**Interest in
Proof Sets Fluctuates Over Time**
By Paul M. Green
The plain
vanilla proof set often has been out of the
headlines and just a quiet part of the market.
The present generation of collectors has so many
sales options to choose from that the proof set
commands less attention than it once did. If
anything, the best way to describe the changing
role of the proof set in the rare coin market
might well be to simply suggest to owners,
"You're not in Kansas anymore," as the historic
proof set market could almost seem as
old-fashioned as the "Wizard of Oz" might seem
as a movie in today's Hollywood.
Into the 1960s the proof set as a collection was
one of the most uneventful parts of yearly coin
buying. In fact, it actually took a certain
amount of effort even to get on the mailing list
of the United States Mint, then called the
Bureau of the Mint.
There were no toll-free numbers and assorted
ordering options. You had to convince the Mint
to send you an ordering form and then you had to
get a money order and send it in to receive your
set.
Months later a rather simple envelope would
arrive and you would have your set, which you
would examine briefly before putting it in a
safe place where it would rest for months
without ever being seen again.
The thought of selling the set or breaking it up
to sell the individual coins was literally
unknown. After all, the coins were from
Philadelphia until the change to producing sets
in San Francisco in 1968, and coming from
Philadelphia if you needed a Philadelphia cent
or half dollar from the year, you would simply
get a business strike. No right thinking person
it seemed at the time would consider breaking up
their proof set simply to fill a hole in their
regular collection.
As the coins were produced in Philadelphia there
was also relatively little premium for most.
With normally high mintages, there was simply
minimal demand for something like a 1959 half
dollar even if it was a proof. Moreover, the
idea of proof singles was something that was not
really frequently discussed as there had been no
proof-only singles during the 20th century.
The proof-only single had been fairly common
during the 19th century and as a result
collectors of the 1800s were probably more
concerned about proof- only singles than were
collectors of the 1950s. In fact, the last
proof-only single was probably the famous 1895
Morgan dollar and even that situation was not
quite clear as the 1895 had a mintage that
suggested there had been business strikes. The
problem was that it appears the 1895 mintage was
a clerical error. No one could find a business
strike, leading everyone to the conclusion that
the total listed in official records was 12,000
pieces too high.
If there had been significant historical price
moves in proof coins it was primarily because
the issues had very small mintages and were
oftentimes not regularly available for all
collectors. Proof prices if anything, moved
because of the rarity of a given date and not
because the proof set market had suddenly become
active.
Actually, the history of proof coins was and to
a degree still is unclear. Even today there is
serious dispute as to whether 1907 high-relief
Saint-Gaudens double eagles in a few cases were
proofs and that is only one example of many as
from the very first there is debate.
There is, for example, a truly extraordinary
1793 Chain Cent graded MS-67 by the Professional
Coin Grading service. The coin was almost
certainly specially made either as a first
strike or as a very early strike. The fact that
it has survived suggests it was probably a
presentation piece and that raises all sorts of
questions about such a special coin, but finding
agreement as to exactly what it or other early
issues were intended to be by those making them
at the time or how they were made is nearly
impossible as we simply do not know.
Certainly, there is no question that while there
might have been what we would consider proofs,
or what we at minimum call specially produced
coins, any notion of an organized proof set
program was still years in the future.
If you wanted to establish a date that virtually
everyone would agree was a time where the Mint
was in the business of making proofs that date
might well be 1817, as roughly at that time
there were proof coins being created with
examples reported for large cents and half
dollars with quarters and dimes known from the
following years, while the first proof half cent
would seemingly have appeared in 1825.
Our information is not perfect and discoveries
can always be made and debated, but with
relative certainty we can suggest that the
period around 1817 was the first real period
where proofs can be found.
The idea of a proof set probably took longer,
but we know that by 1834 the concept existed for
the simple reason that it was in that year that
the State Department ordered proof sets for a
diplomatic mission that included giving a set to
the Sultan of Muscat and another to the King of
Siam. That order for special sets proved to be
significant for a number of reasons.
The most important aspect of the sets created in
1834 was that officials were confronted with a
problem in that the silver dollar and gold eagle
had not been produced since 1804 when their
production had been suspended. Officials did not
want to present sets lacking a couple of
denominations, so they consulted the records to
determine the last production date for both the
gold eagle and silver dollar.
That date according to the records was 1804.
What the records did not show was that the gold
eagles made in 1804 were actually dated 1804,
but that the silver dollars produced that year
were dated 1803 as the practice of using dies
even in years following the date on them was not
at all unusual at the time.
The decision was to simply order special strikes
of an 1804 gold eagle, which actually turned out
to be slightly different from the original, as
one had a plain and the other a crosslet "4,"
but in the case of the 1804 silver dollar, that
was an entirely new issue that would become the
most famous of all U.S. silver dollars.
The sets created in 1834 were, however, for the
State Department and as a result they did not
start a trend. What proof production there was
tended to be individual coins and not a program
offering complete sets. It is certainly possible
that advanced collectors of the period might
have assembled complete sets, but at least at
the time there was no regular offering of sets.
