Walter Breen's Encyclopedia of United States and Colonial Proof Coins 1722-1989

U.S. Presentation and Proof Coins: Overview
1 2 3 4 5 6

Dear Sir:
Yours of the 10th inst. is received, enclosing four dolls currency for one of the New Style Silver proofs [sets] of 1873. It will be some time before they are ready. When ready I will send them by mail to you.

Also was enclosed gold doll. to be exchanged for one of 1873 with 25¢ silver.
Enclosed find the gold dollar. It is a proof one which is worth one 25 doll so that your twenty five cents silver will go to pay the premium.

Your obdt Servt
James Pollock
Superintendent
Per T C T

Boosel comments that no 1873 gold dollars were in the mint at the time other than proofs, as the only ones yet coined (25, in February) were proofs; regular coinage was not commenced until July, hence no uncirculated gold dollars could have been furnished to any applicant.

With incidents like this occurring, it is small wonder that the confusion persisted. It is also small wonder that it would have spread to collectors and dealers considering that many silver and gold coins between 1877 and 1891 have a superficial appearance similar to proofs, and many proofs of the period were carelessly made so as not to have relief detail much superior (if at all) to that on uncirculated pieces, or else the dies or blanks were only imperfectly polished. This situation was, if anything, worsened after 1907 when the Philadelphia Mint began introducing numerous variants of the French matte and sandblast proof surfaces onto gold, bronze, nickel and silver in that order; as many of the proofs remained in the original paper wrappers (cheap sulfite-process paper at that) for decades, they came out usually darkened, streaked or spotted, and many received drastic cleaning with predictable results. I hope that the present study can help clear up some of the confusion, but in the absence of the actual coins for comparison, or availability of specimens preserved in museums and known to be authentic proofs, or of glossy photographic enlargements showing key surface areas and relief-detail areas side by side on proof and uncirculated coins of the same dates and preferably from the same dies, we may not be able to help everyone. And anomalies do occur even in the twentieth century. Without even going into the question of the notorious "Special Mint Sets" from San Francisco, there are the first issue proofs of 1936, which are often hard to distinguish from uncirculated coins, especially if tarnished or if allowed to knock against other coins; and I once owned a 1909 plain Lincoln cent, obv. perfect matte proof, rev. uncirculated with mint bloom - really another mint error.

Though true proofs, in the technical sense of coins medallically made, appear to date back only to 1817 at the Philadelphia Mint, there are controversial earlier coins dating back to 1792. Enthusiastic dealers and collectors normally call these proofs anyway, because of the lovely mirror-like surfaces and matte relief details, and this is to some extent understandable, for they do resemble later proofs. What is more significant, some of these pieces appear to have been actual presentation coins, such as the1795 dollar given to Major the Lord St. Oswald, or the 1797 half-dime sent to Matthew Boulton, or the coins of 1796 made up to celebrate the admission of Tennessee to the Union, June 1, 1796. In a few instances partial sets or groups may have been made up, unofficially, as samples of the mint's work. The idea of making up complete sets from half cent to dollar or even to eagle probably was a later after thought, perhaps inspired by someone's having seen, and maybe shown around, one of the British proof sets of 1746. All the alleged proofs dated before 1817 are controversial. In some instances it can be proved that the individual coins were made later than the dates they bear; in others, it is dubious that they received more than one blow from the dies, though they were obviously struck from brightly burnished new dies on blanks cut from burnished strip (or perhaps individually burnished before striking), carefully positioned by hand so as to receive well centered impressions, and caught after striking in chamois or glove so that they would not receive the usual nicks and abrasions from their fellows in the receiving baskets on ejection.

In the present study all such coins dated before 1817 will be referred to as presentation pieces, save for instances such as the restrike or fantasy dollars dated 1801 through 1804 and the plain-t eagle of 1804, which have been proved to date to the middle eighteen thirties (by when proofmaking was a well-understood technique at the mint). The antedated fantasy pieces have been studied in the Newman-Bressett book The Fantastic 1804 Dollar, to which I had the honor to make some contributions, but so far as I know nobody has until now made a study of presentation pieces. The title emphasizes the probable intent of such offbeat issues - they were not publicly sold to collectors, but were instead reserved for the occasional dignitary visiting the mint, or for transmission via messenger or postal service or packet boat to VIPs on selected occasions.

Proof sets, properly so called, cannot be unequivocally documented prior to 1834 (or possibly 1829, if indeed the letter quoted below is a product of that year and not something with a blurry 1835 date misfiled). Nevertheless, complete sets could have been made in most years from 1820 on, perhaps on several occasions during the various years to judge by the existence of proofs of early and late die varieties for each denomination. If J.J. Mickley's sets dating from 1827 on were in fact assembled rather than obtained intact from the mint as though proof sets, this would mean only that the proofs made in those years - even as in the London mint during most years besides 1746, 1826, 1831, 1839, 1853, 1887, 1893, 1902, 1911, 1927, etc. - were intended primarily for presentation to dignitaries and other favored parties, rather than for sale to collectors. The few references from 1834-1857 to proof sets among Archives documents allude to the use of such sets in diplomatic presentation, or to transmission to congressional committees or the like, never to sell to coin collectors. Generally sets are not even referred to; what recurs instead is referencesdesign, or denomination to The President, The Secretary of the Treasury, or some other officials. It is true that complaisant mint officials did occasionally save rare "old-tenor" gold pieces as they came in for remelting after 1834, and sometimes earlier, as favors for personal friends who happened to be coin collectors, but as far as is known no special strikings were made for them prior to the 1850's.

The earliest letter yet found in the Archives alluding to proof sets follows:


Mint of the United States

Philadelphia
April 17, 1829 (?)

Hon. S. Swartout, Collector of the Port of N.Y. Sir:

I forward by the mail under cover to you as requested by the Secretary of State, two caskets for Edmund Roberts, Esq., which I have to request you will so please to have delivered to him.

Very Respectfully,
Your obdt Servt
Samuel Moore
Director of the Mint

U.S. Presentation and Proof Coins: Overview
1 2 3 4 5 6

Back to All Books