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.
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Recent News: US Proof Coins
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2015 Proof Silver Eagle Coins Outpace other Silver Product SalesSilver Coins Today (blog), January 22nd
2015-W Proof American Silver Eagle Coins sharply out-paced sales of all other numismatic silver products combined, U.S. Mint weekly sales charts show. In all, buyers picked up 20,275 proof Silver Eagles compared to just 4,675 in other silver products...Read more
Coin Profile – 1843 Proof Quarter Eagle, only five knownCoinWeek, January 21st
Before the Mint began its program of commercial proof set offerings in 1858, only a handful of proofs were struck each year to satisfy the needs of influential Treasury officials or well-connected collectors. Proof gold coins of the pre-1858 era are...Read more
US Mint 2015 Gift Sets for Newborns and BirthdaysCoinNews.net, January 16th
These proof coins are not unique to these two sets, but they will not be available in another collectible product until the 14-coin 2015 Proof Set goes on sale in March. Both gift sets also have one 2015-dated America the Beautiful Quarter. There are...Read more
US Mint Sales: Gold Coins Jump, 2015 Proof Silver Eagle TimidCoinNews.net, January 15th
New U.S. Mint sales figures show stronger sales of gold coins and, unexpectedly, rather timid gains for the 2015-W Proof American Silver Eagle during its first full week of release. Sales of the 2015 Proof Silver Eagle started on Jan. 2 with orders...Read more
Australian Opal Series 2015 Rough-Scaled Python Silver Proof CoinCoin Update News, January 7th
The Perth Mint has started accepting orders for the seventh coin within the eight-coin Australian Opal series, which features nocturnal animals crafted in pure Australian opal. Previous releases within the series have featured the Koala, Wombat...Read more
2015 Proof Silver Eagle Photos and Debut SalesCoinNews.net, January 6th
The 2013 coin kicked off with sales at 258,860, which also included another day in the reporting period. The 2012 coin notched sales of 299,539 in five days. The 2011 coin opened at 367,623 through the first six days. The 2010 coin started at 273,212 ...Read more
2015-W Proof American Silver Eagle LaunchesCoinNews.net, January 2nd
It's the best of the best. There's no better seller for the United States Mint, and it's available early for less. Today, the Mint introduced its annually issued proof American Silver Eagle for $48.95. That's $4 cheaper and three weeks earlier than...Read more
2015 Proof Silver Eagle for New Year and Popular NewsCoinNews.net, December 28th
It'll be another short week of coin news, with New Years coming up and most of the world mints taking a break from releases until next week. U.S. coin collectors can look forward to Friday's release from the U.S. Mint of their 2015 Proof American...Read more