The Smithsonian collection sheds light on some of the earliest examples from the US Mint
By Jeff Garrett for Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC) ……
To begin a conversation about early United States Proof Coinage we should first discuss the definition of the term.
The Guide Book of United States Coins (Redbook) defines the word as such:
Proof: A specially made coin distinguished by sharpness of detail and usually with brilliant, mirrorlike surfaces. Proof refers to the method of manufacture, and is not a grade.
This sounds easy enough, but experts can differ greatly on whether or not a coin can be designated as a Proof example. These disagreements are usually reserved for coins struck before 1836 when minting technology was less advanced. Some early United States issues are very clear-cut, as the coins are extremely well struck with deep, mirror fields. Others display super sharp strikes but have less-defined mirror surfaces.
The first gold coins struck by the United States Mint that are unquestionably Proof were struck in 1821. The Smithsonian collection contains an 1821 Quarter Eagle and Half Eagle.
The Quarter Eagle is a bit mishandled, but the 1821 Half Eagle is superb, with completely original surfaces. The coin does not have the appearance of what most would consider traditional Proof surfaces. The coin is extremely well struck, but with slightly striated mirror surfaces. There is no question the coin was specially made to be preserved as part of the Mint collection.
The 1821 issues are the beginning of a great run of early gold coins in the Smithsonian collection. Present-day collectors and scholars are extremely fortunate that U.S. Mint employees had the foresight to produce and save these national treasures for future generations. Without this reference collection of unquestionable Proof coins, scholars would have a much more difficult time deciding whether or not a coin should be designated as a Proof.
The first Silver United States coins that are universally agreed to be Proof productions were struck in 1817. These coins are extremely well struck with deep mirror surfaces. The Smithsonian collection of confirmed Proof coins begins in 1818. The collection contains a Bust Quarter and Half Dollar that are without doubt struck as Proofs.
After 1818, the collection has an inconsistent run of Proof coinage until around the late 1830s, when every year and denomination is represented by a Proof example. Some of the early coins in the Smithsonian collection are very difficult to determine as Proof or Mint State. Most of the early gold coins in the Smithsonian collection are original and unmolested. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the silver coinage.
As everyone knows, silver coins tarnish over time, and early curators of the Smithsonian collection rectified this problem with heavy doses of silver polish. This seems barbaric today, but early museum staff considered it standard practice. The result is that some of the silver coins have lost their original surfaces to the point that it is difficult to determine with absolute certainty the coins’ status as a Proof or Mint State coin.
It also appears that sometime over the last 200 years some of the Proof coins in the collection may have been swapped out for Mint State examples of some issues. As I have stated, the early collection of Proof coins in the Smithsonian collection are the finest in the world, but it is inconsistent as to dates and denominations included.
For coins that appear to have been specially made, but lack the qualities to be clearly designated as Proof, the term Specimen is sometimes used. This is usually reserved for Pre-1817 coinage. The 1794 Silver Dollar that sold for over $10,000,000 USD is a good example of this. The coin is well struck with mirror surfaces. Most would argue that the coin lacks the qualities to be designated as a Proof, but there is little doubt the coin was specially made and preserved.
The term Specimen would seem appropriate in this case. NGC has used the designation for several early examples of Bust coinage over the years. For instance, they have graded 1821, 1829 and 1837 Bust Half Dollars as Specimens.
In most cases, coins that have been designated as Specimen bring less at auction or private sale than coins that have been deemed as Proof examples. These coins are special and were most certainly struck with extra care. The designation of Proof, however, is reserved for coins that clearly meet the criteria of strike and deeply mirrored surfaces.
Pre-1858 United States Proof coinage is highly desirable and very rare. The mintages are tiny by comparison to the latter issues. Some years are represented by a single example. The standard issue of the Redbook only lists Proof coins starting in 1858.
Until recently, there was very little information available on the early Proof United States coinage. The only book on the subject was written by the late Walter Breen in the 1980s. The book is an excellent reference work but filled with inaccurate information. Walter Breen was known to create much of his research work from memory, and this was not always a reliable source.
In the last 20 years, there has been much study of this subject. Students of early Proof coinage can refer to the NGC website for a complete listing of every coin they have designated as Proof or Specimen. This is an excellent guide of what might be available on the market at some point. The Mega edition of the Guide Book of United States Coins also lists every Proof coin struck by United States Mint with estimated mintages.
My good friend John Dannreuther recently published a comprehensive study of United States Proof Coins Volume IV Gold. The book is amazing and filled with information about Proof gold coins, and other numismatic knowledge in general. Every coin issue is examined in great detail with complete pedigree information. Anyone who collects Proof gold coins should buy a copy.
The list of great early Proof United States coins struck from 1817 to 1857 with detailed information would fill a book and cannot be done in this short article. Hopefully, I have given enough information to spur your interest in this fascinating subject. If you are seeking an ultra-rare coin for your collection, you would do well to consider this exciting segment of the market.
Smithsonian Collection of Early Proof Coinage
with estimated grades by Jeff Garrett