Luster Pros and Cons

Luster - Pros and Cons - Gold coins basically come with three types of luster: satiny, frosty and prooflike. In this blog, I’m going to discuss these three “looks” and the pros/cons of each. I’ll also add an illustration of each look. And away we go... The most common luster seen on United States gold coins, especially those from the 19th century, is frosty in texture. Frosty luster can be extremely attractive. I would describe it to the new collector as having a “hard” look and it is most associated, in my experience, with coins produced at the Philadelphia and San Francisco mints.


Frosty luster is considered a “plus” by most collectors. Unfortunately, this sort of luster is becoming harder to find as more and more gold coins are chemically treated. Coins with original frosty luster have what I call a “wagon wheel” effect where the luster flows clockwise and appears to almost radiate out from the center of the coin.

Some of the series that are famous for having above-average frosty luster include the Fat Head quarter eagles and half eagles from the 1820’s and 1830’s, Classic Head gold, No Motto Philadelphia issues and Three Dollar gold pieces.

Another type of luster seen on United States gold coins is satiny in texture. Satiny luster tends to be less attractive than frosty luster but it can be very appealing. I would describe it to the new collector as having a “soft” look and it is often seen on branch mint coins from the 19th century and on San Francisco issues from the 20th century.

For the new collector, satiny luster is more difficult to understand and appreciate than frosty luster. This is due to the fact that it is more subtle in its appearance. As an example, the luster on the coin shown above is excellent in-hand and shows very few breaks in the fields. But most collectors would think this coin has a considerable amount of wear; due to its subtle luster and, obviously, the weakness of strike at the centers.

In my experience, satiny luster is more often seen on New Orleans issues, Civil War era gold and some of the Reconstruction era Philadelphia issues.

The third and final major type of luster is prooflike. When dies are readied for production they are polished and/or rubbed with a cloth in order to make them appear bright and “new.” This polish fades rather quickly and certain issues are almost never seen with mirror-like reflectiveness. As an example, I have seen very few Prooflike coins from Charlotte and Dahlonega and only a handful from New Orleans.

Generally speaking, 19th century gold coins with very low original mintage figures tend to have prooflike surfaces more often than not. As an example, the 1890 quarter eagle pictured above is an issue with a mintage of only 8,720 and it is often found with reflective surfaces. Some of the other types of coins that are sometimes seen with prooflike surfaces include Philadelphia Type Three gold dollars, Philadelphia quarter eagles from the 1870’s and 1880’s, Three Dollar gold pieces and Liberty Head double eagles from the 1890’s.

I personally have mixed emotions about prooflike gold coins. Due to the fact that gold is a soft metal, the surfaces tend to easily pick up marks, nicks and scratches and these tend to be strongly amplified by deep, reflective fields. Unless a Prooflike gold coin is a Gem, it tends to have a “scruffy” appearance and may have compromised eye appeal as a result.

There are two interesting subtypes of prooflike coins that the collector should be aware of. The first are coins that are Deep Mirror Prooflike. These are coins with especially reflective surfaces and a look that can be deceptively similar to that of a Proof. As an example, there are certain gold dollars from the 1880’s that are extremely hard to tell apart from Proofs. Generally speaking, many of the gold coins that are designated as Deep Mirror Prooflike by NGC command strong premiums, especially for issues that are generally seen with frosty or satiny surfaces.

The other subtype is semi-prooflike. A semi-prooflike coin, as one might guess, is a coin that has a blend of mirror-like reflectiveness along with either satiny or frosty luster.

As a gold coin collector becomes more sophisticated and sees more coins, he is likely to see pieces that have a wide variety of luster types. By becoming more familiar with these various types of luster, he will become a better coin buyer and better able to purchase coins that are choice and original.

Prooflike Gold Coins

Are Prooflike gold coins an interesting future collecting trend or are they yet another piece of clever marketing hype? Yes and possibly yes. Business strike gold coins are usually frosty or satiny in texture. Occasionally, a group of coins are struck from newly-polished dies and they show reflective surfaces. Such coins are termed as “prooflike” by collectors. There are certain issues, such as gold dollars from the 1870’s and 1880’s and three dollar gold pieces from the same era that are frequently encountered with prooflike surfaces. This is due to the fact that these issues have low mintage figures and most were struck from fresh, new dies.

In the case where most examples of a specific date come prooflike, a coin designated as “prooflike” is, in my opinion, not interesting nor is it worth a premium. The one exception might be in the case where a coin has a very reflective or “deep mirror” surfaces.

Other issues are rarely seen with prooflike surfaces. As an example, a small number of New Orleans eagles from the 1840’s are found with very reflective surfaces.

In the case where only a fraction of examples of a certain date come prooflike, a coin designated as “prooflike” is, in my opinion worth a premium. It can be worth a significant premium if the prooflike surfaces add considerably to the coin’s overall eye appeal.

What about very common coins like 1904 double eagles that are sometimes seen with Prooflike surfaces? In my opinion, if a 1904 double eagle is slightly prooflike or reflective only on one side it is worth no premium. If the coin is very reflective and actually resembles a Proof, then it is worth a premium. This begs the question: exactly how much of a premium? At this point it is hard to say. No one really knows how rare Prooflike coins are, on a relative and absolute basis. As the grading services collect more data from submissions of prooflike gold coins, perhaps it will be possible to know the answer.

My advice on Prooflike gold is to go ahead and buy pieces with very reflective mirror surfaces but just don’t get caught up and pay huge premiums in a market for which value levels are still highly speculative.