There was another interesting event a few years
later and that was the production of the first
branch mint proof. While proofs produced at
facilities other than Philadelphia would remain
the exception to the rule where proofs were
concerned, the fact is that there was a number
made in other facilities over time and they
usually were important.
The opening of the New Orleans Mint provided an
opportunity to produce special issues and it
appears that perhaps as many as 20 special 1838
half dollars were produced to mark the event.
With such a small mintage, the 1838-O is a
significant rarity today and one with a special
place in history as it really opened the door in
terms of proof production at facilities other
than Philadelphia even though few would have
considered it important for that reason back in
1838.
It is probably no accident that the Mint began
to produce proofs routinely for sale starting
around 1860. The roots of the idea of producing
proofs for anticipated demand probably tapped
events surrounding the 1856 Flying Eagle cent.
The 1856 Flying Eagle cent was basically a
pattern designed to show lawmakers what a new
and smaller cent would be like. The little show
and tell conducted in Congress resulted in
approval for the new small cent and it also
resulted in a number of the 1856 Flying Eagle
samples being pocketed by members of Congress
and others. The Flying Eagle cent was
technically approved and released the following
year, but word of the 1856 coins leaked out and
collectors beat a path to the Mint asking for
examples.
In the end, the Mint produced both proof and
business strike 1856 Flying Eagle cents that
were sold to collectors. That made collectors
happy but the sale of perhaps a couple thousand
1856 Flying Eagle cents opened eyes at the Mint
to the possibility that there was a small
business possible in selling proof coins to
collectors.
During the 1860s despite the fact that the Mint
was busy with a Civil War and all of the
complications that included a change in the
composition of the cent, a new two-cent piece
and the introduction of new copper-nickel three-
and five-cent coins, a small and regular
production of proofs took place. The program was
still in its early stages and as a result some
of the proofs of the period are better while
others such as the small motto two-cent piece,
1864L Indian Head cent or 1867 "with rays"
nickel are significant rarities in proof.
In some cases the mintages of the period are
suspect. We have reasonable information as to
the likely totals, but we are uncertain that the
entire mintage was sold. In fact, there are
stories of unsold coins being acquired for face
value by some who had contacts at the Mint and
that fact suggests that melting of unsold coins
was a routine practice as a circulated coin
would simply be slipped into the proof supply,
which would be melted and as the coins were not
checked no one would have discovered the trade.
We could hardly expect the proof program such as
it was to grow during the difficult period of
the Civil War. In addition, once the war was
over, economic times were tough well into the
1870s, but despite the problems, the popularity
of proofs with collectors is hard to dispute.
The mintage totals for proofs during the period
from 1860-1890 would vary for a variety of
reasons, but the long-term trend was definitely
to higher mintages. In fact, there is very
strong evidence that collectors of the period
were happily assembling some sets using only
proofs. The mintages might have been less than
1,000 pieces, but the supply of many proof dates
from the period and especially in the case of
key dates is actually far better than our supply
of MS-65 pieces for the same period.
It might seem odd, but a number of denominations
were only being made in Philadelphia and in the
case of those denominations that included the
lower denominations that were more popular with
collectors, a proof would fill a hole for a date
at least as well as a business strike. As it
turned out, the proofs would generally receive
good care as they were only acquired by
collectors and that means today if you want a
cheaper version of a date like the 1877 Indian
Head cent, the way to get it is to buy a
Proof-65.
The situation continued for many years and in
addition there were periodic instances where a
date would be produced only in proof. The
proof-only dates were especially common during
the period when Morgan dollar mintages were
required. Perhaps the nation did not need some
denominations or perhaps the strain of producing
Morgans required lower mintages of other
denominations, but whatever the reason, there
were assorted proof-only dates.
The 1895 Morgan dollar is the most famous
proof-only date for most and it was the only
proof-only Morgan. It is not, however, the
lowest mintage or most valuable proof-only date
as proof gold coins of the 1800s are legendary,
with mintages sometimes below 100 pieces with
just a small number surviving, as there were few
to collect and save such upper denominations at
the time.
The dawning of a new century saw changes in
proofs. Even the types of proofs being produced
would change. The matte proof was introduced.
Such a coin ended up with a dull or granular
surface, while the satin finish proof would end
up with a different appearance.
A sand blast proof is a variation on the matte
proof, while a Roman finish proof is seen on
some gold coins from 1909-1910 and it is a
variation on the satin finish.
The evolution would continue with brilliant
proofs being produced until the 1970s when they
were replaced with frosted proofs still seen
today, although in a couple of cases the Mint
has dusted off the idea of matte proofs for
special offers.
Around 1916 the relatively regular offering of
proof singles or small sets was stopped. As
there had never been an official program, there
was no reason given for the decision, although
there were definitely fewer proofs in the
following years, there were still a few, such as
matte finish 1921 Peace dollars and perhaps two
dozen brilliant proof 1921 Morgans.
