[The following excerpt is published courtesy of DLRC Press and its author, Gloria Peters & Cynthia Mohon. This information was originally published in 1995 in The Complete Guide to Shield and Liberty Head Nickels
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“Except for nickel coins, proofs made in the middle and later years of the 19th century at the Philadelphia Mint are a fairly monotonous lot of coins. ‘Polished up portraits of the coinage’ (as Dr. Sheldon calls them). “they have little individuality and any two of the same date and denomination will look very much alike.” Breen’s quote taken from his Encyclopedia on Proof Coins is quite apt. Nickel proofs are a refreshing exception to this monotony, however, the difference is mainly due to the mints, both here and abroad, having difficulty striking nickel coinage. The quality of nickel planchets and methods of production all led to shield and liberty head nickel proofs exhibiting differences within dates in each of their respective series. Typically the differences lie within surface, strike characteristics, plus differentiating between the business strike as compared to proof — particularly in the years 1866 through 1890. Proofs were manufactured in the medal department utilizing the same standards and methods given to artistic medals.
THE PROOF PROCESS
A proof coin is designated by the method of manufacture and was made for collectors. A proof coin is not necessarily more valuable than the same date regular issue. In the shield and liberty head series, and in many dates the proof is far more common since many were saved in nice condition by collectors. There are two major factors needed to produce a sharply struck proof with a square rim/edge: 1) The degree of upset, or milling…not to be confused with reeding. 2) The degree of stamping pressure and the smoothness needed to squeeze the metal fully into every crevice in the dies. One hard sharp blow as given to a business strike coin does not normally fill the collar adequately to make the rim/edge square and the process also affects the metal flow on the coin’s surface. Proofs do not have the mint frost as seen on business strikes. Hypotheses: die striations develop on business strike dies that actually produce mint frost are the result of: 1) The hard one blow stamping process as used to manufacture business strikes. 2) Business strike dies are not polished to remove the striations.
James P. Kimball, Director of the Mint, in a letter to the Secretary of The Treasury dated October 3,1887, clearly defined the mint’s definition of a Proof in that year… “A coin specially struck by hand-press instead of by steam-press from a polished planchet.” Six years later, in fiscal year 1893, the mint replaced the “old fashioned and ponderous screw press” by a powerful hydraulic press for the striking of medals and proof coinage. In 1896 the screw press, although replaced by the faster hydraulic press in striking coins, was still used in making dies for “coinage and metals of the most artistic character.” Polishing the dies for proof coinage or metals was not mentioned by either Director Kimball or Engraver Barber during this time frame, but we assume they were. (Mint Director Reports: 1892, 1896)
In October, 1901 the 3rd and newest mint was opened in Philadelphia, and in 1902 newer quick-acting hydraulic presses with a capacity of 350 tons were purchased for minting small medals and proof coinage. Additional improvements included equipment which automatically repositioned a coin or medal requiring more than one blow. Before this date coins and medals requiring multiple blows had to be repositioned by hand each time prior to restriking. As a comparison to a business strike which required a stamping pressure of 60 tons — same as a half-eagle and a 25¢ quarter — plus or minus 5% dependent upon the press used, a proof coin required 2 strikes, and a 4″ medal was given 60 blows.
Two other important manufacturing advances were made in fiscal year 1902. Both involved planchet and die improvement. New engine lathes, emery grinder and a lathe of special design permitted the introduction of a system which essentially allowed a perfect surface to be obtained on the face of the blanks prepared to receive the impression of the hub; devices for hubbing produced noticeable improvements in the dies and last, but not least, the new equipment allowed finishing of dies “never before possible.” Proofs tend to be semi-brilliant to brilliant from 1902 through 1912.
SHIELD AND LIBERTY HEAD PROOF IDENTIFICATION
There are several dates in the shield and liberty head series that are sometimes difficult to ascertain whether they are proof or mint state. Proof die diagnostics alone, as described in Breen’s Encyclopedia, cannot provide the answer as to the difference between proofs and business strikes as proof dies were used in the manufacture of both proof and business strikes during both series. In the Date and Analysis Chapter each date is addressed as to possible rounded rims; dates reported to be struck only once; prooflike characteristics; lackluster/dull surfaces; satiny surfaces and/or a combination of these factors. The deficiencies in proof coinage, particularly for the difficult dates, seems to a combination of factors: milling, striking, planchet preparation and, the quality of nickel planchets used in production. In addition to minting aberrations there is also the original issuing of some dates reported packaged in sulfate paper and, of course, alterations made after being issued by the mint. Does it make sense (dollars and cents) to alter a proof surface to resemble a business strike surface in several of these dates? The answer has to be yes due to the rarity factor. For example, the 1880 in proof is fairly common and is priced accordingly. In a business strike it is No.1 in rarity, pricey, and very difficult to acquire. Whenever there is a large discrepancy in price between proof and mint state ascertaining the difference between the two is very important when purchasing these dates without the benefit of 3rd party professional grading. Even the experts can have trouble deciding the difference — especially if the coin is in circulated condition.
