By Dr. Richard S. Appel – UniqueRareCoins.com ……
In PART I of this series I presented background information regarding the unique nine-coin series of Washington Quarters coined at the Philadelphia Mint from 1956-64. They were struck with the historic regular issue obverse Washington artwork, but simultaneously possessed reverse design elements identical with those only found on then-current Proof coins. I stated my belief that the Mint intentionally coined these important specimens to correct a major error in judgement–which, unfortunately, they later continued to deny. By presenting new information, it is my hope to right that wrong and elevate these coins to the status they deserve.
Proof Reverse Washington Quarters Were Produced at Year’s End
U.S. government mint sets are produced each year. In 1956 through 1964 they contained two coins of each denomination coined at both the Philadelphia and Denver Mints. Of great significance, the sets were built by Mint employees and mailed in the early months of the year after they were minted. This was performed after the Philadelphia Mint had already changed over and had begun minting coinage bearing the date of the new year. The Mints normally sent their emissions to the Federal Reserve shortly after they were coined. They in turn forwarded them to various local banks for distribution to the public. Therefore, the coins used for inclusion in the sets were primarily leftovers from the end of the year’s coinage runs. Significantly, some of these coins have been found in mint sets from each year of the 1956-64 series. This confirms that most if not all Proof Reverse Washington Quarters were manufactured at the end of their given year. Until recently, I was unaware of a 1956 mint set containing a Proof Reverse example. However, I just learned from a reliable source that he found a 1956 Proof Reverse coin in one of these sets.
Herbert P. Hicks wrote an award-winning article for The Numismatist in 1986. It was revised and republished in 1987 in Coin World. It was entitled, “Multitude of Artwork Creates Varieties. Author Traces Strengthening of Washington Design”. When he discussed the possible origin of Proof Reverse Washington Quarters he stated, “Another possibility involves the use of worn-out Proof dies”, but went on to state that “this has been fervently denied by the Mint”. I believe this is the reason why numismatists have been reluctant to recognize the fact that Proof dies were indeed used to coin the Proof Reverse coins.
However, to me it is telling that neither Mr. Hicks nor any other numismatist was given an explanation why they were made. All he and other inquirers received were denials that Proof dies were used! This, I believe, reflected the Mint’s embarrassment over their original miscalculations.
Yet later the Mint returned to using Proof reverse dies on business strike issues.
For an unknown but possibly similar reason they used Proof reverse dies to coin some Denver Mint Washington Quarters from 1969-1972, instead of the new Type C reverse in use since 1965. Later, they again pressed some retired Proof reverse dies into service in 1992, 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000 for the production of some Lincoln Cents. Unlike in 1956-64, these Lincoln Cents were recognized by the Mint as having been made with Proof dies. For this reason, they are widely accepted and highly valued.
The Visual Attributes of the Proof Reverse Washington Quarters
Proof Reverse Washington Quarters possess a number of differences from the typical business strike design.
First, all aspects of the reverse artwork are sharper and have a noticeably higher relief. The eagle appears thinner and displays greater detail. Its tail feathers are precisely defined and its ultra-sharp edge is one of its visual hallmarks.
There is a wide separation between the “E” and “S” of “States” on Proof Reverses but the letters are nearly touching on business strikes.
The lettering is bold, has flat tables with squared corners and edges compared to regular issues.
The leaves are well-defined and the leaf opposing the “A” in “Dollar” nearly touches it, while a separation is present on regular reverses. Also, the leaf before the arrow bundle upon which the Eagle is perched curves slightly to the left. It then rises above and obscures the arrowhead points on the Proof die version. On business issues the leaf terminates noticeably lower and leaves a gap between itself and the exposed, uppermost arrow point.
Finally, and what I believe conclusively supports the fact that Proof Dies were utilized in their creation, many of their reverses display some mirrored surface attributes, with some showing fully Proof mirrored fields.
All Proof Reverse Washington Quarters are quite scarce to rare. Furthermore, and with the exception of a few 1957 coins, they are all extremely rare in high grade. In fact, most issues are unknown finer than MS66. This general rarity can be traced to the fact that they are all believed to have been coined in the last month or even days of the year in which they were produced. Thus, despite the minting of millions of regular issue coins in a given year, only a small number of coveted Proof Reverse coins were minted.
