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Ever since the United States Mint began selling proof coins to the general public, they have become more and more popular with each passing year. Proofs have a special place in the heart of every coin enthusiast. Their superb finish is sure to appeal to investors and numismatists alike.
That being said, many people still don't know exactly what a proof coin is and what the difference is between one and bullion coins. If you are new to the coin-collecting world, or you are considering diversifying your portfolio by purchasing some precious metals, we are here to help you out.
The origin of proof coinage in the U.S. dates back to the foundation of the U.S. Mint in 1792. However, proof coins have been struck all around the world for a long time. Historically, Mints would strike proof coins in order to check the dies and for archival purposes. The idea was to make sure the minting process would go well once mass production started.
In the U.S. Mint, a young machinist and die maker named Adam Eckfeldt was one of their first employees. Eckfeldt used to take special care and extra time preparing the coin dies to ensure the finest quality for the first U.S. coins. Back then, however, the term “proof coin” was not generally used. They referred to these early samples as “specimen” coins.
The U.S. Mint began giving these specially treated coins as gifts to important visitors, politicians, and famous coin collectors. With time, they started selling them to the general public at a premium.
But what exactly are proof coins, and why are they so popular nowadays? Keep reading to find out more about the difference in aesthetics and in the manufacturing process between proof and regular coins.
The term proof coin refers to coins struck with a high-quality minting process. It is specifically referring to a difference in the manufacturing process. The dies are polished in order to give the blank fields a smoother, often mirror-like finish, and the design devices a frosted appearance. This visual difference between the background and the relief is called a cameo contrast.
Proofs are not produced for general circulation. As we have mentioned before, they were originally intended for checking the dies before the production of circulating coins began.
Nowadays, many mints around the world, including the US Mint, produce special gold and silver proof sets specifically for collectors or to celebrate special occasions, like commemorative coins with a proof finish, for instance.
These coins are intended for collectors. They usually come in special packaging, which generally includes protective capsules and an official Certificate of Authenticity.
The making of a proof coin starts by giving their blanks a special treatment. They are hand-polished and receive a special cleaning in order to make sure they obtain high-quality strikes. The dies also receive special polishing and are fitted into the coin press machine. Then, coins are struck at least twice to guarantee maximum design details.
It's the polishing of the dies that makes the surface of the coins look different from circulating normal coins. In addition, proof coins typically receive squared-off rims. The process of handling these coins is also very different from regular issues. Presses are hand-loaded, and coins are carefully transferred from station to station by an employee with gloves rather than just thrown into bins.
As previously mentioned, proof coins showcase an exceptional luster, making a mirror-like backdrop field (the negative space without raised elements) contrasting with the frosted devices of the design. The two pictures below represent the obverse of the American Gold Eagle, both in proof and BU versions. They should give you an idea of the visual difference:
Proof Gold American Eagle x BU Gold American Eagle
Many mints around the globe, and the U.S. Mint especially, produce mint sets and sell them mostly to coin collectors. Most proofs and collectible coins are less common for investment purposes than bullion coins.
The extra effort put into them results in extremely high-quality products, making them especially coveted by numismatists.
As the popularity and demand for proof coins increase, more and more of this kind of product is introduced into the market each year. Thus, proof coins will almost always carry higher premiums than regular coins. Nevertheless, they have a better presentation, top-notch quality, and higher scarcity.
The higher degree of detail and the fact that there are simply fewer of them in the market is a great incentive for coin collectors and numismatists. If you are thinking of coin collecting, you should consider adding a few of these items to your collection.
The term "proof" is not an indication of the coin's grade. It is, rather, an indication of the manufacturing process, as we have covered above.
Early samples of proof coins didn't really display a cameo effect. They were made of the same metals as those for currency issues, identified only by the higher display of details on their surface.
A reverse-proof coin, as the name suggests, portrays an “inverted” finish. It has a mirror-like polish applied to the design devices in relief and frosted fields in the background. When the coin is an enhanced reverse-proof, it means an extra layer of polish has been applied to specific parts of the design to greatly increase the visibility of its fine details.
A piedfort coin is a special kind of proof coin. It has double the thickness of a regular-sized proof and, consequently, double the weight. It originated in the twelfth century in France but was also struck in Britain during the Middle Ages and until today. The reason the French and the Royal Mint would strike them so thick is not really clear. One theory is that they wanted to avoid getting them mixed with regular coins. Many dignitaries were gifted with some of them at the time.
A proof-like coin, although shinier than a regular circulating coin, is not really a proof coin. When a particularly new and brilliant planchet is fed into a recently polished die, it may result in a nicer-looking product. However, unlike real-proofs, proof-like coins will not receive any other special treatment. They are only struck once, like any other coin struck for widespread circulation. And they will often not receive any special handling throughout the rest of the production process.
As we have mentioned before, almost every country has issued proof coins. However, the United States Mint's ones are, no doubt, among the most popular today. The US Mint has produced proof sets and reverse proof sets for most of its coin programs.
The list includes, but is not limited to:
- the Lincoln penny;
- the Jefferson nickel;
- a regular and a silver proof version of the Roosevelt Dime;
- America the Beautiful Quarters;
- General Washington Crossing the Delaware River Quarter;
- a regular and a silver proof version of the Kennedy half-dollar;
- Native American $1;
- American Innovation $1;
- American Silver Eagle;
- American Gold Eagle;
- American Platinum Eagle;
- American Palladium Eagle.
