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Collecting Classic Proof Coins of the 1817 to 1916 Era
(work in progress!)

by Mike Nourse

            As this report is being written in early 2003, Proof coins of the 1817 to 1916 era are a fairly quiet segment of the coin market. In fact, these wonderful coins have now spent more than a decade out of the spotlight, on the numismatic back burner if you will. For collectors who do not wish to chase what is currently ‘hot’, this presents an opportunity to build a collection of these gems at reasonable, even depressed prices.

            Virtually all collections of classic Proof coins can be placed in one of the four categories, which I have detailed below. Your collection (or future collection) may or may not fit in one of these categories; it does not matter as long as you enjoy it. We will also look at some things to consider when buying classic Proof coins, mostly having to do with condition. Lastly we will have an entire section devoted to the extremely rare pre-1858 issues, where original mintages are only one or two digits in length.

            Be aware that none of these classic Proof coins can truly be called common. They can only be considered common when compared with other coins within the classic Proof universe. Even the highest production early Proof coin had a mintage that is a mere 1/70th of the famous and desirable 1909-S V.D.B. Lincoln cent! Even more amazing, and not known by the majority of coin collectors, is that among pre-1855 Proof coins, the incredibly famous 1804 Draped Bust silver dollar is one of the more common issues!

To further capture your attention, I will inform you that a grand total of only 496,000 Proof coins were produced in all denominations of one cent through one dollar, in all years from 1858 through 1916 combined! (See Table 1) That is 496,000 coins spread out over 9 denominations and 59 years. Even if every one of those 496,000 coins had survived to the present day (they haven't!), that is still only enough for one classic Proof coin for every 600 people in the United States! No matter how you slice it, these are very scarce coins. And that is a major part of their charm and appeal.

For comparison purposes, 3,024,100 10-piece, 959,500 5-piece, and 899,000 silver Proof sets were produced in the year 2000. That is a whopping 44 million Proof coins minted in that one year alone! I have a hard time getting excited about coins minted in such huge quantities even if they are in Proof-70 Ultra Cameo slabs.

 

Collecting classic Proof coins is not all that different from collecting any other coins, whether they are United States or foreign issues. In general, a collection of coins will fall into one of four categories:

 

  1. A type set (one coin of each distinct design).
  2. A complete set of one series (i.e. Proof Liberty nickels 1883 through 1912).
  3. A complete set of all Proof coins, one cent through one dollar, from 1858 to 1916.
  4. A random accumulation of Proof coins minted between 1858 and 1916.

 

The specific characteristics of a collection of classic Proof coins are as varied as the people who collect them. There are so many possibilities with these wonderful coins that no two collections will be exactly alike.

 

Type Set

 

A type set is a collection that contains only one example of each design produced for each denomination, without regard for the date of the coin. In the case of proof coins of the 1858 to 1916 era, a basic type set would contain 20 coins, each of which is noticeably different. An expanded type set could contain as many as 34 coins. What is the difference? Lets look at the one cent denomination as an example. The basic type set would have three coins, made up of one Proof flying eagle cent, an Indian cent, and a Lincoln cent. The expanded type set would have six one cent pieces: a single flying eagle cent, a 1859 Indian head cent with no shield on the reverse, a copper-nickel Indian cent with a shield and oak wreath on the reverse, a bronze Indian cent, a 1909 VDB Lincoln cent, and any 1909-1916 Lincoln cent with no VDB on the reverse.

There is a lot of flexibility in deciding how far to expand a type set. Returning to our cent example above, some collectors may not consider the 1909 VDB Lincoln cent to be a separate type and therefore will choose not to include one in their expanded type set. There is no right or wrong way to build a type set, and it is completely up to the builder as to which sub-types should be included in an expanded type set. You can always expand the set later as you wish.

In fact, a type set is a great start toward a larger set in the future. You may really be fascinated by the three Indian cent types and therefore decide to continue on toward building the entire 52 or 53 piece Indian cent set. Perhaps that large, beautiful seated Liberty dollar will inspire you to build the whole 16 piece set.

