By Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez for CoinWeek.com …..
Proof coinage has been a fixture in American numismatics since the 19th century and a regular hobby staple since 1936, when the United States Mint offered the first modern proof sets after a two-decade hiatus. There was also a three-year intermission between 1965 and 1967, when a nationwide coin shortage convinced the government to put a temporary halt on traditional annual coin sets and abolish mintmarks to dissuade collectors from pulling coins out of circulation. Once this dark period in American numismatics ended, a new era began in 1968 when the San Francisco Mint began producing annual proof sets – an assignment previously handled exclusively by the Philadelphia Mint.
It should be noted that the San Francisco Mint was officially an assay office from 1962 through 1988, which includes the period when the facility began producing proof sets in 1968. In addition to striking proof coins beginning in the late 1960s, the San Francisco Assay Office also produced circulating S-mint Lincoln cents from 1968 through 1974 and business-strike Susan B. Anthony dollars from 1979 through 1981.
The first S-mint proof sets of 1968 represented several departures from most of the proof sets issued between 1936 and 1964.
For one, 1968 marked the first year of copper-nickel clad proof coinage, a compositional change that had begun in 1965 when the U.S. government replaced the 90 percent silver alloy in the dime and quarter with a base-metal composition; the half dollar, meanwhile, was made from a 40 percent silver composition from 1965 through 1970. Even with the disappearance of silver from the annual proof set, many coin collectors still rejoiced at the set’s reemergence in 1968.
Another significant change beginning in 1968 was less eagerly heralded by collectors. The issue price of the proof set had increased from $2.10 USD in 1964–the last year of the conventional 90 percent silver proof sets–to $5 in 1968. During a year when the national minimum wage $1.60, some coin collectors in 1968 were understandably ruffled at paying more than twice the previous price for a proof set that now contained a fraction of the silver of previous sets. Still, the many hobbyists who made do with buying only Special Mint Sets from 1965 through 1967 were happy to see the simultaneous reintroduction of both the proof and uncirculated sets.
A third element, new to the 1968 United States proof set, is its packaging. Unlike previous sets of the modern era, proof sets manufactured since 1968 have been packaged in hard plastic display cases. Today, nearly a half-century later, the United States Mint continues packaging proof sets in hard plastic cases, more durable and more suitable for display than the flimsy cellophane packages used between late 1955 through 1964. Before that, the Mint packaged individual proof coins in their own cellophane wrappers that were bundled together as a set by a staple and wrapped in paper.
The progenitor of the hard plastic proof sets actually came in 1966. That was when the Mint began offering the Special Mint Set in a rigid, rectangular plastic case roughly resembling a five-portal, cent-through-half-dollar Whitman Snaplock holder. Special Mint Sets of 1967 were also packaged in a hard plastic case.
Since the introduction of San Francisco Mint proof sets in 1968, the packaging and format of the U.S. proof set has undergone several noteworthy changes. The following presents a rundown of these changes over the years and what to look for when collecting proof sets.
1968-1972 Proof Sets
The proof sets of the era spanning from 1968 through 1972 mark the first generation of United States proof sets packaged in rigid plastic cases. These sets feature five coins–the one cent coin through the half dollar–and are packaged in a two-part rectangular plastic lens with frosted outer border, similar to the plastic cases used for United States proof sets manufactured since 1983. The plastic cases for 1968-‘72 proof sets house a dark insert that is used to display the coins within the lens. Proof sets from 1968-‘72 are packaged in a blue outer cardboard box.
Proof coins of the 1968-‘72 era are characteristically brilliant, though cameo proofs (especially deep cameo proofs) are scarce. Devices and lettering are often mirror-like in appearance and commonly show little, if any, cameo contrast to the surrounding fields. Studious cherry pickers can find deep cameo proofs in original proof set packaging with enough effort. Most difficult are coins that show sharp cameo contrast on both the obverse and the reverse.
The proof sets of the 1968 through 1972 era offer several enticing, highly valuable varieties. Most notable is the 1968 no-S proof Roosevelt dime, which became the first proof coin from the United States Mint that is accidentally missing its mintmark (it wouldn’t be the last). The Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS) estimates that a few dozen examples exist, and recent auction prices vary from around $11,000 for a specimen grading Proof-67 up to $30,000 for a cameo example certified as Proof-68.