The 1956 issue is decidedly the rarest. This can likely be attributed to the fact that the Mint delayed until late in 1956 to even use Proof dies to create these great coins. For this reason, they likely saw the first light of day in the latter part of December of that year. While several thousand mint state coins might remain for the most common issues, I doubt if even a few thousand uncirculated 1956 examples are extant.
The Great Silver Coin Melts Claimed Most Proof Reverse Washington Quarters
The major limiting factor in the survival rate of the nine Proof Reverse issues surrounds the decades-long and widespread melting of our nation’s silver coins. In 1964, the price of silver rose sharply. It had been pegged by the government at $1.29 an ounce but more than doubled. The higher price created a seldom-seen condition: the metal content of our silver coinage became far more valuable than the face value of the coins themselves. A massive hunt by the public for silver dimes, quarters and half dollars was triggered and has continued to the present. Later, in 1980, silver skyrocketed to over $50 an ounce. Silver coins that had been hoarded since 1964 came out of hiding only to be melted for their silver. I remember when coin and bullion dealers were offering as much as 40 times the face value of the coins to attract sellers. A dime was worth $4, while quarters brought $10 and half dollars $20. The dealers then melted the coins, sold their silver content, and pocketed the difference.
The result was the destruction of millions upon millions of our silver coins. The melting was indiscriminate. I remember discussing with amazement what some dealers sold as “junk silver”. Tons and tons of half dollars, quarters, dimes and Morgan and Peace dollars went into the melting pots. In fact, many silver mint sets and proof sets–along with an untold number of scarce date silver coins that had been previously desirable to complete coin sets–met their fate by fire.
For months, in 1980, people stood in line before coin shops to sell their coins. Not only did an enormous percentage of our circulated silver coins become silver but also rolls and bags of uncirculated silver coins as well. To point, during the great melt heyday of 1980, brilliant uncirculated rolls of Washington Quarters from 1956-64 demanded little or no premium above junk silver. Further, for most of the past 60 or so years this state continued. Few even knew that Proof Reverse quarters existed so those that were spared were strictly by accident. Dealers and collectors alike threw them all into the melting pots. It is impossible to know how many uncirculated Proof Reverse coins were destroyed, but I think it is safe to say that it was the vast majority of those coined.
I remember a conversation about 20 years ago with Harry Forman. Harry was one of the largest dealers in uncirculated rolls and bags of coins as well as proof sets and other areas. He had experienced a great deal and had terrific stories that he liked to tell. One day he shared a conversation he had in 1980. He said silver was about $10 an ounce at the time. He told another dealer while pointing that “when silver hits $20, I’ll burn the 15 bags of unc. 1955-S dimes sitting over there”. He told me that later, “I burned them when silver hit $20”. That one event saw 75,000 brilliant uncirculated 1955-S dimes forever taken away from the coin collecting community. There were countless other similar stories! Who knows how many Proof Reverse quarters were involved and destroyed.
For good or for bad, the melting continues today. Under normal circumstances the public views “junk silver coins” as just that – junk. For this reason, they normally trade below their silver content value and are ultimately melted to retrieve that silver. Often, even mint-state specimens are worth only melt. When a coin or bullion dealer buys some silver coins from the public, they immediately send them off to the smelter. Occasionally, when the demand for silver coin increases, such as when silver is rising in price, or when people think it’s too low, they gain a premium to their silver value and are spared. This is perhaps 20% of the time since 1964.
The end result of this great silver coin melt is that many coins still believed to be common are not. During the past 50 plus years, the great majority of silver coins have been melted. Coins that heretofore were common, and even numerous scarcer silver issues, now exist in far smaller numbers than even numismatic experts believe. Millions upon millions of circulated and uncirculated coins, Proof and mint sets, as well as scarce and rare dates are gone forever.
Regarding the Proof Reverse Washington Quarter, despite the fact that only tens of thousands of the most common issues were produced, I doubt that the most common ones (1959 and ’60) have more than several thousand mint state remaining specimens. The rarest 1956 issue likely has less than a few thousand coins and perhaps even a thousand or so remaining examples for the entire rare coin field to enjoy. Not only are they visually remarkable and imminently desirable Mint products, but I believe they remain underrated and undervalued as well, due to the Mint’s refusal to admit their genesis.
In PART III of the series, I offer a date-by-date analysis of these under-appreciated and undervalued gems. Additionally, I will give reasons why I believe they are of such great merit they should be considered needed to complete all sets of Washington Quarters.