I do have one piece of advice to pass along here, and it actually applies no matter whether you are building a Proof type set or a business strike type set. Try to avoid buying the most common coin available within each type. With a little effort you will find that you can often get a much scarcer coin than the most common date for little or no premium. This may take some effort on your part to figure out where the best value lies. As an example, we will look at seated Liberty half dimes with the legend on the obverse, which were minted from 1860 to 1873. A glance at the mintage figures will show the 1863 half dime to be the lowest mintage year of this type with 460 pieces made. A bit more digging will show that melting at the mint during this era has really changed the landscape though. As it turns out, the scarcest coin of this type is really the 1861, which is actually tied for the highest original mintage at 1000 pieces. The scarcity of this date is confirmed by the population reports from both NGC and PCGS. Price-wise, the 1861 carries almost no premium in Proof-63, about a 35% premium in Proof-64, and under a 20% premium in Proof-65 when compared with the least expensive coin of this type. To me, this seems to be a simple and minimally expensive way to add a lot of interest and real value to you type set!

A popular option for type set collecting is to acquire the first year of issue for each type. For instance, one would seek to obtain an 1892 dated Barber dime, quarter, and half dollar. This adds another layer of structure to your type set, which some people like. An added benefit to this methodology, which is rarely considered, is that first year coins end to be of exceptional quality as extra care was often taken in their production. Additionally, the dies from the first year are made from brand new master hubs and master dies which have not yet been used enough to start losing any of the fine design details. High demand at the time of release of a new design means that first year of issue Proof coins are usually reasonably available, thus reasonably priced.

 

Let’s take a look at the various series that are involved.

 

Flying Eagle cents: A date set would include three coins, 1856, 1857, and 1858, though many collectors choose to include both the small and large letter varieties of the 1858 coins, increasing the set size to four pieces. The popularity of the 1856 coin is undisputable, but it should be noted that the 1856 is by far the most common of the four coins, by a factor of ten! In grades of Proof-63 and better, all four pieces are priced at similar levels, though I consider the 1856 to be somewhat overvalued and the other three to be undervalued. Total mintage for the series is 2,265 pieces among the four issues. Of course the 1856 and 1857 issues are really pre-1858 issues, but we have chosen to include them with the 1858 and later sets, as the flying eagle cents are often lumped together with the Indian head cents. This also keeps all of the small cents together in one collection.

 

Indian Head cents: Indian cents are the most plentiful and the least expensive of all classic Proof coins. A total of 101,900 coins were minted among the three sub-types and a total of 52 issues not including the optional 1864-L. We must remember here that copper is a very unforgiving metal, and that although the original mintage is large, a great many of these coins have met their fate with copper polish and are no longer in collectable condition! This is a set that can be completed in a reasonable period of time, and without mortgaging the house for any super rare coins. The always popular 1877 is the most expensive coin needed, but they are available, and currently undervalued in my opinion. I should note that the 1859 Indian cent is one of my all time favorite Proof coins. It is not a rare issue by any means, but it is a one year type coin, in constant demand, and the best representative of what the Indian cent was originally intended to look like.

 

Lincoln cents: Nine issues including the 1909 VDB, with a total mintage of 15,315 pieces. Fairly inexpensive coins due to the lack of popularity of the matte finish combined with reasonably large mintages. The 1909 VDB is a bit pricey, and deservedly so, due to it’s one year type status and a low mintage of only 420 pieces. A case could clearly be made that the 1909 VDB is currently undervalued as they are not readily available and it may take some searching to find a specimen.

 

Two cents: Reasonable prices combined with reasonable mintages are the story here. Prices would be quite a bit higher if more people collected Proof two cent pieces as the ten piece set rather than just desiring a single type coin. Only 7,190 pieces were made over the course of ten years. Optional coins include the 1864 small motto and 1873 open 3 varieties, but adding that extra 1864 variety adds a great deal to the expense of the set. It is very hard to locate a specimen, and it will cost four times as much as the rest of the set combined.

