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Collecting Proof Short Sets

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Coin collectors love building sets of popular 20th-century series such as Buffalo Nickels, Mercury Dimes, and Walking Liberty Half Dollars. PCGS Set Registry members know that each of these sets includes some exceedingly expensive and challenging key dates in the uncirculated grades. These include the 1926-S Buffalo Nickel, 1916-D Mercury Dime, and 1921-S Walking Liberty Half Dollar; all of these are five and even six-figure coins in the highest mint state grades – the grades necessary to build a top-end Registry set.

So, what is a collector to do when he or she wants to build a choice Registry set of these popular coins but can’t afford to lay out $50,000, $100,000, or even more to do it? Often, numismatists circumvent the financially formidable rarities by building short sets. A short set is essentially a set within a given series of coins that may span several years or decades. These sets are generally built to exclude the most significant rarities of the series, allowing a collector to “complete” a set of coins for a particular series without breaking the bank. There is no cut-and-dry rule as to what a short set must include, though the hobby has commonly defined several of the most popular short sets for particular series, including the 1941-1974 run of Lincoln Cents (1909-present), 1941-1945 span of Mercury Dimes (1916-1945), and the 1941-1947 string of Walking Liberty Half Dollars (1916-1947).

There is, however, another approach to building short sets that allows a collector to build a truly handsome assemblage of high-quality representatives from a particular series without spending exorbitant sums. The solution? Building short sets consisting only of proof coins. This is a novel objective in part because relatively few collectors follow such a route in building short sets. While most short sets consist of business-strike coinage, a short set consisting of only the proof coinage is largely off the beaten numismatic path. And, thanks to the relatively low demand for classic proof coins, it is perhaps a far less expensive endeavor than going after the more widely pursued uncirculated coins.

Of course, when discussing short sets, we’re not necessarily referencing series that happen to have had short runs, such as the 20 Cent Piece (1875-1878) or Susan B. Anthony Dollar (1979-1981; 1999). Rather, the short set nomenclature here is strictly referring to a short span of dates within a much longer-running series. And three of the best series for which building a short set encompassing proof coins is ideal include the aforementioned Buffalo Nickel, Mercury Dime, and Walking Liberty Half Dollar. But why these three series?

In addition to their incredible popularity, they happen to have been minted around the time during which the United States Mint took a two-decade break from striking proof coinage. The United States Mint had struck proof coinage from the mid 19th century through 1915 for most circulating United States series made during that period, but by 1916 the mint began scaling back on its proof coinage output. By 1917, the U.S. Mint had abandoned all regular production of proof coins. This would remain the case until 1936, the year that marks the beginning of the “modern” proof coin era for the United States Mint.

Proof production ended for several years after 1942 to concentrate on producing circulating coinage and military medals during World War II. And, as it happened, some well-known series, such as Standing Liberty Quarters (1916-1930) and Peace Dollars (1921-1935), coincidentally missed regular production of proof coinage altogether (though some proof-quality presentation pieces do exist). Meanwhile, that 20-year gap in proof coin production represents barely a blip on the radar screen for the long-running Lincoln Cent series, which has seen proof issues struck throughout the vast majority of its existence.

But proof short sets for the Buffalo Nickel, Mercury Dime, and Walking Liberty Half Dollar are each represented by merely a handful of different proof issues. These all-proof sets boast a quality and eye appeal unmatched by similar sets of uncirculated strikes. What’s more? All three of these sets are already recognized in the PCGS Set Registry, providing collectors with the opportunity to show off their proof short sets and compete with other collectors for awards and other incentives! It’s important to note that while not officially listed as proof “Short Sets” in the PCGS Set Registry, these proof-only sets can be regarded as short sets within the context of the entire series they respectively represent. You can check the PCGS Set Registry if you wish to build assemblages of coins officially recognized in the Registry as “Short Sets.”

What follows below is a look in greater detail at the three series mentioned above and the coins needed to complete each of their proof-only short sets.

