem Pf++, Key Date Pr!Unopened 1955 1c-50c Proof Set In Box - No Reserve1954 Us Proof Set With Original Box And Cello Packaging2012-s Kennedy Half Dollar Silver Proof1942 Us Washington Silver Proof Quarter Ngc Pf 66 Condition1888 25c (proof) Liberty Seated Quarter Rainbow Toning! Under Graded Pr62cam2012 Proof Set. United States Mint. 14 Coins! Box And C.o.a. Look!!!1956 Proof Set In Original Packaging As Issued By Us Mint