U.S. & World Coin News and Articles

Pennies from Heaven? The Mysterious and Rare Matte Proof Lincoln Cent: The Secret May Be Out, But What Really Are These Copper Gems?

Celebrating at the 2008 American Numismatic Association convention in Baltimore are Duane Blake, holding his newly-acquired 1909 VDB matte proof, which he and his representative, matte expert Brian Wagner had just purchased to complete Blake's matte proof Lincoln collection. The collection serves as an honorarium for Blake's Father, William Blake, who passed on five years ago.
Also pictured are Jonathan Watkins and Stewart Blay (mugging for the camera) who both greatly contributed to Blake's efforts, and helped Mr. Blake complete his honorarium set in three months.
Photo by Anne McCullagh.

At the American Numismatic Association World's Fair of Money® convention held in Baltimore, July 30-August 2, 2008, copper collecting legend Stewart Blay's "Red Copper Collection" was publicly displayed for the first time. This display was sponsored by the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS). BJ Searls, Manager of the PCGS Set RegistrySM, along with her PCGS team, did an outstanding job of coordinating the gigantic effort. As part of the overall display, Mr. Blay's matte proof Lincoln Cent collection was also shown. Consisting of only nine coins (out of hundreds of copper cents), the matte proof Lincoln cent may possibly be the most mysterious and well-kept secret in the copper collecting world.

The PCGS Registry allows collectors to safely and publicly display their collections on the Internet, compete for top honors, and strive to attain the best collections possible in hundreds of different coin types. One collector at the show, Duane Blake, was able to complete his "matte proof" Lincoln cent collection that particular week. His set, entitled "William Blake Memorial Eye Appeal and Pedigree Collection," was completed in honor of his father by finding and purchasing a coveted PCGS 1909 VDB PR65 Lincoln cent.

Mint records appear to be unclear on the actual mintage and distribution of the coin, but it appears that somewhere between 420 (per Davis Lange) to 1,194 (per Flynn/Wexler) 1909 VDB matte proofs may have been minted and distributed. And today, collector and record keeper extraordinaire Steve Cohen (curator of the SJ Cohen Collection in the PCGS Registry) has reported that roughly 169 specimens appear to have been certified by the three major grading services as being genuine matte proof 1909 VDBs. Some people believe even fewer exist, for reasons that are outside the scope of this article.

This is one of the first mysteries of the series that numismatists and collectors alike have grappled to answer, but according to Cohen, "98 have been certified by PCGS," and Blake's coin is one of them, with 23 coins being on the PCGS Population Reports with the grade of Proof 65. The 1909 VDB matte Proof 65 owned by Blake is considered a high-level coin, but is, ironically for reasons detailed below, the lowest-graded coin in the Blake Collection.

Matte proof coins were specially manufactured to display a grainy, microscopically pebbled surface, without luster, which is said to "highlight" the design features. The certification process is essential as each matte proof has a series of "die markers" that can differentiate them from regularly minted coins (books have been written about die markers by authors David Bowers, David Lange, John Wexler, Kevin Flynn and Sol Taylor among others).

"I assembled this collection to honor my father, who had been sold a coin that was supposedly a matte proof, but turned out to be just a very good circulation strike," Mr. Blake said. "I had always thought my father had been cheated, but Stewart (Blay) made a good point to me when he said that while the 1909 VDB that was sold to my father was most likely legitimately thought to be a matte proof by buyer and seller alike. There were no books on the diagnostics or certification services. This is why education and improvement of the certification process are so important".

Ironically, Mr. Blake finished his collection at the ANA meeting with the purchase of a genuine 1909 VDB matte proof Lincoln cent (certified by PCGS at a Gem 65 red-brown level). (See the photo of Mr. Blake, his representative Brian Wagner and other collectors celebrating). Mr. Blake's collection consists of the required nine coins, dated 1909 through 1916. A full collection of matte proofs consists of 9 coins, as the 1909 has both a "plain" and "VDB" reverse style. Rumors persist of a mysterious 1917 matte proof, but accounts have never been verified. After this final coin was added, Mr. Blake's collection was numerically rated Number 8 in the PCGS Set Registry, which accepts coin collections from all over the world. In matte proof "toned" cents, known as "brown" or "red-brown," Mr. Blake's collection was rated Number 2, and further, the set was rated as the Number 3 toned collection (containing no "red" coins) of all time!

Mr. Blake's coins are remarkably colorful and exceptional in their preservation level. His collection, titled "William Blake Memorial Eye Appeal and Pedigree Collection" may be viewed on the PCGS Set Registry website here). "I would encourage non-collectors and collectors alike to look at this series of coins on the PCGS Registry – they are honest-to-goodness rare and exceedingly beautiful copper gems," Blake says.