For roughly two decades it was definitely the
exception to find a proof, but then in 1936 the
first of what are considered the modern proofs
appeared. The 1936 set including five
denominations and had sales of 3,837 sets.
That results in a price today of $7,500, which
is up from $5,600 in 2002 and $3,700 back in
1998. It and other early sets featuring the few
proof Walking Liberty half dollars and Mercury
dimes are popular, but difficult to find in
their original holders. We see the situation in
high prices such as $4,350 for the 1937 set
while all others through 1942 are in a range
from $1,375 to $1,900.
The proof set program was really just getting
started when World War II broke out. The fewer
than 4,000 sets sold in 1936 had reached 21,000
in 1942, but the impact of the war was seen
immediately. The final year in 1942 saw both 5-
and 6-coin sets reflecting the fact that the
nickel was changed in the fall of 1942. The
6-coin set featured both the regular and new
composition nickels, with the 6-coin set
currently at $1,475 while the 5-coin set
featuring only a regular composition nickel is
at $1,375. The two sets of 1942 were the last
until 1950 as the Mint turned its attention away
from special sets and to the special needs of a
nation at war.
The return of the proof set in 1950 saw a new
price of $2.10 and that price would last until
1964. The sets of the 1950s tend to reflect the
growing interest in coin collecting as the sets
of 1950 and 1951 had sales in the 50,000 to
60,000 range, which results in price of $740 for
the 1950 and $630 for the 1951 while the higher
mintage 1952 and 1953 are $285 and $250,
respectively.
Sales were increasing and the 1954 and 1955 sets
reflect that fact as well as experiments with
packaging as the 1955 set came in either a box
or flat pack with prices today between $110 and
$168.
The sets from 1956 through 1964 tend to be the
most readily available group from the $2.10
proof set price era. The better sets from the
period are the 1956 and 1958, although in the
case of all sets from the era, there is a
potentially surprising factor having an impact
on supplies as the sets from the era were
subject to melting when the price of silver rose
to its peak in early 1980.
Historically, there has never been another
period where proof sets were melted in quantity,
but if silver reaches certain levels it could be
tempting once again.
There were no proof sets during the period from
1965-1967 as the government in its attempt to
discourage collecting was offering only
so-called Special Mint Sets. Finally in 1968
with the national coin shortage over, the
government returned to proof set production, but
with some changes as the issue price was raised
to $5, but the biggest change was that the sets
were produced in San Francisco and not
Philadelphia and the half dollar, quarter and
dime were all proof-only.
The changes would continue with the nickel
becoming proof-only in 1971 and the cent
following in 1975, making every proof set since
that time a set of five or more proof-only San
Francisco coins and that has had a dramatic
impact as collectors assembling sets need those
San Francisco coins to complete their them.
Moreover, the addition of silver sets in 1992
has added to the situation as the silver
proof-only San Francisco coins in the silver
sets are also potentially an addition to a
regular collection of a denomination.
The proof-only singles alone are interesting,
but the sets over the period have produced an
interesting group of errors such as in 1971 when
1,655 sets had nickels lacking a mintmark, which
puts those sets at $1,850 today. There have been
others as well, including a no-mintmark dime in
a few 1968 sets, which are now priced at
$17,500, and the 1975 no-mintmark dime set is an
even higher $46,500 price. Later sets included a
1983 with no- mintmark dimes and a 1990 set with
a no-mintmark cent and with all error sets being
at least $1,000, they make for an interesting
group for the specialist and for those lucky
enough to obtain one in their regular order as a
pleasant surprise gift from the Mint.
The trend toward more offerings has included
variations on the regular set, with
commemoratives being added to create Prestige
sets and other combinations. Of course, the once
simple $2.10 proof set has given way to a
situation where collectors can spend a good deal
more simply acquiring the basic sets from a
specific year. The $2.10 option of 1963 had been
replaced with an explosion of proof set and
partial proof set options.
The situation has also changed dramatically in
terms of what happens to sets in the secondary
market. A set used to move only slightly in
price for long periods, but now with sets being
broken up for the sale of certain singles, the
supply of any given set is always in doubt and
that has produced prices that can move up or
down wildly in a relatively short period of
time. A 2001-S silver set for example was priced
at $31.95 from the government but it is now $89
while the regular 1992-S set has actually fallen
below its issue price. The 1983-S set is also
down, but the 1997-S set went from an issue
price of $12.50 to $60 and then back to $26.50
while the 5-quarter 1999-S set which sold for
$13.95 is also $49.95. Such price swings are
totally foreign to those who paid $2.10 for a
1959 set only to see it at $2.20 in the
mid-1960s.
The continued growth in interest in the
proof-only San Francisco coins that include
50-state quarters is not likely to change in the
near future and that means we are in for a
period of very volatile prices when it comes to
various proof sets.
A shortage of a specific date can very easily
push a set higher and with so many dates to
potentially be in short supply it seems likely
that the future of proof sets will almost always
see at least one set having a period of rising
prices at any given time. Those who collect
proof sets in the old-fashioned way simply to
have a collection can ignore the ups and downs.
But can anyone really ignore those price swings? |