 

Three Cents Silver: These little flakes of silver are the smallest and lightest coins regularly issued in the United States. Apparently, in their day, they were referred to as 'fish scales', which is not far off the mark. The original mintage is small as well, with only 10,940 having been made in all years from 1858 through 1873 combined, a total of 16 issues. There are a total of three sub-types to the three cent silver series, but only two of them apply when discussing the Proof issues of 1858 forward. The 1858 three cent piece, with a mintage of only 100 pieces, is the sole representative of the type two design needed for this set. The type two design features three lines around the outside of the star on the obverse, while the later type three coins have no lines at all around the star. The status of the 1858 coin as the least expensive type two Proof has put quite a bit of pressure on them, hence they do not come cheap, and are by a wide margin the most expensive coin needed for the 1858 and later three cent silver Proof set. Otherwise, these little coins are quite affordable given their mintages. Only the 1873 is notable among the type three issues as a Proof-only issue, and therefore in demand from collectors whether they are building a business strike set or a Proof set. Two optional coins exist in the form of two overdates, the 1863 3 over 2, and the 1869 9 over 8 varieties. These are neat overdates, but a bit overpriced, and certainly not required for completion of the Proof silver three cent set.

 

Three cents nickel: High mintages and a decent survival rate combine to make a set that is easy to complete. Values are reasonable, and there are no bank account cleaners here, optional or otherwise. The Proof only 1877 issue is a bit pricey, but deservedly so. Not only is it a Proof only date, but it also has the second lowest mintage of all the Proof three cent pieces, just missing the top honors by ten pieces to the 1865, with mintages of 510 and 500 pieces respectively. The other somewhat pricey issue in this series is the 1865 although this one is not deserved. It does have the lowest Proof mintage of the series, but most of the mintages of the later 1860’s through mid 1870’s are only marginally higher, and the same goes for the number of survivors. Additionally there is no pressure on the 1865 from date collectors as there are plenty of Uncirculated business strikes available. I consider three cent nickels to be fairly valued at current levels as they are readily available, except that the 1877 is a bit undervalued and the 1865 is overvalued. Totally, a generous 55,900 coins were produced in Proof format over the course of 25 issues and an optional 26th, the 1887/6. These are cute coins, readily available in both average and high quality, and form a neat set when completed. The odd and curious denomination only adds to their desirability!

 

Seated Liberty Half Dimes: Only 10,940 Proofs were struck among the 16 different issues made from 1858 through the end of the series in 1873. Prices are reasonable, though not cheap, given the low mintages and age of the coins. There are two sub-types in this series, the 1858 and 1859 coins with stars on the obverse and the 1860 and later pieces with the legend moved to the obverse. The two star obverse coins are the only two toughies to handle price-wise, although they will not send you to the poor house either. Actually, all dates take a significant jump in price between Proof-64 and Proof-65 grades, so keep that in mind as you are deciding what grade to build this set in.

 

Shield nickels: Readily available and therefore reasonably affordable for century old Proof coins. Two sub-types are noted, those with rays on the reverse made in 1866 and 1867, and those without rays made from 1867 to the end of the series in 1883. As with the three cent nickels, the 1877 and 1878 coins are only available in Proof format. Only two of the essential coins are notably pricey: the 1877 and the 1866. The 1866 is not only the lowest mintage by far of the 19 essential coins, but it experiences extra pressure from Proof type collectors who need to own an example of a Proof shield nickel with rays on the reverse. Combining these factors, I consider the 1866 to be the most undervalued Proof shield nickel. Two optional coins are also listed in most references and price guides. The first is the 1867 with rays variety, which would probably be considered an essential part of the set if it was more available. However, it is very rare and brutally expensive, hence you may consider your set complete with just the 1867 no rays issue. The other optional coin is the 1879/8 issue, which is almost equally available as the regular 1879, but is listed separately in many price guides. Given the great number of die varieties in the shield nickel series, it makes little sense that this one gets so much publicity, but it may be included as part of a Proof set of shield nickels if so desired.