1970 proof sets offer at least two valuable proof varieties, including the 1970-S small date proof Lincoln cent, which has a value of about $35. Also in 1970 is the appearance of another no-S proof Roosevelt dime. The 1970 no-S proof Roosevelt dime has a value ranging from $600 to $2,500 at the time of writing.
In 1971, another rare no-S variety unfolded on the Jefferson nickel; a 1971 no-S proof Jefferson nickel is worth approximately $1,200. PCGS estimates that several hundred exist, and A Guide Book of United States Coins suggests that there are about 1,655 known examples. Recent auction prices vary from about $900 for a typical Proof-67 example to more than $5,000 for a Deep Cameo specimen grading Proof-69.
1973-1979 Proof Sets
Though the Eisenhower dollar debuted in 1971, proof examples were sold individually until 1973, when they were finally included in standard proof sets. At that point, a major packaging change was necessary to accommodate the inclusion of the large dollar coin. The proof set not only grew from five coins to six, but the plastic case and its outer cardboard box also grew in physical dimensions to provide space for the “Ike” dollar, which measures 38.1 millimeters in diameter.
Proof sets made during the years 1973 through 1979 contain six coin portals and feature a rectangular lens with a red felt-lined insert. A black panel packaged with the proof set allows the lens to be displayed upright for presentation on a desk, shelf or similar surface. The outer box, meanwhile, went from blue to black, beginning in 1973 and remaining that way through 1982.
The 1979 proof set is distinctive because it contains the first proof issue of the Susan B. Anthony dollar. The small-sized, 26.5-millimeter diameter dollar is encased in the 38.1-millimeter-wide portal originally designed for the Eisenhower dollar. The gap between the Anthony dollar and the portal edge appears as a clear margin around the smaller coin.
Perhaps most notable about the 1973-‘79 era of proof coinage is the gradually more prominent and common appearance of strong cameo effects as the decade progressed. In 1973, production of cameo proofs was still fairly irregular, with the earliest proofs from a new set of dies receiving the most cameo contrast. A survey of proof sets from 1973-‘76 would show various degrees of cameo frosting, with some devices and lettering appearing almost mirror-like. Few show consistently deep cameo, and fewer still show deep cameo frosting on both sides of the same coin. Across the board, premiums are higher for deep cameo coins of the early and mid-1970s. By 1978, improved proof die preparation techniques at the Mint made deep cameo frosting the rule.
Proof sets made from 1973 through 1979 afford collectors several varieties to chase down. Most notable is the 1975 no-S Roosevelt dime, which is arguably the most valuable modern United States coin in existence. At present, just two are known to exist. In the last 35 years, only one example has surfaced at auction. One specimen, certified by PCGS as a Proof-68, took $349,500 at an auction in August 2011.
The other significant varieties from this era are the Type I and Type II variants of all six denominations, which are found among the 1979 proof sets. The two varieties concern the appearance of the “S” mintmark. The 1979-S Type I proof coins, identified by the appearance of a blobby “S” mintmark that was introduced on proof coinage in 1974, are common. During the middle of 1979, a new “S” mintmark debuted bearing a well-defined letter “S” with stronger serifs. 1979 proof coins with the “clear S” mintmark are generally referred to as 1979-S “Type II” coins and are considerably scarcer than their 1979-S “Type I” proof counterparts. Though much less common than 1979-S Type I proof coins, 1979-S Type II proof sets are widely available and are not prohibitively expensive. Listings on eBay for 1979-S Type II proof sets in which all six coins feature a clear S vary in price from about $50 to $70.
Another curiosity of the era is the 1776-1976 three-coin 40 percent silver proof set. First produced in 1975, the 1776-1976 three-coin proof set contains the Washington quarter, Kennedy half dollar and Eisenhower dollar with 1776-1976 dual dating on their obverse and special Bicentennial-themed reverse designs. Each coin in the bicentennial three-coin silver proof set is contained within an individual capsule. All three pieces are arranged in a triangular pattern in a book-style presentation case featuring velvet lining and a patriotic red, white and blue color scheme.
1980-1982 Proof Sets
Like the shrinking size of the dollar coin, the physical dimensions of the United States proof set became drastically smaller in 1980. The six-coin proof set, reduced in size to accommodate the small Susan B. Anthony dollar, features several modifications that make these proof sets stand out from the ’70s-era dollar-inclusive proof sets. Perhaps the most notable change (aside from the reduction in size) was the removal of the felt lining, which was notorious for leaving red dust on the coins.
