The U.S mint began releasing annual proof sets in 1936 that included one proof of each coin that was struck for circulation that year. The practice continues to this day with many collectors considering the annual proof set a ‘must get’ every year.
Since the early 19th century, the United States Mint has been producing proof versions of some of the country’s circulating coinage. Collectors took to these so strongly that they eventually wanted proof versions of all of America’s circulating coinage. The mint finally obliged in 1936, when it began issuing annual proof sets that included one proof of each coin that was struck for circulation that year. The practice continues to this day with many collectors considering the annual proof set a ‘must get’ every year.
Proof sets draw collectors for a variety of reasons, some unique to individual sets or runs over certain years, and others having to do with continuity or other reasons. One of the chief advantages of proof sets is that they provide a connection with historic coin collecting. Today, mints all over the world provide collectors with countless options. Collections, series, commemoratives, bullion, and other issues provide an endless array of options that cater to collectors and others interested in precious metals. Those who don’t buy precious metals are often oblivious to this world. By contrast, proof sets, although they have special finishes, feature coinage that people use, or used, in daily commerce, thus providing a connection with everyday life. This is the same type of connection that collectors gain with the past through ancient and medieval coins, but rather than stretching back centuries, they provide a connection with more recent events: the time of a significant life event, coinage that collectors’ parents and grandparents would’ve used, or connections to the times of significant historical events.
The proof finishes of the coins in the set ensure that they get into the hands of collectors rather than into circulation. This means that the designs are beautifully preserved and appear just as they did when they were first struck. Proof coins are created using a special minting process where silver planchets are struck multiple times, creating highly detailed designs contrasted against their shiny field. However, since they bear the same designs as circulating coinage, they still provide a physical connection to the past.
Numismatists categorize proof sets based on their packaging, time period, and any special issue coins. This means that collectors can get a set of proof sets from a given stretch of time and consider the set complete without having to get all the proof sets dating back to 1936.
In addition to complete sets, the mint sold individual coins, which meant that each coin had a different mintage. The lowest mintage of any coin in the 1936 set was the Washington Quarter, of which just 3,837 were struck. Other coins in the set included the Lincoln Cent, the Buffalo Nickel, the Mercury Dime, and the Walking Liberty Half dollar. These sets come on white holders. Many of the sales were made at the Philadelphia Mint itself, which somewhat limited access to collectors nationwide.
Among the most popular collections of proof sets is those dated 1973-1978. These sets are especially popular because they include Eisenhower Dollars and the famous bi-centennial coins, which featured unique reverse designs. The Eisenhower Dollars combined the celebration of the bi-centennial with the moon landing, featuring a unique design with both the Liberty Bell and the Moon. This design was actually used on the Robbins Medals, carried into space during the Apollo 11 mission.
More recent proof sets have their own unique appeal. Sets issued from 1999-2008 each featured their respective year’s issues from the State Quarters program. The last two of these also featured the first issues of the Presidential Dollar Series. That series continued into the next collection, 2009-2021, which is best characterized by its America the Beautiful Quarters. This collection of sets may prove especially popular in decades to come given the popularity of these coins’ silver counterparts.
While most of the attention for these sets goes to the sets themselves, coin collecting is a unique hobby, and coin collectors are a unique breed. In just about all other areas of life, perfection is the ultimate goal. For collectors, though, errors offer even more appeal. Accordingly, two mistakes in proof sets made by the San Francisco Mint made the Top 10 in Professional Coin Grading Service’s (PCGS) list of the Top 100 Modern Coins.
In 1968, the San Francisco Mint mistakenly began striking Proof Roosevelt Dimes without the “S” mint mark. These were the first ever proof coins from San Francisco struck without the mark. The mint does not have records for these coins, but it’s quite possible that no more than a dozen exist. One of them sold at auction for over $32,000 in 2005.
That wasn’t the highest proof on the list, however, as the mint struck more coins without the mint mark in 1975. Why are these errors ranked higher? Only two are known to exist. One was discovered in 1977, and the other wasn’t discovered for another seven years. For decades, neither of these coins was put on the market. That changed in 2011, when one of the two made it to an ANA sale offering by Stack’s-Bowers. The historic coin made for a historic sale, when it fetched an eye-popping $349,600.
In other recent news, the U.S mint released an exciting first in the 2019 Proof Set. In 2019, in addition to the 10 proof versions of circulating coins that are traditionally included, the 2019 Proof Set included a bonus special release proof 2019-W Lincoln Cent, which struck at the West Point Mint, and thus bears its "W" Mint mark. While pennies have been struck at the West Point mint in years past, they never bore the highly sought after "W" Mint Mark, making their origin point, impossible to discern. That year, the Silver Proof and Uncirculated U.S. Mint Sets also received a 2019-W Penny, each featuring a different finish. Special additions like these are a great way to slip a numismatic treasure into an entry level product on the numismatic journey.
In 2020, the United States Mint again decided to include special West Point Mint Struck bonus issues with 2020 Mint Sets, this time including the first Jefferson Nickels to be struck at the West Point Mint and that bear its "W" Mint mark. The 2020 Proof Set featured a 2020-W Proof Jefferson Nickel, while the Silver Proof Set received a bonus 2020-W Reverse Proof Jefferson Nickel. Due to complications caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, no bonus Nickel was included with 2020 Uncirculated Mint Sets.
While 2021 Proof Sets will not include a special West Point Mint struck bonus, this year's issues will be notable for containing seven coins, including the final America the Beautiful Quarter featuring the Tuskegee Airmen National Historical Site. Since the ATB series is concluding in 2021, having been issued for ten years, just a single ATB quarter is being released this year, of which a Proof example will be inlcuded in this set. In addition to the standard Lincoln Cent, Roosevelt Dime, Kennedy Half Dollar, Jefferson Nickel, other inclusions in this set are the Tuskegee Airmen National Historical Park ATB quarter, the next circulating quarter design featuring George Washington crossing the Delaware River, and the 2021 Native American Dollar design. The Native American Dollar design is a one year only release and honors Native American service in the military.
In addition to proof sets, the U.S Mint also issues silver proof sets, which were first issued in 1992, and uncirculated sets, which date back to 1947. Each type of set offers its own unique appeal, but U.S Mint Proof Sets retain the prestigious status as the grandfather of them all. They offer collectors a fantastic opportunity to grow their coin collections with stunning pieces that bear the designs of circulated coinage. While ancient coins give collectors the chance to connect with civilizations gone by, these sets let collectors connect with their own past, as well as that of their parents and grandparents. From dedicated hobbyists who set out to add one of each to their collections to casual collectors who would prefer to stick with one set of collections, almost everyone can appreciate the addition of United States Mint Proof Sets to their collections.
Author Name: Sean McConeghy
Sean McConeghy is a freelance writer and network marketer living in Roatan, Honduras. He originally hails from New York and specializes in writing about numismatics, real estate, and politics.