 

Liberty Head Nickels: Heavily produced to the extent of 85,150 coins, and therefore very affordable. The only date of any note at all is the 1885, which is no scarcer than any of the other dates, yet it commands a premium price due to the expense of circulated and Mint State coins of the same date. Even though the complete set contains 31 coins, it is still one of the least expensive sets to put together, and would make a fine choice as a first set for a collector to put together in Proof condition. There are two well known sub varieties for the 1883 coins, those with cents on the lower reverse and those without cents. As Liberty nickel sets are universally collected with both coins, I have included them both as essential coins for a complete set.

 

Buffalo Nickels: Only five coins are needed here, two 1913's, a 1914, 1915, and a 1916. There is an optional sixth coin, the 1917, but these are expensive and very hard to find. The two 1913's are comprised of the well known type one coins in which the buffalo stands on a mound of dirt along with a type two example in which the buffalo has wandered on to a paved surface which protects the words 'five cents' below. Overall mintages were neither high nor low with a total of 5,950 pieces produced, but prices are notably higher than the Proof shield and liberty nickels due to the popularity of the design. They are actually overpriced in my opinion, but I do not see the prices coming down, as buffalo nickels are unlikely to fade into obscurity as the two preceding nickel series have managed to do. Only the 1913 type one coin could be considered fairly priced or even under priced due to demand by builders of type sets, since it carries only a small premium over the other dates in Proof. Besides, in Proof format, the 1913 type one gives you the sharpest possible example of what James Earl Fraser intended the buffalo nickel to look like!

 

Seated Liberty Dimes: A fairly large set consisting of 35 coins, which includes both the with-arrows and without arrows varieties for 1873. There are actually three sub-types needed for those of you working on an expanded type set. As with half dimes, stars were located around the perimeter on the obverse through 1859 to be replaced in 1860 with the legend. Additionally, in 1873 and 1874, arrows were added to the obverse on the sides of the date to indicate that a reduction in weight had occurred. Prices are again reasonable given the age of the coins, original mintages, and number melted. As you can imagine, the most expensive pieces are the 1858 and 1859, along with the 1873 and 1874 with arrows coins. I consider some of the dates in the early and mid 1860's to be undervalued due to extremely low business strike mintages. Take a look at the prices of some of those dates in Good-4, and consider that a Proof-64 may only cost about four times as much. Wow! And it is not like they made Proofs in any great quantity then either, as Proof mintages hover around the 500 mark. A total of 26,270 coins were minted, but always remember that a number (unfortunately unknown) of those were not sold in the year produced, and thus were melted down.

 

Barber Dimes: Not much to say here. The coins, mintages, and prices are fairly uniform from the start in 1892 through the end in 1916. Prices are fair given the number produced combined with their popularity in Proof condition. Just be aware that there is a fairly significant jump in price between Proof-64 and Proof-65 condition. Twenty four pieces are needed to build the complete set, and a total of 17,350 pieces were made in Proof format.

 

Twenty Cent Pieces: A short set of four neat coins. There are enough subtle design differences between the seated Liberty twenty cent piece and the other denominations using this motif to keep things interesting. The most notable design difference is that the letters in the word Liberty on the shield are raised rather than sunk in to the design. On the reverse, you will find the same eagle that appears on the trade dollar. Total mintage was 5,000 pieces in Proof. They are expensive, particularly the Proof only issues of 1877 and 1878, so even though it is a short set, it will require a not insignificant financial outlay. Prices really leap upward as the grade improves from Proof-64 to Proof-65. It would be interesting to know how the twenty cent piece was regarded back in its day. I have read that it was unpopular due to its similarity to the quarter of the day, similar to the Susan B. Anthony dollar of the late 1970's and early 1980's. However, I have a hard time believing this, as a large percentage of twenty cent pieces are worn down into About Good, Good, and Very Good conditions, indicating that they actually did circulate quite a bit. Anthony dollars did not circulate, and even 100 years from now that will be obvious by the lack of low grade specimens. But, even though the evidence indicates that they did in fact circulate quite a bit, only about 1,350,000 coins total were made at a time when the United States had a population of 45 million people, so they certainly were not used by the average citizen on a regular basis. Hard to determine exactly what the real story is here. Collectors of the 1870's obviously liked them enough to convince the mint to continue their manufacture for two years after they ceased to be made for use in commerce.

