By Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez for CoinWeek …..
Proof sets and uncirculated mint sets from the 1950s and early ‘60s are perennially popular among coin collectors who enjoy mid-20th-century United States coinage. Proof sets and mint sets from the so-called “Golden Era” of numismatics are hot items, showcasing Lincoln wheat cents and the classic 90% silver dimes, quarters, and halves of yesteryear.
While collectors find much to love about both the proof sets and mint sets of the era, many wonder: which is the better investment? Proof sets from 1950 through 1964, or mint sets from the same period? To answer this question, let’s look at what each has to offer the collector and examine these items in the context of the market today.
1950-1964 Proof Sets
Proof sets are a classic collector’s item but they’re also appreciated by many non-collectors, many of whom receive them as gifts from their numismatic friends and family members. Most proof coins from the 1950s and early ‘60s offer mirror-like brilliance, though deeply frosted cameo coins from that era are quite scarce. Until mid-1955, proof sets essentially consisted of five separate proof coins (the cent through the half dollar) contained within individual cellophane packets that were stapled together, wrapped in tissue, and bundled in small cardboard boxes.
Despite the conversion in 1955 of proof set packaging to a single flat, cellophane package in a manila envelope, issue prices for proof sets remained $2.10 during the entire 15 years spanning 1950 through 1964. There were very few changes to the proof coins themselves during that time; most notably, the reverse of the Lincoln cent was changed from the wheat ear design to the Lincoln Memorial motif in 1959 and John F. Kennedy replaced Benjamin Franklin on the half dollar in 1964.
All 1950-64 proof sets contain the five coins mentioned previously. All flat pack proof sets from 1955 through 1964 also feature a reflective, foil-layered pliable insert bearing the words “U.S. Mint Philadelphia,” where all proof coins were struck prior to 1968.
1951-1964 Mint Sets
First, let’s point out the fact that no uncirculated sets were issued in 1950 – one of just three years since 1947 that the government hasn’t produced an official mint set (1982 and 1983 being the others).
Uncirculated sets made from 1951 through 1958, like their 1947-49 counterparts, contain two examples of each issue. 1951 marked the first time during the official mint set era that all three then-operating mints (Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco) produced all five denominations.
These pre-1959 uncirculated sets were housed in cardboard panels, with the coins from each mint in its own holder. The 1951 coin set, for example, contains 30 coins – two Lincoln cents, two Jefferson nickels, two Roosevelt dimes, two Washington quarters, and two Franklin half dollars from each of the three mints. These so-called double mint sets left intact within their original cardboard holders are quite scarce today.
When the San Francisco mint stopped producing circulating coinage in 1956, the number of coins in each set shrank to 18, as only Philadelphia produced half dollars that year. In 1957 and ‘58, all five denominations were made in both Philly and the “Mile High City” of Denver, making a total of 20 coins in mint sets during those two years. By contrast, mint sets packaged from 1959 through 1964 contain only 10 coins – one example of each denomination from the Philadelphia and Denver mints.
Differences in the packaging itself also distinguish the pre-’59 mint sets from those that came after. In 1959, the United States Mint began issuing uncirculated sets in color-coded cellophane packages, with blue-striped packages containing Philadelphia Mint coins and red-striped sets for the Denver coins. Each five-coin set in these early cellophane packages also contains a plastic blue- or red-themed chip, respectively. When San Francisco issued circulating coins (1968-81), S-mint coins were packaged in the red cellophane sets along with the Denver coins.
Issue prices for mint sets varied widely during the 1951-58 period, primarily due to the number of coins in a given year’s set. The following table lists the issue prices for mint sets from 1951 through 1958:
From 1959 through 1964, the issue price of the 10-coin mint sets, each containing $1.82 in face value, remained at a steady $2.40.
Classic Proof Sets vs. Mint Sets as Investments
During the height of the coin collecting boom of the mid-1950s through the early ‘60s, a collector could readily buy proof sets or mint sets directly from the U.S. Mint and turn them around to the nearest coin dealer for a profit of perhaps 50 cents to one dollar. The market was hot and collectors craved modern coins. There was virtually nothing to lose back then buying proof sets and mint sets.
Compared to their original issue prices, the mint sets and proof sets of the 1950s and early ‘60s have held up relatively well over the decades. Here’s a breakdown of proof sets and mint sets, along with their original issue prices and values as of 2015:
In the case of mint sets and proof sets made between 1960 and 1964, all have beaten inflation at current levels, and value percentage increases look even stronger for those sets when silver bullion prices hit near-record highs around 1980 and more recently in 2011.
What’s the Better Investment?