Buffalo Nickel Proof Short Set

1913 Buffalo Nickel

1913 Buffalo Nickel PCGS PR68. Image courtesy of PCGS TrueView. Click image to enlarge.

Buffalo Nickels began their quarter-century run in 1913, and the first four years of the series designed by James E. Fraser saw proof representation, as did the last two. In all, it takes just eight pieces to complete the Buffalo Nickel Proof short set, including the following coins:

  • 1913 Type 1
  • 1913 Type 2
  • 1914
  • 1915
  • 1916
  • 1936 Satin
  • 1936 Brilliant
  • 1937

While each of these coins starts at around $1,000 for choice specimens, none are outrageously expensive, and a very nice set of coins in matching, mid-range grades could be completed for perhaps less than $10,000. While that is still a decent chunk of change, it beats the much higher five-figure price one would spend building an attractive full set of business strikes in uncirculated and the six figures necessary to complete the entire set with major varieties.

Mercury Dime Proof Short Set

1936 Mercury Dime

1936 Mercury Dime PCGS PR68+. Image courtesy of PCGS TrueView. Click image to enlarge.

Only seven coins are necessary to wrap up a complete short set of Mercury Dimes in proof. Below is a gander at the pieces one would need to fully assemble this short set:

  • 1936
  • 1937
  • 1938
  • 1939
  • 1940
  • 1941
  • 1942

While the regular-issue business-strikes pose many expensive challenges in uncirculated grades, including the 1916-D, 1921, and 1921-D, proof Mercury Dimes are not incredibly expensive at all. Save for the 1936 proof, which generally runs right around or just above the $1,000 threshold for a decent specimen, the proof issues that come afterward in the series can all be had for less than $500 apiece in desirable grades. It is quite possible to build a stunning proof short set of beautiful Mercury Dimes, designed by Adolph A. Weinman, for well under $5,000 – less than the cost of buying the 1916-D Mercury Dime in the circulated grade of XF40!

Walking Liberty Half Dollar Proof Short Set

1936 Walking Liberty Half Dollar

1936 Walking Liberty Half Dollar PCGS PR68+. Image courtesy of PCGS TrueView. Click image to enlarge.

There is perhaps no more beautiful a United States silver coin than the Walking Liberty Half Dollar, another entry here by famous artist Adolph A. Weinman. His Walking Liberty Half Dollar is gorgeous in any finish, but it is a true piece of art in proof. The following is a rundown of the seven pieces necessary to complete a proof short set of Walkers:

  • 1936
  • 1937
  • 1938
  • 1939
  • 1940
  • 1941
  • 1942

The most expensive of these is the 1936, which can easily set a collector back $3,000 to $5,000 for a really nice specimen. But the later pieces can all be had for less than $750 to $1,000 each, ensuring that the proof short set of Walking Liberty Half Dollars can attractively showcase this timeless series in one’s collection for a less than the price one would pay for buying the costly 1919-D Walker in MS64.

Building Quality Proof Short Sets

No matter the size or complexity of a coin set, quality is always key. That’s certainly the case when building proof short sets. Avoid cloudy or hazy proofs when possible and seek pieces that offer the best color and overall eye appeal. And while proofs are normally sharply struck as a rule, some are still better struck than others. All of the proofs listed above were produced before cameo frosting was common on proofs – something that became routine on United States proof coinage only in the late 1970s and early 1980s. However, some of the brilliant proofs of the late 1930s and early 1940s do boast cameo frosting. These were usually the first strikes off a new die, and it’s something that’s extremely rare and desirable on these earlier proofs. One will normally pay much more for a cameo proof from the 1930s or ‘40s, but in the eyes of many collectors it’s worth it. Overall, a collector should always buy the highest grade and best quality coins he or she can afford. Not only do higher grades help gain more points for a set in the PCGS Set Registry, even more importantly such an emphasis on quality will ensure the collector is truly happy with the set for years to come.

Set Registry Coin Collecting: Basics