 

Seated Liberty Quarters: The second large seated Liberty collection. As with the dimes, there are 35 coins in the complete set with two 1873's. Expanded type set collectors need three seated quarters, but this time the major change takes place on the reverse. A pre-1866 example is needed to show the reverse without the motto 'In God We Trust' on the reverse, and an 1866 or later coin is needed to show the addition of this feature. The third coin needed is an 1873 or 1874 issue displaying the arrows next to the date. Total production over the 34 years was 27,770 pieces.

 

Barber Quarters: Like the dimes, this is a fairly uniform set, although the last three years, 1913, 1914, and 1915 are priced somewhat higher than the earlier years. I like the 1913 issue due to the scarcity and value of the business strike issues. As for prices, there is again a sizable jump in price between the Proof-64 and Proof-65 grades, though it is not as severe on a percentage basis as is the case with dimes. Totally there are 24 pieces needed for the complete set, with an original production of 17,300 coins.

 

Seated Liberty Half Dollars: Again, 35 coins are needed for this set, which includes two 1873's. Design changes parallel the quarter denomination, and we need the same three pieces for the expanded type set: a no motto piece, a with motto piece, and a with arrows specimen. There are no super scarce items in this set, though the with-arrows coins are a bit pricey due to type set demand. A really impressive set could be built by a collector (with the financial means) that would include the three 35 piece sets of seated Liberty coinage: the dimes, quarters and halves. It will take some searching, but the coins should all turn up in a reasonable period of time. The full 105 piece collection would be guaranteed to capture a fair bit of attention, even from non-collectors! One could later consider adding the seated half dimes, twenty cent pieces, and dollars for a complete seated Liberty Proof set.

 

Barber Half Dollars: Same story as the other Barber series', uniformity, though I like the 1910 and 1913 due to the scarcity of the business strikes. Again there are 24 issues in the complete set with an original production of 17,310 coins. Taking the Barber dimes, quarters, and halves together, you end up with a really impressive group of 72 coins. It can be done, if you have the financial ability, as there are no rarities to hold you back. This 72 piece set is a guaranteed attention getter at a coin club meeting or as a display at a show.

 

Seated Liberty Dollars: A fairly short set of sixteen pieces, but very, very impressive when complete! All seated Liberty dollars are scarce, with estimates ranging widely between 30,000 and 120,000 coins remaining in existence at this time from an original mintage of 6.5 million business strikes (1840-1873) and 11,470 Proofs (1858-1873). There are many single issues from the Morgan and Peace dollar series with a higher mintage than all years of the seated dollars combined. Prices remain reasonable (all things considered) for seated dollars only because few people choose to collect them. In Proof condition, they are expensive, but worth the high price. I cannot imagine any great downward revision to their current values except possibly in Proof-65 grade, which has a high premium above the lower grades. Mintages are about the same as they are in the other seated Liberty series minted during those years. There is one rarity in the 1858 to 1873 Proof set and that is the first year, the 1858. It was produced only in Proof format, and only to the extent of 300 pieces. Expect to pay a healthy price for one of these coins, but again it is worth it for such a rare and desirable coin. Expanded type set collectors will need two coins, one made prior to 1866 with no motto above the eagle on the reverse and an 1866 or later coin with the motto present. A complete set of Proof seated Liberty dollars is a real showpiece, and a set to be very proud of!

