What Is a Proof Coin? The Basics Explained

If you’re a novice coin collector, you may have heard the term “proof coin” and wondered what exactly that means. So, then, what is a proof coin?

Our team at Oxford Gold Group explains what you need to know to start investing in these coins and other gold coins.

What Is a Proof Coin?

Proof coins are the finest-quality coins produced by a government’s Mint (the U.S. Mint, for example). The term “proof” refers to the finish of the coin. These coins have a sharp design, mirror-like background, and lustrous shine that appeals to collectors.

Proof coins are a type of uncirculated coin, which means they’re in a mint state when collectors buy them.

Proof coins can be fantastic additions to your coin collection. A few reasons to invest in proof coins include:

  • They’re beautiful, so if looks are important to you, then you can’t go wrong with proof coins.
  • Collectors will pay top dollar for proof sets. If you wish to sell your coins, you likely won’t have trouble finding a buyer.
  • Proof coins retain their value very well, which can appeal to those interested in investing in silver or gold.
  • Proof coins are rare. Only about 5% to 20% of the amount of uncirculated coins in a set are proofs.

However, proof coins do have one drawback to consider, which is that they are generally more expensive than other types of coins. Because these coins hold their value well, though, you may have little trouble recovering the cost of your investment if you keep an eye on the price of gold and choose when to sell wisely.

The History of U.S. Proof Coins

inkwell with feather and vintage parchments near books

The U.S. Mint first began producing proof coins in 1817 and started selling proof sets in 1936. The contents of a proof set vary depending on the year. For instance, sets from 1950 to 1972 included the penny, nickel, dime, quarter, and half dollar. Sets made from 1973 through 1981 also added the dollar.

Sets from 2004 to 2005 contain two Lewis and Clark nickels. The 2010-2021 sets contain America the Beautiful quarters, which depict iconic national landmarks and monuments.

Interestingly, the U.S. Mint has made mistakes on proofs at least seven times. The 1983 Prestige Set, for instance, had a dime without a mint mark. Coins with such errors are very rare and can fetch a high price.

How Are Proof Coins Made?

Now that we’ve answered the question, “What is a proof coin?” you may be curious about how mints make these pieces.

Proof coins go through a special minting process that guarantees a high-quality finished product. To make them, a mint uses special dies that are carefully prepared before striking. Between each strike, the minter polishes the dies and aligns the coins by hand.

Mints also strike their proof coins at least twice with a coining press. The second strike is intended to firm the coin’s definition and deepen its relief. Each strike uses less pressure than the standard minting process to preserve the details of the coin’s artwork. Once striking is complete, some designers also use a frosting process to create a textured effect that contrasts with the coin’s mirrored finish.

Lastly, the mint individually inspects each proof coin using gloves or tongs so as to avoid tainting the coin with fingerprint oils. If the coin meets quality standards, packers seal it in a special plastic case.

Polishing a proof for a single coin can take several hours, as the whole process must be done by hand. It’s easy to see why proof coins are so rare and sought-after by collectors.

Different Types of Proof Coins

united states commemorative proof coins

If you’re thinking about buying bullion coins, you might wonder which type of proof coin is most worth your money. Let’s compare your options: single proof coins, proof sets, and commemorative proof coins.

Single Proof Coins

Single proof coins are coins available from the U.S. Mint at a premium price higher than their face value. Originally, the Mint only produced single proof coins upon request.

Buying just one proof coin can be a good way to round out your collection. However, if you’re new to coin collecting, you may want to consider proof sets, which we’ll discuss more below.

Proof Sets

In 1936, the U.S. Mint began offering proof coins in complete sets. These sets contained a proof penny, nickel, dime, quarter, and half dollar. The Mint suspended the production of proof sets in 1943 and didn’t resume production until 1950.

Since then, the Mint has produced other proof sets that have strong appeal with collectors. For instance, the 1976 set features a 40% silver quarter, half dollar, and dollar with a Bicentennial design. Another popular choice is the 1992 90% silver proof set, which includes a dime, quarter, and half dollar in a deluxe case.

Special Commemorative Proof Coins

The U.S. Congress authorizes special commemorative proof coins that honor American figures, events, places, and institutions. These coins are legal tender, but they’re not minted for general circulation. The U.S. Mint prints these coins in limited quantities and for a short time only.

Part of the cost of these collectible coins includes a surcharge that goes toward important projects and organizations. Since 1982, the U.S. Mint has raised more than $506 million in surcharges to help maintain national monuments, preserve historical sites, and build museums. When investors buy these coins, they contribute to a worthwhile cause.

Some special commemorative proof coins include:

  • 1982 George Washington 250th Anniversary Half Dollar
  • 1987 Constitution Bicentennial Dollar
  • 1991 Korean War Memorial Dollar
  • 1993 Bill of Rights Dollar
  • 1995 Civil War Battlefield Dollar
  • 1999 Yellowstone National Park Silver Dollar
  • 2008 Bald Eagle Commemorative Coins
  • 2012 Star-Spangled Banner Commemorative Coins
  • 2015 March of Dimes Silver Dollar
  • 2019 Apollo 11 50th Anniversary Commemorative Coins
  • 2024 Greatest Generation Commemorative Coins

How Proof Coins Are Graded

silver proof coins besides magnifying glass

Proof coins are graded on the Sheldon Coin Grading Scale, just as circulated-grade coins are. Their grades have the prefix “PR” or “PF,” meaning “proof,” to distinguish them from circulation coins.

If a proof coin receives the grade PR-63, it is called a Choice Proof. “Impaired Proofs” are proof coins with a grade below 60 show signs of mishandling or circulation.

Sheldon Coin Grading Scale

The Sheldon Coin Grading Scale is a 70-point coin assessment scale that coin graders use to determine a coin’s quality and, in turn, its value. Dr. William H. Sheldon created the scale in 1949 and first presented it in his book, Early American Cents.

The American Numismatic Association (ANA) adapted the scale for use on all U.S. coins in the 1970s. Some of its grades include:

  • Poor (1): The coin is corroded, or one side is worn smooth.
  • Fair (2): Some detail is visible.
  • Good (4): The rims of the coin are slightly worn. The design is visible but faint in places.
  • Very Fine (25): All features and lettering are sharp.
  • Choice Extremely Fine (45): Slight wear with full, sharp details.
  • Choice About Uncirculated (58): The coin has almost all of its original mint luster.

What Is a Reverse Proof Coin?

Reverse proof coins are similar to regular proof coins in that they are struck multiple times. However, they’re struck so that the design, rather than the background, is shiny.

To illustrate, assume you have a coin featuring the Statue of Liberty. For a regular proof coin, the background would have a mirrored appearance. If the coin was a reverse proof, the Statue of Liberty would be shiny instead. The reverse proof minting process allows a coin’s design to stand out much more prominently, making these coins quite popular with collectors.

Now that you know the answer to “What is a proof coin?” reach out to Oxford Gold Group for your free Precious Metals Investing Guide. You’ll learn all about how to safeguard your retirement with a gold or silver IRA.

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