U.S. Mint's Proof Set History
In 1936, the US Mint began selling proof versions of American coinage. Proofs could still be bought individually, but the mint set containing proof versions from each circulating sample started to grow in popularity.
From 1950 to 1964, the US Mint stopped selling proofs individually. Collectors could only purchase the whole set. That is the reason why all proofs from this period have the same mintage.
1964 was the last year the Philadelphia Mint produced proof sets. Until 1967, the branches of Denver, San Francisco, and West Point Mint produced them without any mint mark.
As of 1968, the San Francisco Mint took over the production of proof coinage. That is the reason why most proofs since 1968 bear the “S” mintmark. Since 1975, the main focus of the San Francisco Mint has been to produce collectible samples for collectors and investors. The proof coin set is their main product.
Ever since 1992, a Silver Proof set became a standard product in the US Mint, containing a fine silver sample in a proof version of the dime, quarter, and half-dollar. Recent years have also included a Lincoln Cent with a reverse cameo effect (reverse proof).
Bullion coins are designed for investors. Although they have a face value, their prices fluctuate according to the spot price of the day. In other words, their worth is based on their intrinsic value, or their weight and precious metal content. The US Mint doesn't sell bullion coins directly to the general public. Rather, they sell them to bullion dealers across the country, who then resell them to investors.
Proof coins are the highest quality coins the US Mint produces. Their exceptional finish derives from their manufacturing process. The extra care and effort applied in each step of their making result in a superb finish, often with a cameo effect, where the design devices are frosted, and the fields are reflective.
Uncirculated coins are produced with specially burnished blanks. They contain a soft, matte-like finish. Although more brilliant than regular circulated coins, uncirculated coins don't quite display the cameo effect of proofs. As the name suggests, they are also not intended for investment purposes. They come with an official Certificate of Authenticity.
Circulating coins are struck for general circulation and everyday transactions. They are sold directly by the United States Mint in rolls, bags, and boxes and do not carry a Certificate of Authenticity. They are also made of base metals such as copper and nickel.
Proof is a term that refers to the coin's method of minting, not its condition. It is a result of burnished planchets with specially polished dies, giving the fields a mirrored effect and the design a frosted look.
Mint state or mint condition, however, refers to the coin's grading or how well-preserved the coin is. Grading services use the term MS (mint-state) to grade an uncirculated coin from perfectly preserved to bearing very few marks. However, if someone says one coin is in “mint condition,” they are referring to how well-preserved this coin is, even if it hasn't gone through a grading process.
This is a Proof 1998 Washington Quarter
This is a 1998 Washington Quarter in Mint Condition
Grading services certify proofs ranging from PR or PF 60 to 70 (for a total of eleven grades).
Both uncirculated and proof specimens tend to be collectible coins.
Reverse-proofs contain the mirror-like effect equally applied on every piece of the device, while the fields receive a frosty look. In other words, the visual effects are inverted relative to regular proofs.
Learn more on What is a Reverse Proof Coin and Reverse Proof Finish
On an enhanced reverse-proof, the idea is the same. However, different layers of polish are applied to different parts of the design. That greatly increases the visual details on some specific parts of the design, giving it a livelier look.
What Are the Advantages of Collecting or Investing in Uncirculated Coins?
Uncirculated coins go through a more careful process than regular circulated coins. This results in more brilliant features on their surface. Therefore, uncirculated coins could be a better option if you want to keep them on display. Numismatists and coin enthusiasts who enjoy studying the fine details of the design will enjoy the shinier look.
Are Proof Coins A Good Investment?
Proofs are specifically intended for collecting, not investment. They usually carry a higher premium than other coins due to the extra effort that is put into their manufacturing process. That also means that more often than not, you will be able to obtain a better price than a BU coin when reselling it. In addition, proofs from bullion coins, like American Eagle gold and silver coins, are precious metals. Therefore, they will always be worth, at least, their weight in silver or gold. Just remember that every investment involves risk to some extent.
How do you tell if a coin is a proof?
Proofs are sold in a set or protective capsule and come with a Certificate of Authenticity, which describes their basic characteristics. Also, you can identify them by analyzing the mirror-like finish on the fields and the frosted look on the devices. There is a clear contrast between the reflective backdrop and the matte design impressions. That is called the cameo effect.
Are Proof coins worth more?
Overall, yes. Proofs receive extra layers of polish and multiple strikes and are specially handled during the production process. This extra care and effort that is put into their making translates into higher premiums over the spot price. Thus, the final price will generally be higher than regular BU coin types.
What is a Reverse Proof Coin?
As the moniker suggested, the reverse proof is a coin produced with the inverted visual effects of a regular proof piece. Dies and planchets receive special treatment, but opposingly, they aim to showcase a frosted background contrasting with the mirror-like effect equally applied on every piece of the design device.
What is a Proof Set Coin?
It is a special coin composition prepared by Mints in limited editions that includes proof versions of the samples released in a particular year. They are usually popular among collectors because the purchase of a proof set tends to be more affordable than acquiring each coin released singularly, one at a time.
What is the difference between Proof and Uncirculated Coins?
A Proof specimen displays an exceptional finish, often with a cameo effect, where the design details are frosted and the fields are reflective. Opposingly, an Uncirculated coin does not feature the cameo effect. It showcases a satin look resulting from a matte-like finish that covers the entire surface of the coin, including the design details.