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

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Please don't skip any of the following even if you've been around proof coins for forty years. I'm still learning about proof coins; you can too.

These days even the neophyte with only the briefest acquaintance with American coins as collectors' items will sooner or later encounter proof coins, whether as offered to the general public by the San Francisco Mint, or as offered to collectors by coin dealers. And sooner or later, as you delve more deeply into the subject than the blue book or the red book or the grey sheet or the trends pages permit, or as what Dr. Sheldon used to call the collecting bug bites a little harder, you will come across borderline cases, claims of extreme rarity, proofs not listed in the usual reference books, coins which present frank puzzles. And that is partly what this book is about.

And though there is no way to become expert overnight in even so well explored a field as United States numismatics, there is a way to raise your own level of knowledge from that of neophyte and swindlers' mark to - at least - informed amateur. And this is to read before you buy. What to read? That depends on the series. If you're interested in colonial coins, the Crosby book and the back files of Colonial Newsletter are absolutely essential. If it's large cents, obtain copies of the Sheldon and Newcomb books and join Early American Coppers, Inc., afterwards ordering back files of their publication Penny Wise. If you plan to specialize in earlier silver coins, the Bolender and Overton and Browningand Valentine books are for you, along with the Liberty Seated Collectors' Club. For gold, there is little available but my own monographs, to date, and these are being revised.

Unfortunately for simplicity and instant expertise, most of the above references ignore proof coins, or at best mention that proofs exist - without telling how or why they were made, how to identify real ones, how scarce they are, etc.

So what do you do about proof coins, especially the earlier ones, where the various guidebooks have little or nothing to say? Must you believe dealers' pitches in pricelists and auction catalogues? No matter how flashy and elaborate the presentation, how can you tell if the dealer knows what he is talking about? And where did all these people get their information?

Here is where the present book comes in. If you now own, or have ever owned, or ever expect to own, a proof coin of any kind - aside from the plastic-enveloped offerings from San Francisco each year - herein you will find information which will help you understand

  • what have you
  • how it was made
  • why it was made - for what occasions
  • when it was made
  • what "proof" means - why it isn't (unlike what many dealers would like you to believe) a mere super -uncirculated grade
  • how many were made
  • how rare is it
  • what it has sold for in the past
  • is it in any way different from and/or more valuable than others of its kind
  • has it any unusual history
  • is it a good investment
  • how you should - and shouldn't - take care of it

This book attempts to answer all these and probably dozens of other questions you might have. And if I've forgotten something, or if there is something you need to know on the subject and it's not in here, feel free to write me at FCI.

In addition, there is the sheer delight, the glamor of legendary, fantastic, incredible coins, museum pieces, breathtakingly beautiful specimens, which I have seen, whose stories I have heard, and which I would love to share with you, if only by descriptions and - sometimes -photographic record. There is also the frequently chuckle some story of skulduggery at the mint during the period 1858-1909 or thereabouts, imparting levity to what might otherwise have remained a fairly dull and stereotyped period of American numismatics.

These are the WHY of this book. The HOW follows. We begin with an overview of minting processes, with special reference to how special mintages, made more like medals than like production coins, and later to be called presentation coins, master coins, or proof coins, were and are made, and how the techniques devised for them in France and England filtered back to the United States. (I have long believed that it is as essential to know how coins are made, if you are going to study them at all, as it is for a doctor to know how the human body is put together before he starts prescribing for it.)

The surviving presentation and proof coins of these earlier periods -fortunately not all of them are museum pieces -reflect changes in minting technology: in more than one sense, they exemplify the 1975 National Coin Week phrase "History in your Hands" - history of man's developing mastery of a medium, history of the occasions for which the things were made.

A byproduct of this study, then, is ways to tell -most of the time, anyway - whether or not the shiny coin in your collection was, or could have been, made as a proof. In some dates of 19th century U.S.issues, the decision can mean several thousand dollars' difference in potential resale value.

Illustrative of the historical survey which begins this book is a detailed listing of all the different kinds of Colonial and U.S. presentation, master, and proof coins and sets known to me, by date, from the beginnings under Sir Isaac Newton (the mathematician and physicist and astrologer, who spent his last years as Master of the Mint) on behalf of William Wood of Wolverhampton, through the contributions of Matthew Boulton, (partner of James Watt of steam-engine fame, and possibly the greatest innovator in minting technology since Leonardo da Vinci), through the United States mint's attempts to perfect these processes, even unto their present stupefying mediocrity. As this book is a corpus rather than a mere survey, completeness is attempted, though there are a few private collections and estates to which I have not had access, so that a few gaps still exist - to be closed in future editions, one hopes.

Preservation and Values. In proof coins, more than in any other kind, value differs according to condition, and the difference may be a factor of more than 100% between one of the usually found cleaned examples and a perfect pristine gem, kept well wrapped in a dry place. Though proof coins do not normally get into circulation (so that wear is not an expected factor here), still they are subject to other vicissitudes, all of which affect value adversely.

In particular, the heavier coins (silver dollars, trade dollars, eagles and double eagles most of all) often fell out of the mint wrappers, or the cellophane envelopes collectors once favored, as these dried and split up, jangling against their neighbors, giving and receiving nicks and scratches. Owing to the brilliant mirror surfaces, these nicks ("contact marks") are more noticeable than they would be on ordinary production coins or business strikes of the same denominations and types. A proof coin on which contact marks are really noticeable might bring half or less than half the figure commanded by a perfect proof coin of the same denomination, date and type.

Also, proof coins of all denominations kept for long in the original mint wrappers (which were cheap sulfite paper never intended for long term preservation) tarnished, and the longer they stayed in contact with such paper, the more deeply they tarnished. The luckier coins acquired a fairly stable bluish tone, which protected them to some extent against further oxidation reactions. Copper and bronze coins sometimes acquired a variety of rainbow tints, mostly favoring the cooler end of the spectrum. But the unluckier coins in all denominations developed spots or stains, and their later owners usually cleaned them. Some misguided souls used silver polishes developed originally for tableware (the pink ones include jeweler's rouge, which is powdered iron oxide better known: as rust, and whose action is scrubbing or abrasion), Of other abrasives such as salt wetted with vinegar, or baking soda pastes. Use of any of these home remedies is a cure worse than the disease; all leave indelible "hairlines" or hairmarks" (sometimes in old catalogues called "haymarks" for no imaginable reason), which are microscopic superficial scratches, by the thousands, rendered visible to the naked eye by tilting the coin from side to side in a good light. Later blue toning sometimes has mercifully obscured these, though nothing will render them permanently invisible; and dipping, no matter in what, will make them once again mercilessly obvious. Repeated use of these cleaning agents destroys the mirrorlike quality of fields which had been a hallmark of the old style of brilliant proofs even as of the current San Francisco output.

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