 

Morgan Dollars: Very popular in business strike format and pretty much ignored as Proofs. What else is new. Actually it is cheaper to build the 28 piece Proof set than it is to assemble the complete 97 piece Mint State set. There is one standout in this Proof set, and it just so happens that the 'King of Morgan Dollars' is a Proof: the 1895 Proof-only issue. As far as Proofs go, the 1895 is an unremarkable coin that would never get any particular notice if it were not a Proof-only date. It's mintage of 880 pieces is just about average for the Proof Morgan dollar series, and it seems to have a higher than average survival rate. Be that as it may, you must be prepared to shell out nothing short of a small fortune to acquire one of those 1895 dollars, but it is considered an essential part of the Proof set. Also considered essential are both varieties of 1878 dollars, one with seven tail feathers on the eagle as well as one with eight tail feathers. While the difference between the two is fairly minor, Morgan dollar collectors have been putting both varieties in their sets for so long now that it is considered to be standard to have both varieties. There are, however, four optional coins. The first is the 1878 coin with seven tail feathers using what is referred to the reverse of 1879 or slanted arrow feather reverse. Like the seven and eight feather varieties previously mentioned, the difference is minor, but in this case the cost to acquire a specimen is enormous so we will consider it optional. The other three optional pieces were produced much later: the 1921 Chapman and Zerbe Proofs along with the 1922 high relief Peace dollar Proof. These are not standard issues so they end up in the optional basket. The 1921 Zerbe Proof is somewhat affordable at about double the price of a common date, but the other two are very expensive. Besides that, the status of these three later dollars as Proofs is rather questionable. Of the regular issue coins made from 1878 through 1904, a total of 23,740 coins were minted.

 

Trade Dollars: Eleven coins are needed for the typical set of Proof trade dollars with two additional optional coins. The optional coins are regarded as some of the great rarities of United States numismatics, the 1884 and 1885 Proof-only issues. Mintages are all of ten pieces for the 1884 and five pieces for the 1885. These coins are actually part of the regular set, but are reduced to optional status due to their obvious rarity and enormous expense. If you own one or plan to get one of either of these dates, that is a sure fire way into the numismatic record books as the pedigree of these coins is closely followed. Undervalued coins in this series include the five Proof-only issues from 1879 through 1883. These coins are no more common than the 1895 Morgan dollar but are priced at a level of only one tenth of their more famous cousin. Their only crime is that they are trade dollars, which are not nearly so widely collected as the Morgan dollars. Total mintage for all Proof trade dollars is 11,400 pieces.

 

Complete Set of Proof Coins 1858 to 1916

 

This is a massive undertaking by any measure! The set, when complete, will contain a minimum of 423 coins (!) across 9 denominations and 20 major design types. Obviously, this will require a large financial commitment on the part of the builder, and will require a fair bit of time before success is achieved. The final result will be an incredibly impressive set that any collector should be proud to own.

Grade is an important consideration. For the most part, it is inadvisable to include in a set like this any coins graded under Proof-63, as there is not an exceptionally large jump in price between Proof-60 and Proof-63, and virtually all post-1858 dates are reasonably available in Proof-63 or better. Prices go up moderately between proof-63 and Proof-64, though they tend to double among the seated Liberty coins. A jump to Proof-65 will easily double the cost of the set over a Proof-64 set, as many seated Liberty coins double and triple in value. The available supply of coins is lower up here so the time needed to build the set will increase accordingly.

 

Random Accumulation

 

            This is a kind of catch all category for any group of classic Proof coins that is not either a type set, a series set, or a complete collection. As negative as the title ‘random accumulation’ sounds, this is where a collector has the most freedom to build whatever kind of collection he or she desires. Here is a look at a very few of the unlimited possibilities.

            Date sets are always popular. A date may be chosen based on interest factor (the year 1873 saw a large, diverse array of coins minted) or significance (I was born in 1966 and would thus like to build an 1866 Proof set). Maybe an ancestor of yours first arrived in the United States in 1881 and was married in 1885; there are two more possibilities. Possibly you want examples of the very first Proof coins produced for sale to the public, and therefore will seek to build an 1858 Proof set.

