Proof gold coinage has been called the “caviar of numismatics” - and with good reason. Everyone loves a nice Proof gold coin and there is no denying the rarity of these issues. But compared to Proof Bust silver coins, most Proof gold is common. I would contend that Proof Bust silver coinage is one of the most fascinating—and undervalued—areas in all of numismatics. The earliest known Proof silver coins (at least those that are universally regarded as having been unquestionably struck as Proofs) date to around 1820. From the early part of the 1820’s until 1837 (when the Capped Bust design was replaced), Proof silver coins were struck in limited quantities. Generally speaking, mintages were around ten to twenty pieces per year. In most cases, official mintage figures were not accurately recorded and rarity estimates today are somewhat speculative. It is clear to state, however, that all Proof Bust silver is, at the very least, quite rare.
The intention of this article is to give the beginning and intermediate collector an overview of Proof Bust coinage by focusing on each of the denominations that were produced in the Proof format. In addition, at the end of this article, I will discuss some pertinent points about these coins that I think are important for all collectors to consider.
I. Bust Half Dimes
There are a few 1794 half dimes known that have been categorized by NGC as Specimen strikings but the first true Proofs were made in 1829. The 1829 has a reported mintage of thirty pieces and it is the most obtainable issue of this type as a Proof by a fairly large margin. I think there are around ten to fifteen known including a few really superb Gems. The best of these is a single example graded PR67 by PCGS; the single finest Proof Bust Half Dime of any date graded by PCGS.
The 1830 has a reported mintage of ten and it is extremely rare with an estimated four or five known. An example graded PR65 by PCGS was recently sold as Lot 1039 in the Heritage 12/08 auction for a strong $50,025. If I’m not mistaken, this is the most that a PR65 Bust Half Dime has ever brought at auction.
The 1831 is another extremely rare issue. I think it is comparable in rarity to the 1831 or perhaps it is just a touch less rare.
The 1832 and the 1833 both have reported mintages of ten Proofs but neither may exist. There have been examples sold at auction as “Proofs” but these were actually reflective business strikes.
The 1834 is probably the second most available date in Proof with as many as ten or so in existence. PCGS has graded two in PR65 and two in PR66 but I have not personally seen a nice example in many years.
The 1835 is a mysterious issue. Ten Proofs were reportedly struck but neither PCGS nor NGC have ever certified an example. Given the fact that Proofs of this year exist for other silver denominations, I would not be surprised if a few exist.
1836 is an extremely rare year with just three to five Proofs known including an amazing PR66 certified by PCGS. No Proof 1837 Bust half dimes are known or rumored to exist. Overall, the Bust Half Dime series is extremely rare in Proof. Only four dates (the 1829, 1830, 1831 and 1834) are even collectible and just one (the 1829) is seen with any degree of regularity. Until recently, Proof Bust half dimes were very reasonably priced given their rarity but this appears to have changed a few years ago. Still, the $40,000-50,000 that it would now take to purchase a PCGS Gem Proof example is still probably good value considering their true rarity.
These coins tend to be very difficult to determine Proof status. Unlike Dimes and Quarters which often “look Proof,” very few Proof Half Dimes of this era have unquestionable status. See the end of this article for some buying tips.
II. Bust Dimes
The Large Size Bust Dimes of 1809 to 1828 are extremely rare as Proofs. It is likely that no more than five to ten Proofs were struck most years and, in some cases, the actual number could well be less. Coinage of Proofs began in 1820.
The existence of Proof 1820 Dimes is controversial but at least one has been certified by NGC. There are an estimated two or three known 1821 Proof Dimes known including a Gem from the Garrett collection.
It is believed that three 1822 Proof Dimes are known. Two have been graded PR66 by PCGS. No Proof 1823 Dimes are believed to exist while three 1824/2’s are known. The finest Proof 1824/2 is the remarkable Bareford/Menjou coin that is currently in an NGC PR67. Many specialists regard this as the single finest known Proof early dime.
