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Prooflike coins vary in their degree of clear reflectivity
By Eric Von Klinger

In virtually any series of coins, collectors may run across a designation of "prooflike" surfaces, but the term is most often encountered in regard to Morgan silver dollars.

The degree of reflectivity was determined in part by the fineness of the polishing compound used.

It gained currency in the 1950s and 1960s as the last of silver dollar releases from Treasury Department vaults took place. Seemingly vast quantities of decades-old coins suddenly were becoming available in "Uncirculated" condition.

It was apparent even among all these never-used coins that there were substantial differences in overall appealing qualities. Some were "bag-marked" (heavily affected by contact marks). Some were toned from contact with canvas. Some had dull surfaces and others – exceptional pieces – were, well, "prooflike."

"Proof," as collectors learn early in their grading lessons, is not a grade but a manufacturing process. A Proof generally is exceptionally well struck, but the surface might vary by process chosen. A Matte Proof, for instance, has a grainy-looking surface.

When collectors talk about "Proof surface" or "prooflike surface," however, they mean a more usual, brilliant, highly reflective finish in the fields. (Fields are the flat, plain areas away from the design and inscriptions.)

A "prooflike" Uncirculated coin, then, is one with such fields, often described as "mirrorlike."

Other Uncirculated coins may appear brilliant, but closer examination will reveal that the brilliance comes from what is called the "cartwheel effect." When the coin is rotated, light reflects from delicate, radial striations in the surface like spokes on a wheel.

Yet other Uncirculated coins may display an overall "frosty" appearance.

A "prooflike" surface does not bounce light from its fields in a cascading way. Rather, its fields are highly reflective. A finger held a few inches from the surface will show as in a mirror. More tellingly, on a truly mirrorlike field, writing can be held 2 to 4 inches away and be read easily in the reflection.

Other than in the reflectivity of its fields, a prooflike coin is like other circulation strikes. Its rims are not squared, as on a Proof, and it has been struck a single time rather than twice as on a Proof coin.

There is a temptation for the collector seeing "prooflike" added to the basic grade to picture a highly desirable specimen. But it is important to pay attention to that base grade, and to examine other aspects of the surface.

Prooflike dollars are not necessarily fully or sharply struck, Bruce Anspacher warned in an essay in The Comprehensive U.S. Silver Dollar Encyclopedia, by John Highfill, published in 1992. A prooflike dollar might also be heavily bag-marked.

Anspacher, together with Wayne Miller, listed a number of ways in which prooflike surfaces may have been created, such as use of leftover, polished Proof planchets or use of new rollers in the mill where strips of coinage metal were drawn.

The chief origin of prooflike surfaces, however, and the reason they are associated mostly with Morgan dollars, lies in a single word, "basining," researchers agree.

Basining is the imparting of a gently curved face to a die ("dishing"), so as to bring up the design more efficiently in striking coins.

To achieve this effect, the Mint would hold the die face to a revolving disk with polishing compound, Leroy Van Allen and A. George Mallis wrote in Comprehensive Catalog and Encyclopedia of Morgan & Peace Dollars.

The whole basining process could be likened to the making of reflective telescope mirrors, Q. David Bowers wrote in A Guide Book of Morgan Silver Dollars.

Newly designed silver coins of 1916 and later were designed so as not to need a basining of the dies, and so, few prooflike Peace dollars are found, Van Allen and Mallis wrote.

The basining process brings the reader to the classifications of the "depth" of prooflikeness.

This degree of reflectivity was determined partly by how fine a polishing compound was used and partly by whether a final buffing was done, Van Allen and Mallis wrote. Bowers said the length of time spent in basining also matters.

Terms that are commonly used to express the degrees are "semi-prooflike," plain "prooflike," "deep prooflike" and "deep mirror prooflike."

Some skip "deep prooflike" and go directly from "prooflike" (definitely polished appearance) to "deep mirror prooflike," abbreviated DMPL and pronounced "dimple."

The degrees are measured first in how far away an object may be and still be plainly reflected. The question might be, can this text be read at 4 inches as it can at 2 inches?

The Official Guide to Coin Grading and Counterfeit Detection, from the Professional Coin Grading Service, emphasizes the "clarity" of the object, not mere reflectivity.

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