            Error and variety collecting has really caught on in recent years with the Cherrypickers series of books by Bill Fivaz and J. T. Stanton. There are plenty of varieties to be found among the classic Proofs including numerous misplaced and repunched dates. Errors are few and far between because these coins were struck one by one and reasonably thoroughly inspected before being released for sale. However, a fair number of struck through errors have escaped, in which a piece of cloth, wire, or other debris came between a coin and the dies leaving a depressed imprint on the coin.

            For those who want something more technical, you can build a set showing a variety of die states for a particular issue. Pick a high mintage issue such as the 1881 three cent nickel. Search for about five to ten coins that show a progression from sharp, brand new dies all the way through worn, heavily polished dies that have had some design elements polished completely away and show die erosion around the lettering and other fine details.

            Proof coins, due to their exceptionally delicate and fragile surfaces, tone easier than their frosty circulation strike counterparts. And this toning, quite often, is superb! You can start on the deep red end of the spectrum and attempt to gather all of the colors right through violet. Virtually all colors exist on Proof coins so you should be able to gather together quite a rainbow.

            If you want even less structure, simply buy any classic Proof coin that strikes you as being unusually attractive! This is about as random and unorganized as you can get, but who cares as long as you like the coins!

 

Things to consider

 

Slabbing

 

            Some collectors like slabs, and some collectors despise them. Most people at least tolerate them. However, whether you like them or not, the fact is that they are here to stay in one form or another. Additionally, the vast majority of nice coins are now entombed in plastic. When an old time collection hits the market, virtually all of the nice coins are headed straight to the grading services.

            My own view is that the positives outweigh the negatives. Probably the best thing the slabs have to offer is physical protection of the enclosed coin. I have dropped coins before and so have you. I would much rather get a cracked slab than a nasty edge ding on a nice seated dollar.

            The authentication guarantee offered by any reputable grading service is another big plus as counterfeiters continue to improve their product. There is also a guarantee that the grade is accurate, but as grading is so subjective, I consider this to be of limited value.

            What is the downside to slabs? As far as I can see, the biggest one is that there is no size standard, and I do not see one coming any time soon. This makes storage and display somewhat problematical if you have coins slabbed by several different services. As for size, I think that ANACS has the best slab as it is large enough to hold most any coin without being any larger or thicker than necessary.

            Even if you do not like slabs at all, still consider buying slabbed coins. It is not terribly difficult to remove them from their plastic houses for display and storage in whatever manner you see fit. One note though, I advise retaining the little paper insert with the grade and other info on it. You may not care what that paper says, but it cannot hurt to have it when you or your heirs go to sell the coin. You may even want to consider a scan or picture of the coin in the slab before you break it out, making it easier to prove that a particular coin really is matched to a particular paper insert.

            One warning about buying raw (not slabbed) coins is needed here. If you are not adept at identifying cleaned coins, then you are much better off to stick with slabbed coins as a rule. There are more cleaned Proof coins out there than un-cleaned ones, so it is imperative that you can tell the difference if you are buying raw coins. Some cleaned coins make it into slabs, but generally no whizzed or really harshly cleaned ones.

 

Grade

 

            When building a set of coins, it is not necessary that the grades match exactly. Of course you probably do not want a wild mix of Proof-60 to Proof-68 coins in one set, but a reasonable range of Proof-63 to Proof-65 or Proof-64 to Proof-66 should work fine. The grades that you choose will primarily be based on budget. Proof-67 Ultra Cameo coins sure are beautiful, but most people can not afford to assemble complete sets of that kind of material. Just as well, since such specimens are few and far between among old Proof coins.

            Do not be afraid of lower grade coins. There are some very decent coins sitting in Proof-60, -61, and –62 slabs. Some of these may have a ding in a well hidden location or on the rim where it is not so noticeable in the slab. Maybe the coin has some hairlines from an old cleaning that are only visible when it is held at just the right angle under a powerful light. The moral of the story is that not all coins in low grade slabs are ‘junk’. You do not need to spend a fortune to get a decent coin.

            Of course, if you are working on a registry set, then your problem is solved. Simply go for the highest numerical grade you can find.