Beginning in 1980, all six proof coins are encased within a hard, red plastic insert sealed within a two-part clear plastic lens case. Proof sets of the 1980-‘82 era also come with a removable black plastic frame that serves as a display stand. Both set and stand are housed in an open-topped black cardboard slipcase emblazoned in fancy silver script with the phrase “United States Proof Set”, followed by the year of the set.
The 1980 and ’81 sets are similar in appearance. However, the 1982 proof set comes with a special United States Mint medal that fills a physical void in the six-portal proof set insert created by the absence of the Susan B. Anthony dollar, which was no longer minted after 1981 (save for an isolated, single year of production a generation later in 1999).
Virtually all of the proof coins minted between 1980 and 1982 boast cameo or deep cameo surfaces. Quality is not usually an issue with these coins, and most tend to grade at or above Proof-65. However, coins in many of the proof sets from this period have lately been exhibiting light to moderate haze. Presumably, as the ’80-’82 sets continue to age, foggy coins will become more of an issue and premiums may go up on proof sets from this period that contain crisp coins with brilliant surfaces.
Coin collectors should also be aware of the very popular 1981-S Type I and Type II varieties which, similar to the 1979-S Type I and Type II proof coins, are distinguished by the clarity of the “S” mintmark. The mintmark on the 1981-S Type I coins was created by the same punch used to create the 1979-S Type II coins. However, the 1981-S Type I coins, though bearing clearer mintmarks than their 1979-S Type I counterparts, still have relatively blocky-looking mintmarks. Conversely, the 1981-S Type II mintmarks are well-defined and sport heavy, bulbous serifs that do not touch the inside segments of the “S”.
Despite market fluctuations that have diminished the value of many modern proof sets, the 1981-S Type II proof set has consistently maintained strong market values over the decades and is today worth around $250 for a proof set in which all six coins bear the Type II “S” mintmark. The 1980, 1981 Type I and 1982 proof sets all usually sell for less than $10 each.
1983-1998 Proof Sets
The year 1983 marked the beginning of a new era for proof sets. The five-coin proof set format returned to stay – at least until the beginning of the 50 States Quarters series in 1999. In most respects, the 1983 proof set picks up aesthetically where the 1972 proof set left off. The 1983 proof set, like its 1972 counterpart, comes in a plastic case containing a dark insert that holds the five proof coins (cent through half dollar). The 1983 proof set is also packaged in a blue cardboard box with a top flap that, except for the year stated on the packaging, looks virtually identical to the 1972 proof set’s outer protective box.
While the 1972 and ’83 proof sets look grossly similar, observant hobbyists will notice a few small but important differences. In 1972, the obverse side of the proof set shows the half dollar at the bottom center of the insert, while in 1983 and beyond the half dollar appears at the top center. On 1972 proof set lenses, a heraldic eagle is etched into the case above the half dollar, whereas on the 1983 proof set an italicized inscription (“United States Proof Set”) appears in fancy cursive script below the half dollar.
To get technical, the 1983 proof set also differs from the 1972 product on the basis of the Lincoln cent’s metallic composition. While the 1972-S proof Lincoln cent in that respective year’s set is made from a 95 percent copper, five percent zinc alloy, the 1983-S proof Lincoln cent is the first United States proof one-cent coin made from the then-new 97.5 percent zinc, 2.5 percent copper composition that was unveiled with business-strike Lincoln cents in 1982.
1983 also marked the release of the first prestige proof set, which contains the proof versions of the five then-circulating coins (Lincoln cent, Jefferson nickel, Roosevelt dime, Washington quarter and Kennedy half dollar), plus one or two commemorative coins. The first prestige set includes a 1983 Discus silver dollar commemorating the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles. The prestige proof sets are housed in leatherette-covered, book-style cases containing a framed inner panel that displays the coins and allows viewing of both the obverse and reverses of the proof coins.
In 1984, packaging for the five-coin proof set was changed to a shade of lavender, with the foam coin insert sporting a richly textured finish that roughly resembles woven fabric. Keeping with the new color-keyed theme, the outer box of the proof set adopted a hue of purple similar to the display case.
By 1986, regular proof sets were packaged with a specifications card. Similar specifications cards had accompanied prestige proof sets since their initial release in 1983.