In a telephone interview with Rick Montgomery, PCGS Grader and Authenticator we asked how the PCGS grading staff differentiate between a proof and a business strike in the shield and liberty head nickel series. Paraphrasing his response: Rick agreed there is a problem detecting 1st strikes from proofs until about 1890. Initially when a coin is submitted for grading, the graders look at the coin very carefully for evidence of the proof process — planchet and die preparation. They look in particular for mirrored fields, an extremely sharp strike, (sometimes evidence of having been struck twice is helpful), and broad, sharp edges on the rim. “Sometimes you can tell it is a business strike by fine die striations (raised lines) on the coin caused by the wiping down (rags, etc.) of the dies after proof coinage is completed.” As the last resort they consult Breen’s book for die diagnostics, and any other reference material to aid in die identification.
Professional graders sometimes have shortcuts in die identification for certain dates, however, it was clear that the grading philosophy is to look first for proof coin process characteristics before utilizing die diagnostics. In the Date and Mintmark Analysis chapter, for each date, and at the end of this chapter, Proof Diagnostics for both series have been included for reference.
GUIDELINES FOR DETERMINING PROOF AND/OR MINT STATE CONDITION
Rounded Rims verses Beveled Edges: When describing a coin and, in particular certain location points, we prefer the term rim for the horizontal outer part of the coin far right after the denticles. Likewise when describing edge we mean the vertical section of the coin, which may or may not have reeding, dependent upon the coin issue in question. This is notably different from Breen’s description where he describes a rounded “edge” as a characteristic of certain dates in the proof coinage. We will use the term rounded “rim”. The edge will clearly show beveling as in a business strike. However, a proof with a rounded rim will not show appreciable rounding on the edge… when holding the coin between forefinger and thumb and viewing just the edge.
The normal business strike will exhibit a rounded rim with beveled appearing edges. One basic test to ascertain business strike verses proof is to hold the coin (by the edge) between the thumb and forefinger and check the edge area. The beveled edges of a business strike can be observed when holding a coin in this position. The business strike will also give the appearance of a narrowed edge (flat area) because of the beveling. The proof, even with somewhat rounded rims, will have a flat broad edge without beveling — and sometimes even a wire rim due to the striking pressure applied. A comparison of this important factor is pictured below. Prooflike Surfaces: P/L surfaces are the product of die(s) (used in producing business strike coins) that were subject to repair work of some kind using a fine abrasive. Surfaces appear reflective but usually fuzzy. (Alan Herbert)
Mirrored Surfaces: Proofs do have mirrored surfaces even if moderately dulled or toned. Proof mirrors have sharp reflections unless the coin’s surfaces are badly impaired. Coins with granular surfaces such as the 1877 proof will still be reflective — only just not as sharp as a coin with mirrored surfaces. First strike business strikes, while appearing reflective to the eye, do not normally give a sharp reflection due to the difference in the minting process.
Strike: First strike business strikes can be very well struck, and may appear similar to a proof without checking other characteristics. On the other hand a poorly struck proof — such as an unknown number of the 1877’s, reported to have been struck with only one blow may not appear as sharp as other proofs in the series. Lacking records, it is possible other proofs within a given date, also received only one blow in the striking process.
Value: Due to the differences in rarity and cost, dates, particularly through the 1890’s should be checked for proof and/or business strike characteristics. Proofs in the years 1874; 1877; 1880; 1881; 1883 shield; 1883 NC; 1886; 1887; 1888 may have rounded rims. Some examples of proofs minted in the years 1888; 1879; 1880; 1881 and 1883 shield can have lackluster surfaces and/or poor strikes. Proofs dated 1888 and 1889 are noted for dull surfaces, etc. Some nickel blanks and/or ready to strike planchets purchased by the mint did not polish well and were difficult to anneal prior to striking.