Mr. Blake believes that his collection, from an eye appeal perspective, is one of the prettiest set of coins actually assembled. "I was lucky enough to have some of the big pedigree names added to my collection, like Blay and Eliasberg, as well," he added. "Louis Eliasberg is generally considered the Babe Ruth of coin collecting, and Stewart Blay is a living legend, a real celebrity. But most importantly, I honored my father's name before 2009, which was my goal. The way things fell together was remarkable. I just say a prayer of thanks. These pennies came to me from Heaven."

It is worth noting that three out of nine of the coins in Mr. Blake's collection (the 1911, 1913 and 1914) have been included in the prestigious BWRC Hall of Fame, an honor which is reserved for coins that are considered by renowned Lincoln Cent matte proof connoisseur Brian Wagner to be the finest, most eye appealing copper cent coins known. (See here). "There are many nice matte proofs around, but only the finest of the finest make the Hall of Fame," stated Brian Wagner.

Another man who has been collecting and photographing rare coins for over 30 years, Richard Abrahams (www.greattoning.com) photographed one of the Blake coins and stated that "it was without a doubt the finest toned set of matte proof Lincolns I have ever had the privilege of photographing." Mr. Abrahams specializes in toned coins, and has literally photographed "hundreds of thousands" of coins.

So Mr. Blake, with Brian Wagner's expert advice and numismatic contacts, was able to piece together this remarkable collection. This author believes that, aside from a collector purchasing a full set of matte proof Lincolns at one sitting, this is the first time any collector has actually assembled a set of matte proof Lincoln cents, especially at this high level of preservation and eye appeal, in such a short period of time. "Brian Wagner was incredible," Mr. Blake said of his representative. "Many collectors hunt for years, and in some cases, decades, to complete a full set of these rare and beautiful coins, but Brian always knew were to look."

Mr. Blake was even able to find and include coins in his collection that are known as "pedigreed" specimens, which derive that designation from famous collectors and historical collections. For example, the Blake collection contains specimens from the famous Louis Eliasberg Collection (the Blake 1912), and one coin from Stewart Blay (the Blake 1914). Pedigreed coins are typically eagerly sought, command high premiums and inspire competitive bidding when they can be found.

"I was lucky enough to add the Eliasberg specimen to the collection through Brian Wagner, working with dealers Andy Skrabalak, Alynne Skrabalak and Dave Schweitz, who had just purchased the entire famous Tim Liston toned collection of matte proofs," he continued. "In my opinion, Tim Liston was 20 years ahead of his time in recognizing the value inherent in the ‘toned' matte proof Lincoln series years before the numismatic community in general. I believe that his collecting was pioneering in this regard, and both Tim and his representative, numismatist Joe O'Connor, deserve a great deal of credit today.

Blake's ability to collect all nine coins in about four months may not appear remarkable to the uninitiated, who may ask, what is so outstanding about this particular achievement? Well, to answer that, in the entire PCGS Set Registry, only 12 complete sets of matte proof Lincoln cents are even on record. Why is this? Only nine coins are needed to complete a set, yet there are only 12 complete sets. What is it about these coins that the general public (and many collectors) do not know? "There is a lot of history and mystery behind this series, but slowly, the truth is coming out, bit by bit, and it appears that we have some bonafide rarities in our midst," says Blake. The secret has been well-kept for a long time – with this much money at stake, one would think more matte proofs would surface, but they don't. I think that in itself speaks volumes about these little treasures."

To properly begin to answer the above question, a little historical and market perspective are helpful. Most people are aware that certain Lincoln cents are considered "rare" and command high prices among collectors. One such example is a well-known classical penny referred to as a 1909-S VDB. The coin is considered very scarce, with a mintage of only 484,000, and with the strong demand for the coin, people will routinely pay $1,000 and more (sometimes even $25,000 or more) for this coin, depending on the coin's condition. On average, a circulated specimen may be found in the $2,000-$5,000 range. Historically, the price of the coin has appreciated, and the purchase of a 1909-S VDB is considered a very good use of resources.

What most people are not aware of is that the "scarcity" of the 1909-S VDB, with almost a half of a million coins minted, pales in comparison to the mintages of the matte proof Lincoln Cents. History gives us a clue to this mystery. For example, to honor of the 100th birthday of Abraham Lincoln, President Theodore Roosevelt lobbied heavily and successfully to have a coin created in President Lincoln's honor. Obviously, with 2009 approaching, people are aware that another 100-year milestone is upon us, but that does not account for the true mystery of the matte proof Lincoln Cent.