Granted, looking at coins and other mint products purely from the profit angle seems to go against the spirit of collecting. However, many hobbyists prefer to spend their hard-earned money on items that stand a good chance of increasing in value over time.
So the question is: what’s the better buy from an investment standpoint? 1950-64 proof sets or 1951-64 mint sets?
In a nutshell, proof sets and mint sets represent a stagnant sector of the coin market. More specifically, proof sets and mint sets from the early 1960s have seen relatively little upward price activity aside from fluctuations in the bullion market. A look back through time tells more of the story.
In 1980, as silver bullion prices were edging off historic highs of nearly $50 an ounce, values for the 1961-64 proof sets (the most common of the pre-1968 proof products) ranged from $23 to $27. By 1999, when silver prices hovered around $5.25 an ounce, one could buy any of the 1961-64 proof sets for $9 each. Today, with silver prices hovering around $15 an ounce, those same proof sets sell for roughly $25. That is essentially the same nominal value as these sets were worth in the early ‘80s, yet given inflation they are worth less than half as much now as back then.
The 1959-64 uncirculated sets have followed a similar track.
In 1980, they went for between $45 to $50 – about twice as much as their proof set counterparts, which contained half as much silver. By 1999, the 1959-61 sets dropped to a mere $20 in price, while the 1962-64 sets, the most common of the pre-1965 uncirculated sets, fell to just $10. Today, prices have adjusted to roughly $40 for uncirculated sets dated 1959-62 and $35 for the 1963 and 1964 offerings.
As with the silver proof sets, these modern-day prices are nominally akin to early 1980s levels but are essentially worth less than 50 percent of their former value due to inflation.
Earlier proof sets and mint sets haven’t fared much better. For example, in 1980 one could buy a 1950 proof set for $700. Today, that same set would cost $550. The 1955 boxed pack and flat pack proof sets haven’t performed well through the years, either. These sets, which sold for $85 and $90 respectively in 1980, can now be bought for $130 and $100–but remember, inflation has reduced this nominal value by about half.
As for earlier mint sets, the situation is a bit rosier for investors. The 1951 uncirculated set, of which a mere 8,654 were made, has increased in value from $475 in 1980 to $1,825 today. The last double mint set, from 1958, has also seen a quadrupling in price, from $100 in 1980 to $400 in 2015. In fact, all uncirculated sets from the 1951-58 period have increased by approximately threefold, if not better, since 1980. The increase in value for the 1950s sets (save 1959) can largely be attributed to collectors cutting coins out for filling holes in albums and cherrypicking specimens for slabbing. Bear in mind, the highest mintage for any pre-1959 mint set is 50,314 (1958). By 1959, production nearly quadrupled to 187,000.
Proof sets from that same era fail to show the monetary gains of their mint set counterparts largely because that specific proof market may not have as large a secondary market. Yes, investors have cut up scores of classic proof sets to submit individual gem and cameo specimens for grading, but the collector market is fairly small. Even collectors who assemble a series of coins (Franklin half dollars, for instance) don’t usually include proof issues in conventional date-and-mintmark sets; largely due to price, but also because most conventional coin album manufacturers do not make dedicated products for pre-1968 proof coinage.
In sum, the market for 1950-64 proof sets and mint sets is relatively mixed, with the investment edge going to the 1951-58 uncirculated sets. Otherwise, prices on 1950s proof sets have remained stagnant at best; values for proof sets and mint sets from approximately 1960 through 1964 have merely ebbed and flowed with fluctuations in the silver bullion market.
In other words, buyers may find opportunities with the latter 90% silver mint sets and proof sets when bullion prices are low or seem poised for future increases. However, the proof set market to date has shown little promise for those seeking long-term gains in the scarcer 1950s material. Mint sets, meanwhile, have shown greater promise over the past few decades.
Will proof sets and mint sets from the golden era of coin collecting ever be truly profitable? This is a question only time can answer. However, as evidenced, there have been some glimmers of hope. For the diehard collector who desires a complete run of proof sets and uncirculated sets spanning back to the 1950s, now may be the time to act while there is still relatively ample supply and prices remain largely affordable.
Buyers should spend considerable time looking for spot-free sets, which can be difficult to find for some years though not impossible. Any 1950s or ‘60s proof coins with frosted cameo devices are worth the effort, though premiums on those sets tend to be higher. Uncirculated set buyers should avoid coins with nicks, scratches, unsightly toning, or other obvious surface defects. Choice boxed proof sets from 1955 and before, and uncirculated sets prior to 1959 in their cardboard holders, are worth a premium and may prove to be long-term winners as attrition reduces the supply of original sets in the years to come.