By David Schwager for CoinWeek …..
An experienced collector once told me that when he started collecting a series, the first coin he bought was a proof. A proof, he explained, is the ideal version of the coin and shows the best possible expression of the artist’s and manufacturer’s vision.
Proof coins from about the American Bicentennial to the present consistently have what is known as cameo contrast. The devices (meaning the foreground or images) have a very slightly pebbled texture giving them a frosty white appearance against the mirror-like fields (meaning the background). Although common in more recent coins, proofs of 1950 – 1964 appeared as cameos only occasionally, and, like my friend, collectors prize the few that exist as ideal specimens of those issues. As an example, a 1957 proof half dollar in the most common grade of PR66 lists in the PCGS price guide at $40 USD. The same coin with a PR66 Deep Cameo designation earns more than 10 times as much at $550.
Early modern proofs, made from 1936 under production suspended in 1942, had uniformly shiny surfaces, usually known as “brilliant”. When proof production restarted in 1950, the United States Mint put effort into creating cameo coins. Each die was “pickled” in a nitric acid / alcohol solution that gave the entire face a frosted texture. Staff then polished the fields, and the resulting coins had brilliant fields and frosted devices. The frosting wore off quickly, however, and only the first few dozen coins from each dies became cameos or deep cameos. The next few thousand coins from each die were the more common brilliant proofs.
The technique stayed the same throughout the 1950 – 1964 period, but the number of cameos in population reports steadily increased. The reason is that growing demand for proofs meant higher mintages, and more dies were used each year. More dies meant more of those special few dozen coins per die were made, and cameo populations rose.
The full story would take a book to tell (see below to find those books), but the table of cameo and deep cameo half dollar populations compiled from PCGS CoinFacts explains a good deal of why and how cameos increased in this period. The first few years of 1950 – 1952 saw fewer than 100,000 coins made, which was a great increase from the 10,000 – 20,000 produced annually in the early 1940s but low by later standards. These early years each required only a few proof dies, so the number of cameo early strikes from those dies is predictably low. Proof set demand and production grew immensely over the next several years, with more dies needed to produce those coins. Multiply the few dozen cameos per die by a growing number of dies and you get a large number of cameo and deep cameo coins.
Cameos remained a small minority of all proof sets (don’t expect to search a dealer’s proof set inventory and find them often). By 1961 – 1964, however, that small minority resulted in enough choice frosted proofs to meet today’s collector demand.
On this gradual increase, NGC Research Director David Lange notes:
“Though there was not a market for cameo proofs in the 1950s, the Mint was aware that this was an attractive feature. It doesn’t appear that any special effort was made to increase the percentage of cameo proofs before 1970 or so, but the increase in the number of dies employed as proof mintages approached and then exceeded the one million mark meant that many more dies were needed. The total number of proof coins having completely or partially frosted relief elements thus increased, even while their percentage of the overall total declined through overuse of the dies in the mid-late 1950s.”
He is referring to the period 1957 – 1959, when die overuse and over-polishing was common for both business and proof coins, leading to a temporary drop in quality and the number of cameos. This explains why cameos temporarily became less common during those years, even as mintages increased. Particularly in the Franklin half dollar series, the master die had become worn after years of making working dies and no longer had the same detail it possessed when proof Franklins began in 1950. The pickling, although it adds eye appeal, also softens details on the working die and resulting coins. It appears that mint staff used a shorter acid bath in 1957 to protect the fading detail and even quicker dips in 1958 and 1959. This makes 1957 – 1959 deep cameo coins some of the most desirable for specialists.
When a new master die with fresh detail debuted in 1960, the mint felt comfortable increasing time in the acid to improve contrast at the expense of detail and cameos again began their slow increase in frequency.
Although the master die issue applied only to the half dollar, cameos of other denominations generally declined in the 1957 – 1959 period, despite the rise in proof set mintages. Budget issues meant that the Mint stretched the life of both proof and business strike dies. This led to more coins per die and a lower proportion of those first few cameos.
During the same period, numerous one-sided cameos appear, in which a fresh, frosted die struck one side of the coin and a routine brilliant die struck the other. This suggests that press operators saved their expensive dies by replacing the obverse and reverse separately when only one of the two was worn. Collectors and the grading services don’t consider one-sided cameos as desirable or worthy of a cameo designation, which lowers the population of true two-sided cameos from those years. Proofs of 1960 – 1964, however, returned to the high quality of previous years and two-sided cameos continued to increase in numbers, as seen in grading service population reports.
Dies for the Special Mint Set coins that took the place of proofs 1965 – 1967 also received the pickling treatment, although discussion of Special Mint Set cameos, some of which are quire scarce, would take a separate article. Cameos for 1968 – 1970 coins also vary considerably by year and denomination, but generally are easier to find than earlier cameo proofs. Most are brilliant, and many 1968 – 1970 proofs have a polished look lacking detail, but the high mintages mean that significant numbers of those few special cameos can be found.
Starting in 1971, the Mint switched from pickling to a more reliable (if laborious) sandblasting technique. Mint workers sandblasted the entire die face for uniform frosting. After carefully masking the devices with tape, they polished the fields to mirror smoothness. They then chromium-plated the die face to preserve the mirrored / frosted texture contrast for most of the life of the die. This superior preparation gave more cameos for each die, although overenthusiastic polishing still kept the percentage of cameos in check through 1972. By 1973, cameos became routine, with most coins showing good contrast and price guides usually list only cameo proofs for coins from the 1980s to the present.
Two books provide valuable coverage of 1950s and ’60s proofs: one for the generalist and one for the specialist:
The collector looking for an overview of United States proofs should consider David Lange’s A Guide Book of Modern United States Proof Coin Sets, published in 2010 as #4 in the Whitman Red Book series. With modern meaning 1936 to present in this case, Lange gives year-by-year descriptions of the production, packaging, values, and populations of every proof set, including what he names the Classic Years of 1950 – 1964.
To look deeper into cameos of this period, the specialized reference is Cameo and Brilliant Proof Coinage of the 1950 to 1970 Era by Rick Tomaska. No other source gives the details of every denomination during this period, along with detailed photos and the benefit of the author’s experience going through hundreds of thousands of proof sets. This 1991 book is out of print but it is available online for around $50 with a little searching.
Finding cameo proofs, particularly from the early part of the 1950 – 1964 period, however, takes more than a little searching. For some years, fewer than 100 deep cameos have to satisfy the demand of all of the collectors pursuing these superlative examples of their types. My experienced collector friend also told me to own the best coins I can afford and, for 1950 – 1964 coinage, that advice leads back to cameo proofs.