There are two or three Proof 1825 Dimes known. The 1827 is the most available Proof of this type with as many as five or six known from an estimated mintage of ten. Interestingly, at least one is known that is from a Proof-only die pair. There are more Gems in existence of this year than of the other early Proofs as well. No 1828 Large Date Proofs are known.
In 1828, the design of the Dime was changed. The 1828 Small Date exists in Proof but it is extremely rare. It has been stated that as many as five Proofs are known but I believe that this is inaccurate and that there are only three. 1829 saw a larger mintage of Proofs with an estimated ten or so struck. At least five or so exist and it is interesting that of the twelve different die varieties known for this date at least three exist in a Proof format.
Proof 1830 Dimes are extremely rare. I believe that there are three or four known including one or two Gems. The 1831 is the most obtainable Proof Bust Dime. There are as many as ten to twelve known and I have seen at least six of these coins including three Gems.
There is just a single Proof 1832 Dime known and it is a PCGS PR64 that I sold to a Louisiana specialist around a decade ago. At one time it was believed that 1833 Dimes were unknown in Proof but PCGS has graded two and NGC has graded four, making it likely that at least two or three distinct examples exist. The finest known is a PCGS PR66 that recently sold for $149,500 in the Heritage 2008 ANA sale.
1834 is among the more available early dimes in Proof. There are as many as seven or eight known including examples in three different die varieties. This includes a piece in the famous King of Siam Proof Set and as many as two superb Gems graded PR67 by PCGS. All 1835 Proof Dimes appear to be struck from the same die pair (JR-4) and this date is one of the more available of this design in Proof. I believe that there are around eight or so known with at least half of these grading in the PR63 to PR64 range. I know of at least two Gems including a PCGS PR67CAM which is unquestionably the finest known.
Proof 1836 Dimes are extremely rare. All are from the JR-2 dies and it is doubtful if more than three are known. None are Gems. The final year of issue for this type is the 1837 and this is a controversial year as far as Proofs go. The authors of the book “Early United States Dimes, 1796-1837” believe that at least two Proofs are known but neither PCGS nor NGC have yet to grade one. I believe that they exist but that they have not traded via public auction since the early 1980’s.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, I have some buying tips for collectors who are interested in purchasing Proof bust coinage. These tips are based on having bought many of these coins myself and having looked at most of the major offerings that have appeared at public auction since the mid-1980’s.
- When it comes to Proof bust coins, pedigree is exceedingly important. With some research, you can determine what a coin sold for before it was slabbed by PCGS or NGC. As an example, if an 1831 Dime that was called a “Proof” sold for a seemingly low figure when it was offered for sale as a raw coin in the 1980’s or 1990’s, this is a strong red flag. For collectors of Proof bust coins, important old-time collections such as Eliasberg, Pittman and Norweb are the Holy Grail. If a coin from one of these collections was cataloged as a Proof and it brought the right level, I’d consider this a strong endorsement for the coin’s status as a Proof.
- My first rule of determining if a coin is or isn’t as Proof is as follows: if it doesn’t look like a Proof it isn’t. I tend to go with my gut instinct and if I have to convince myself that a coin is a Proof, that’s not a good sign.
- Just because PCGS or NGC calls it a Proof does not mean absolutely for certain that it is. I have seen a number of coins that these services have called Proof that I do not agree with.
- Learn which varieties are known in Proof. If a coin is the wrong variety then it probably is not a Proof. Buy the standard references for each series and learn the characteristics of the varieties that have known Proofs.
- Make a trip to the Smithsonian when it reopens and look at their early Proofs. Or go to the ANA Museum and look at Harry Bass’ early gold Proofs. These are true Proofs and you can get a good idea of what the base line is for comparative purposes.
Next month: Part Two, focusing on Proof Bust Quarter and Bust Half Dollars.