Another minor packaging modification occurred in 1988 when the fancy silver script writing on the outer package, which had remained essentially unchanged in style since 1968, was italicized.
In 1990, the enclosed proof set specifications card became a true certificate of authenticity, with one side of the card declaring an iron-clad guarantee signed by then-United States Mint Director Donna Pope. Specifications on each of the coins were still included on the other side of the certificate of authenticity.
In 1992, the United States Mint introduced proof sets containing the first 90 percent silver Roosevelt dimes, Washington quarters and Kennedy half dollars since 1964. The silver proof set and premier silver proof set were authorized under Public Law 101-585 in November 1990. Until 1999, the silver proof set contained three 90 percent silver coins plus a Lincoln cent and Jefferson nickel minted in their standard circulation compositions. The premier silver proof set differed from the “regular” silver proof set only by the former’s fancier packaging, which includes a fancy velvet- and satin-lined case and a handsome display frame.
While production of the silver proof set continues today, the premier silver proof set, which primarily catered to gift-givers and upper-end buyers, was discontinued in 1998.
The last significant change for the modern proof set prior to the beginning of the 50 States Quarters series in 1999 was a change in color for the product’s display case and outer protective box. After a decade of use, the lavender outer packaging and inner coin insert were ditched after 1993 in favor of packaging colored in hunter green. The hunter green packaging was unveiled in 1994 and was used for the remaining years of the five-coin proof set format.
Meanwhile, the last prestige proof sets, issued in 1997, include the 1997 Botanic Gardens commemorative silver dollar along with the requisite base-metal cent, nickel, dime, quarter and half dollar.
The quality of all proof coinage from 1983 through 1998 was consistently high, with the vast majority of coins boasting strong cameo devices and deep mirror fields with striking black-and-white surface contrast. There are no particularly scarce entries among the regular-issue proof sets of the era, with the exception of the 1995-S and 1996-S prestige proof sets, which sell for about $85 and $265, respectively. Most of the other proof sets from ’83-‘98 presently sell in the secondary market at levels comparable to their respective issues prices, if not lower.
While most modern proof sets from the mid-1980s through late ‘90s are common and affordable, there are two very scarce proof coins that collectors should know about. They are the 1983 no-S proof Roosevelt dime and the 1990 no-S proof Lincoln cent.
The 1983 no-S proof Roosevelt dime is the last of the no-S proof Roosevelt dimes, and according to PCGS several hundred examples of the 1983 no-S dime variety are believed to exist across the grading spectrum. Recent auction prices range from about $500 for Proof-68 pieces to more than $8,200 for Proof-70 specimens. A 1983 proof set containing a no-S Roosevelt dime retails for $550 and up, with values for the intact original sets based largely on the grade of the dime.
The 1990 no-S Lincoln cent is found among both the five-coin and prestige proof sets and is a true rarity in the scheme of modern coins. The number of known examples has stood at around 200 for more than two decades, and demand has always remained strong for the variety. Pricing is locked well into the four-figure range, with Proof-66 specimens recently selling for around $2,700. Since 2016, Proof-69 pieces with Deep Cameo surfaces have sold for as much as $7,050.
1999-Present Proof Sets
The era of the multi-lens proof set came into being in 1999 with the release of the 50 States Quarters series. Today, collectors seem to have gotten used to modern United States proof sets containing 10, 14 or even 18+ coins. But the nine-coin proof sets of 1999 were a novelty at the time due to their sheer bulk.
Proof set packaging conventions since 1999 have generally dictated that the cent, nickel, dime, and half dollar coins are displayed in a single display case; the circulating dollar coin, when produced, accompanies the cent, nickel, dime, and half dollar. A second lens separately contains the commemorative quarter dollars, and as many as two other cases have also been included in a single proof set to house additional coins as necessary.
When the Presidential $1 coin series debuted in 2007, a third case housed those coins individually. A fourth case became necessary in 2009 when the four-coin Lincoln Bicentennial coins were struck. As the Presidential dollar coins bear edge lettering, their proof set lens is equipped with special transparent collars for each piece, allowing their edges to be viewed within the case.
The year 2009 saw a record number of coins in any single modern proof set, with 18 coins issued in that product. The lineup of circulating proof coinage that year (as well as the Kennedy half dollar) included four Lincoln Bicentennial cents, a Jefferson nickel, a Roosevelt dime, six District of Columbia and U.S. Territories quarters, a Kennedy half dollar, four Presidential $1 coins, and the first Native American dollar coin. The 18 coins are contained within four plastic lenses and all four cases are stored in a single outer cardboard box.
