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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Rare Coins: Likely Unique 1891-O Proof Dime, The Only Certified Proof Unlisted ...CoinWeek, April 22nd
Walter Breen called the early presentation pieces and pre-1858 dated proofs the caviar of proof coinage, and then compared them to the branch mint proofs that he called “dishes of peacock's tongues.” Proof coins were struck at the branch mints for ...Read more
US Mint Sales Report: Proof Silver Eagles Top SellerCoin Update News, April 22nd
In recent years, the Proof Silver Eagle has been the US Mint's top selling numismatic product by unit volume. The individual 2013-dated proof coin had reached final sales of 868,494, topping the sales numbers of traditionally popular offerings such as...Read more
Mickey Mouse on Steamboat Willie Starts Disney Coin SeriesCoinNews.net, April 21st
Classic Disney animation lovers will want to check out a new series of gold and silver coins sold by the Perth Mint of Australia. The program's inaugural releases, the 2014 Disney – Steamboat Willie 1/4oz Gold Proof Coin and the 2014 Disney – Steamboat ...Read more
2014 Proof Gold Eagle Coin Prices May RiseCoinNews.net, April 15th
There's a chance of price increases for a range of numismatic gold coin products sold by the United States Mint. These include the newly released 2014-W Proof Gold Eagles and the older 2013-W First Spouse Gold Coins. Numismatic gold coin prices are ...Read more
US Mint Sales: 2014 Proof Gold Eagles, Shenandoah Quarters DebutCoinNews.net, April 9th
Five product options with 2014-W Proof Gold Eagles launched on Thursday, April 3, 2014. Demand jumped this year with starting sales of 18,309 coins almost doubling the 9,370 start of last year's coins. Lower opening prices were certainly more...Read more
2014 Baseball Hall of Fame Silver Dollars Sell Out, Waiting List AddedCoinNews.net, April 9th
Honoring the 75th Anniversary of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the commemorative coins launched on Thursday, March 27 in proof and uncirculated formats of gold, silver and clad. The $5 gold coins sold out at their maximum 50,000 mintage within 24 ...Read more
2014 American Gold Eagle Proof Coins AvailableCoin Update News, April 3rd
The 2014 Proof Gold Eagle is available across four different sizes each with a different legal tender face value. The sizes include one ounce coins with a $50 face value, one-half ounce coins with a $25 face value, one-quarter ounce coins with a $10...Read more
2014 Proof Set from US Mint at San FranciscoCoinNews.net, March 25th
Of the 14 coins within the 2014 Proof Set, 10 are unique to 2014 because they bear one-year-only designs. These include the five 2014 America the Beautiful Quarters, the four 2014 Presidential $1 Coins and the 2014 Native American $1 Coin. Contents of ...Read more