By CoinWeek ….
There are many aspects of coin collecting that can seem daunting to the uninitiated, but as often as not this is one of its charms to the brave and curious few who make it their hobby.
And as intimidating as it might appear at first, it’s only a matter of time before the neophyte collector gains the necessary knowledge and can hold their own in a numismatic conversation.
Still, that doesn’t make some of those aspects any less confusing. And certainly, the jargon is one of–if not THE most–potentially confusing aspects of coin collecting.
So in the spirit of “demystifying” some of that jargon, we decided to take a look at some of the language that beginning coin collectors might not understand. In this installment, we talk about the difference between the terms “Proof” and “Prooflike”.
And what better coin with which to compare and contrast the two words than the Morgan silver dollar?
Morgan Silver Dollars: A Quick Primer
The Morgan dollar series is arguably the most popular and most collected coin issued by the United States.
It was issued from 1878 through 1904, and again in 1921. Designed by future Chief Engraver George T. Morgan, the silver dollar that bears his name was struck at Philadelphia, New Orleans, San Francisco, Carson City and Denver. Thanks to its late-19th, early 20th-century production run and substantial representation among western branch mints, the Morgan dollar has long been associated with the allure of the American “Old West”.
The coin was very much the result of government pork, as the Bland-Allison Act of 1878 required the federal government to buy silver from mining interests in the western part of the United States. This silver was then struck into dollar coins, for which almost no one had any commercial use. Bags upon bags of uncirculated Morgan dollars (along with some that had been circulated but found their way back) were stored in Treasury Department basements and vaults until they were rediscovered in the 1960s, upending much of what numismatists and collectors thought they knew about the rarity of these issues.
The “GSA Hoard“, as it came to be known, was sold at highly visible public auctions during the 1970s, setting off a coin-collecting renaissance in the United States and encouraging the development of the modern hobby. A visit to any coin show and almost every coin shop in America will quickly prove the enduring appeal of the Morgan silver dollar.
Proof vs. Prooflike
Now, into the thick of things.
What Is “Proof”?
A “Proof” is a coin that has been specially produced to maximize the appearance of its technical and artistic qualities. They receive extra care and attention (usually some combination of polishing, multiple strikes, and careful handling) and are struck in smaller numbers than the regular mass-produced version of the same issue that a person might use for everyday business (hence the term “business strike” for coins meant for circulation). Banks and mints around the world are capable of producing Proof coinage, though the specifics of production may vary.
Originally given to politicians and dignitaries as “presentation pieces” or sold and traded to well-connected collectors, the United States Mint has manufactured Proofs virtually since its founding in 1792. Because such demand could vary greatly from year to year and from series to series, mintages for Proof versions of classic U.S. coins were often low – and time has served to winnow even those figures down to what are, in some instances, extraordinarily small numbers of surviving coins to satisfy contemporary collector demand.
Throw in variables like grade and condition, and one can see how Proof coins became so desirable.
At any rate, the production of Proofs in the United States had ended by 1916, but what we consider “modern” Proof coinage began in 1936. Improvements in technology and engineering have allowed modern Proofs to be struck potentially at levels similar to their business strike cousins, and so while they are still in demand among collectors, they do not always carry the same cachet among numismatists as do the “classics”. Another difference worth noting is that modern Proof coins frequently come in annual sets mass-marketed by the Mint that feature Proof versions of the year’s coinage – a practice that did not occur before the modern era.
Proof Morgan dollars were produced from 1878 through 1904. There is some controversy regarding what are called “Zerbe Proofs“–coins dated 1921 that were apparently made special for noted American numismatist Farran Zerbe. It is an interesting story but for the sake of our current topic we will consider only the official Proofs of 1878-1904.
According to a current edition of Whitman Publishing’s A Guide Book of United States Coins–the legendary “Red Book“–prices for high-grade Proof Morgans (60 and above) run into the thousands of dollars, with certain famous varieties or mintmarks going for five or more figures. Morgan Proofs tend to have deep mirrorlike surfaces, and many have toned nicely over the years–despite being treated relatively haphazardly when compared to other 19th-century Proofs.
It is also important to note that the 1895 Proof is one of the keys of the entire series since no regular-issue Morgan dollars are known to have been struck at Philadelphia.
What Is “Prooflike”?
The term “Prooflike” (or PL) is used to describe, when applicable, the appearance of business strike coins. One important distinction here is that while “Proof” coins are meant to come nice, the Mint makes no special effort to produce nice-looking coins for circulation. This distinction is especially true for classic U.S. coins, before modern technology.
So while the qualities that we call “Prooflike” are imparted to the coin’s surface during production, a collector cannot simply buy them from the Mint like one might do for Proofs. Their creation occurs at certain points in the process–like with the implementation of brand-new dies or right after the dies are polished–but the number of Prooflike coins for a given issue cannot be known except after the fact as collectors, dealers and graders refine their census reports. Prices for Prooflike Morgans tend to fluctuate more than their Proof counterparts because of this.
This also means that Prooflike coins cannot be “faked”; i.e., there is no process that can give a coin “Prooflike” surfaces that it does not already possess. It is, however, sometimes possible to alter the features of a business strike coin to resemble a Proof, such as the addition or removal of a mint mark.
Another distinction that must be made is that while “Proof” is a term for a kind of coin, “Prooflike” is a description for a coin. In other words, even though there are commonly accepted criteria for its use, the term is subjective, while “Proof” is (more or less) a verifiably objective quality.
What are those criteria?
First of all, the strike has nothing to do with it. A circulating coin may have an exceptionally sharp strike, but this does not make it “Prooflike”. In fact, the relief on Morgan silver dollar Proofs is not too much higher than on business strikes.
On circulating coinage, the empty spaces (known as “fields) on a “Prooflike” coin show more reflectivity than is expected; indeed, the mirror-like quality of this reflectivity approaches (but does not equal) that found on unmarred Proof coins – hence Prooflike.
If this reflectiveness is extensive (or “deep”), then the coin might be referred to as “Deep Prooflike (DPL)” or “Deep Mirror Prooflike (DMPL)”. These are terms used by NGC and PCGS, respectively, and typically they follow the numerical grade on holders and labels.
Morgan silver dollars are especially famous for the number of Prooflike and Deep (mirror) Prooflike specimens to be had, though they are still harder to collect than regular Morgans. Some Prooflikes and Deep Prooflikes are rare in high grades; these include the 1893-S, the 1886-O, and the 1901. PCGS and NGC report PL and DPL/DMPL populations on separate lines in their censuses and price guides.
If you have a “raw” Morgan dollar (meaning a Morgan dollar that has not been encapsulated by a grading service), and you suspect that its mirrorlike fields qualify it for Prooflike status or higher, then there is always the old-school “pencil test”. Simply put, place a pencil point down onto a flat surface like a table, book or countertop. Rotate the coin around the pencil; if you can see the reflection of the pencil in the coins’ fields, then it might likely grade as a Prooflike example.
So that’s it for this installment. Hopefully, you found it useful as you grow into your hobby. But remember: no matter how much experience you get or how much information you read, there’s always something new to learn when it comes to coin collecting.