In 2012, the Mint introduced the limited-edition silver proof set, which includes a Roosevelt dime, all commemorative quarters for the year, the Kennedy half dollar, and a proof American Silver Eagle. The eight silver coins are packaged in a single display case.
In addition to the full proof sets of the base-metal and silver varieties mentioned above, the U.S. Mint has also issued partial proof sets. These include proof sets offering only the 2009 Bicentennial cents, only the commemorative quarters from a given year, and only the Presidential $1 coins. These smaller proof sets, ranging from three to six coins each, have been issued for significantly lower retail prices than the respective year’s full proof sets. These abbreviated proof sets are most often enjoyed by budget collectors and hobbyists seeking only certain proof coins to help expand sets that are focused on a particular series.
The quality of proof sets made since 1999 is excellent to virtually perfect. Proof sets made since the late 1990s yield coins that usually grade Proof-69, if not higher. On occasions when a late-date proof coin grades lower than Proof-67, the surface detractions are usually the byproduct of poor post-Mint handling. With the improving refinement and increasing perfection of the proof coin minting process over the last several years, it is little surprise that the run of proof sets minted since 1999 contains no major errors or varieties.
Still, there are some scarcer sets from the period that sell for multiples over their original issue prices. Remarkably, one of the most expensive proof sets of the period is the 1999-S nine-piece silver proof set. The 1999-S nine-piece silver proof set was originally sold by the U.S. Mint for $31.95 and skyrocketed in the secondary market to prices exceeding $300 during the early 2000s when state quarters were all the rage. Even today, the 1999-S nine-piece silver proof set retails for an impressive $75, a price that does not necessarily seem justified by the set’s production figure of 804,565 units; indeed, that is a low production figure, but by no means is the 1999-S nine-piece silver proof set the scarcest of the late-date modern proof sets. In fact, none of the United States proof sets made since 2012 have exceeded a mintage of 802,460, with most of those sets made in relatively small quantities of much fewer than 500,000.
Incidentally, 2012 proof sets are categorically the most expensive of all annual proof set products made in the United States since 1999. On eBay, the 2012-S 14-piece base-metal proof set retails for a whopping $125, while the 14-piece silver version goes for about double that figure, or $240. The eight-coin 2012-S limited edition proof set, the first such set issued, also commands $240 in the secondary market. Even the four-piece 2012-S Presidential $1 coin proof set widely trades for around $75.
Otherwise, most modern proof sets issued since 1999 have done only a fair job at best of holding their market values. Most proof sets of any variety from the period beginning in 1999 sell for about as much as or less than their respective original United States Mint issue prices.
The proof set market has taken some hits in recent years as seemingly fewer hobbyists venture into collecting modern proof sets on an earnest basis. The typical collector of the 1970s, ’80s or even ’90s habitually purchased at least one or two proof sets each year for their personal collections or as gifts. However, many of today’s collectors have turned their attention from annual sets and now spend more money on an array of other numismatic products from the United States and around the world. Additionally, the base number of coin collectors in the United States appears to have fallen since the 1990s, though there are no hard numbers. These declines have been reflected not only in shrinking coin club membership rolls but also, strikingly, in the overall sales figures for annual coin products such as proof sets and uncirculated sets, the latter hitting a 55-year production low in 2016.
While there may be less interest in collecting proof sets today than there was 20, 30 or 40 years ago, proof sets are no less interesting as a collecting pursuit. In fact, now may be a perfect time to purchase them, as prices are soft and thus favor the buyer. While bulk deals on eBay for date runs of proof sets are appealing and likely to save the collector money over the cost of buying those same sets individually, it may pay off in the end to purchase sets only after a careful visual inspection of each one. Collectors should be patient acquiring modern proof sets, with a preference given to buying crisp sets with clean, original packaging and coins with superb fields and deep cameo devices whenever possible.
Collecting modern proof sets from the last 50 years can be a rewarding objective for any coin collector who takes the time and money to do it right. When all is said and done, a complete collection of proof sets spanning from 1968 to the present would encompass an impressive survey of modern coinage. It’s a numismatic journey on which relatively few collectors these days embark, but an adventure that most any hobbyist who appreciates United States coins would surely enjoy.