Renowned numismatist David Bowers lends a helpful backdrop to explain the background of the matte proof Lincoln: "In 1909 the Philadelphia Mint, following a procedure used by the Paris Mint for many years and a process used in Philadelphia for gold coins beginning in 1907, discarded the "brilliant" proof format for the cent and instituted the matte proof style. Pieces of this method of manufacture displayed a grainy, microscopically pebbled surface, without luster, which was said to "highlight" the design features."

"While such a proofing process might have been popular with French collectors, it certainly was not well received on this side of the Atlantic. Collectors were almost unanimous in their disapproval of the proofs of this style made from 1909 through 1916. They preferred the mirrorlike finish of earlier years. As a result, most matte proof Lincoln cents simply sat on the shelves … (However) in recent years the rarity of matte proof Lincoln cents (and other matte proof denominations) has been realized. Of the 1,365 Matte Proofs reported coined for 1914, for example, probably only a few hundred still survive. Unless they have been cleaned, Matte Proofs of this era nearly always show various gradations of brown, gold, and iridescent toning, due to the chemical composition of the tissue paper in which they were distributed and stored." Source: Q. David Bowers. 1909 to Date Lincoln Cents - Part 1, PCGS Library, 2001.

So Mr. Bowers answers many questions that might account for the value of the matte proof coins. Collectors of the early 20th Century wanted "shiny" proof cents, and did not like the matte sheen of the new proof coins. What they could not know, however, was that the copper matte surfaces, and the mint paper in which the coins were wrapped for shipment (containing sulfur), would react chemically in such a way to create, in some instances, the most wonderful and colorfully-toned and beautiful coins that could ever be seen. For example, photographs of several coins from the Blake Collection are pictured here. As you can see, the coins aged remarkably, and considering the rarity of the coins minted and the fact that most of the minted coins may have not even been sold, or were just spent as "regular pennies," it is understandable that these coins command high premiums when they do become available, whether at auction or in private sales.

As a recent example of the prices being paid, in April 16, 2008, at a publically held coin auction in Rosemont, Illinois, a matte proof Lincoln Cent dated 1914 sold for $126,500! No, that is not a typographical error. On top of that, the coin was the object of desire of 13 bidders of record. Hundreds of people followed the bidding, and while there was much speculation regarding the final winning bid for that coin, most of the bidders were not surprised by the final price. The real surprise, in many people's minds, was that it has taken collectors and investors alike such a long time to understand the true rarity and thus value of the particular type of Lincoln cent that was purchased that day.

The coin referenced above, not surprisingly, was a special type of coin, in that it was remarkably well-preserved. Yet, while this particular sale was unique and the winning bid exceedingly high, matte proof Lincolns are selling for large sums of money on a regular basis, usually right under the nose of collectors and non-collectors alike.

The unusual aspect of matte proof Lincolns is that most collectors, from beginners to experts, are generally just beginning to understand the rarity of these coins, and the general public by and large is not even aware that matte proof Lincolns exist. The have literally flown under the radar for nearly a century. The coins' prices and rightful value, considering the rarity and other aspects of the coins themselves, are now increasing dramatically in accord with the public awareness and general education relating to the series that is now talking the coin world by storm.

"The market is literally correcting itself while we watch. It is fascinating," Blake explained. The matte proof series was short-lived, and was minted in Philadelphia from 1909 only until 1916. While the 1914 sale referred to earlier is a dramatic example of value, matte proof Lincolns are rarely sold, in any condition, for less then $2,000-$3,000. Yet, just ten years ago, people would literally buy these coins for less than $100!

With oil at an all-time high, the stock market uncertain, the dollar deflated, and other questions to answer, why would someone pay well over $100,000 for a penny? The answer is, matte proof Lincolns, although initially underappreciated, are now beginning to be seen by the community as the rare and beautiful coins they can be.

The unrecognized "mysterious" and "secret" value aspects of the matte proof Lincoln Cents are: a) the mintages were extremely low, and b) the metal is unpredictable – to predict which coins, 100 years ago, would stay or become "beautiful" was impossible.

"These are not just pennies", said Mr. Blake, "they are hand sculpture masterpieces. Take a look at the any coin in the collection, especially the 1915 or 1916, for the intricate engraving detail; have you ever seen a sculpture more beautiful? And there are only two of these 1916 coins known in this condition. It is called a Pop 2-0, and I know where the other one resides – with a great collector who loves his collections. I had a chance to purchase that other coin as well, but passed. I was determined to honor my father, and was not interested in cornering any markets! I think a coin with only 2, 6, or 10 known examples is pretty rare."

"The truth is, people pay millions of dollars for rare or unique art or collectables all the time. Why should a unique hand sculpture be any different? That's my perspective," Blake concluded.

Mr. Blake's PCGS Registry collection can be viewed on-line here.

PCGS Library