Proof Set Fever Reaching Boiling Point
By Boyd Hargraves,
Since the first proof coins were struck by the U.S. Mint during the early 1830’s, they have been sought by collectors. The process resulted from a fire and the replacement of the old horse drawn equipment at the mint with new steam powered presses. This leads to the fact that proof coins are a process and not a grade, as believed by beginning collectors. In comparison to normal business strikes, they are carefully minted in relatively small numbers and given special treatment and storage by mint personnel. Prior to U.S. Mint history, the only proofs available from a Western Hemisphere mint were the presentation pieces struck at the mints in South America and Mexico City. These were minted for gov't officials and inspectors in Spain. Today, these are some of the most valuable foreign coins. Today, the process begins with the selection of special planchets which are washed and polished prior to striking. After this, with gloved hands they are carefully placed in the coining machines and struck multiple times to bring up all of the intricate details of the design. This is in contrast to normal business strikes, which are only struck once. After striking, the finished coins are carefully packaged in inert, airtight holders, and transported to customers. As a result of the process, proof coins are the best the mint has to offer, perfect coins.
Prior to 1936, proof coin issues were sporadic, mostly issued and sold as single coins. Of complete sets, perhaps the best known and valuable is the 1834 King of Siam set which contained a wide variety of gold, silver, and copper coins, including a struck out of date 1804 Proof silver dollar! Beginning in 1936, complete sets of all circulating issues, one cent through fifty cents, were offered for sale to collectors by the mint. As a result of WWII emergencies, the first run of complete sets was short and only lasted from 1936 until 1942. Today, these are beyond the price barriers of most collectors, especially the acquisition of complete sets. However, single coins from the sets are occasionally available and demand strong prices. This is especially true of the proof Buffalo nickels, Mercury dimes, and Walking Liberty halves.
After the war, proof set production was resumed in 1950 and has continued to the present except for a brief break during the 1960’s, 1965-1968, and the special issue of Bicentennial 40% coins. Perhaps, as a result of association and my age, I see the silver sets minted, 1950-1964 as a practically unbelievable bargain. While it is true some of the sets are expensive, 1950 - 1956, many of the remainder can be purchased for under $25! This is for sets which include 90% silver proofs of Franklin halves, quarters, and dimes and proof Lincoln cents in the sets struck before 1959. Add to these, the 1960 Lincoln small date variety and first striking of the Kennedy half. With practically all silver coins, including the 40% silver sets stuck from 1965-1970, the huge jump in silver prices during the early 1980’s, brought the destruction and melting of a large percentage of the available sets. During this time, personally seeing the destruction and participating in it, today, makes seeing a complete set for sale seem odd. It is difficult to imagine that so many could be available. As a result, of the exploding interests in proof sets, today, I believe the demand for the early silver sets will push the prices to astronomical highs in the near future. The best time to locate and purchase a group of the 1950-1964 sets is now while the cheap prices and availability still persists.
As indicated by the title of this article, the proof set market is boiling and pushing prices to record highs. For many years during the 1970’s and 1980’s the prices were low and showed very little future potential. During this time, the sets could be broken and sold separately for more than the price of a complete set. As a result, many of my nights during this time were spent placing proof coins in 2x2 cardboard holders. This activity decreased the available supply of complete sets and indirectly helped contribute to the current high prices. Such activities helped, but the fire was lit most definitely by the mint's introduction of the state quarter program in 1999.
According to the program, all of the states were asked to contribute designs for the quarters struck to represent them. Since 1999, fifty states have been commemorated with a special quarter beginning with the first to become part of the United States. The first was Delaware, and the last was the Hawaii … not to mention the District of Columbia and 5 U.S. Territories honored in 2009. Successful beyond the mint's expectation, the program has brought millions of new collectors into the hobby, all eagerly searching for each new release along with the old. Fueled by the success, other equally interesting series already begun are the Presidential Dollar series and the brand new National Parks Quarter program. These are bound to add heat to a market already at the boiling point!
To increase profits from the quarter programs and to provide an unbeatable product, the mint has struck and sold a proof set which includes all of the quarters for the given year, one in .900 fine silver and one in clad. In addition, the sets have also included a silver and a clad Roosevelt dime and a Kennedy half. With these another kicker is the beautiful Sacagawea dollar introduced in 2000 which continues today. Moreover, in 1999 the last Susan B. Anthony was offered in the first sets. Of the sets, my choice is the silver, sets with prices bound to go in only one direction and that is up! The Presidential dollars as well as the National Parks quarters will add even more fuel to the fire!
As is true with a collection of any coin series, buyers of the modern proof sets are looking back and buying those from years past. With these, the options are practically unlimited and include all of the sets back to 1936. As previously stated, I like all of the silver sets and feel that those from 1950 - 1964 are extremely underpriced. Next, we have an excellent selection to choose from, including the 1976 Bicentennials, the Ike dollars, and a stretch of Susan B. Anthony's from 1979 to 1981 and then 1999. Again, of these sets my favorites are the special sets which include a commemorative dollar and a run of silver sets introduced in 1992. This is a great market with unlimited potential!