 

Color

 

            Copper coins are normally divided into the three categories of Brown, Red and Brown, and Red. With the classic Proof coins now between 85 and 185 years old, there are not very many Red pieces remaining in existence. That, combined with their obvious desirability, leads to high prices for full Red coins.

            As desirable and attractive as Red copper coins are, I think the best values are to be found among the Brown or Red and Brown pieces. Any toned copper pieces are classified as Brown or Red and Brown even though the toning may not show any brown color at all. Indian cents in particular often have fascinating greens, purples, pinks, and oranges visible under a light. So for a lower price you can get a coin that has a unique array of colors that have taken a century to form.

            Copper coins are very unforgiving when they are cleaned. They become a strange sickly orange color that usually re-tones to an unnatural blah brown color. While a light cleaning usually does not permanently kill a nickel or silver coin, cleaned copper Proof coins are just plain unattractive and should be avoided. There are plenty of decent, un-cleaned specimens around to keep prices reasonable on most post-1864 issues.

            Nickel coins are probably best collected in either brilliant or lightly toned format. Overall, nickel coins tend to tone toward a dull tan or gray color which is just not too exciting. Occasionally, some more desirable colors come along, such as powder blue, but these are somewhat scarce. The really dull pieces should generally be avoided as there are plenty of brilliant to lightly toned pieces to go around.

            Silver coins react readily with the various elements in the air to produce just about any color you can think of! Many (if not most) collectors prefer bright white silver coins, but I think the toned pieces are far more interesting. Each one is unique. A lot of collectors are easily scared away from deeply toned coins, but under a light you may find that a deeply toned silver coin has some of the most outrageous colors imaginable! As with anything else, this is strictly a decision that the collector must make on his or her own in deciding whether to focus on white silver coins, toned silver coins, or a mixture of both.

 

Valuation

 

What about future price appreciation potential? As this involves predicting the future, nobody really knows. The last numismatic bull market ended in 1989 as it became apparent that huge amounts of Wall Street money were not about to enter the coin market. Something of a speculative bubble was in play at that time which sent values through the roof, particularly for slabbed coins grading Mint State 65 and Proof 65 or better. Prices have since dropped by as much as 90% from those levels.

            After collectible coin values tumbled from the peak of 1989, they stabilized and have remained fairly flat for the last five to seven years. There has overall been little movement either up or down for classic Proof coins in general. This seems to imply that a base has been put in place for prices and that price levels can not go much lower from here, though anything is possible. Prices will eventually go up, but nobody can ever know when, until it actually happens.

            But what happened during the last big surge in prices in the late 1980’s? The so called ‘investment grade’ Mint State 65 and Proof 65 or better coins simply exploded in value. Coins graded 63 and 64 went up a lot, but not as much as the 65’s. Activity was minimal in the 60 to 62 grades. We will have to wait to see what happens the next time prices start advancing upward.

 

Research Available

 

            This will be a brief discussion because there is little to discuss! The only book dedicated to classic Proof coinage is now a quarter of a century old: Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of United States and Colonial Proof Coins 1722-1977, by Walter Breen, published in 1977 and updated in 1989. Some information is available in books written about specific series, but the Proof coins more often than not receive little more attention than a notation that they exist and how many were minted.

            Auction catalogs from the major auction houses often contain small informational footnotes about some of the coins, but this is kind of a slow way to search for information. Most price guides do not put much effort into pricing this material either as emphasis is placed on the listing of multiple Mint State grades. For the most part you can expect a simple chart that gives values by type only in three or four grades. The weekly periodical Coin World probably has the most thorough listing of retail prices at this time. The most comprehensive listing of values for classic Proof coins that I am aware of is in the Coin Dealer Newsletter, otherwise known as the Greysheet.

            The reality of the situation is that there is not much information out there concerning classic Proof coins. Would the publication of a major magnum opus on the subject of early Proof coins raise awareness of these coins? It certainly would, but I am not aware of anybody working on such a book. I would love to see a book with information about the number of coins still surviving in undamaged Proof condition.

 

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