By: Sean McConeghy
History of Proof Coins
While coins have been struck for over two and a half millennia, the modern hobby of coin collecting dates back to the 1300s. The undertaking was considered akin to art collecting, and it became known as “the hobby of kings.” For about three centuries, many wealthy individuals collected coins mainly for their beauty. Almost 300 years later, the collection and categorization of coins became more of an academic discipline. As knowledge and the sharing of knowledge grew, the hobby extended beyond the upper class to the middle class. By the19th century, the pursuit expanded to include foreign currencies as well as historic coins. Today, coin collecting is more democratized than ever, and numismatics is both a field of study and an industry unto itself.
Proof coins date back to the early days of the United States and can be credited to Adam Eckfeldt. Eckfeldt was a machinist and die maker who worked for the U.S. Mint. He took special care to prepare dies and select polished planchets to ensure the highest quality of the first type of each coin. These coins were of exceptional quality and were typically kept by collectors. The coins were also given to politicians and special visitors to the mints. While they were not yet known as “proofs,” these were the first proofs.
The U.S. Mint started striking proofs as such in or around 1817. The mint decided to meet collector demand by offering these coins for sale clearly distinguished from standard-issue coinage. In 1861, the mint started to provide sets of proofs to collectors. The sets were not comprehensive for all U.S. coinage, but they were comprehensive by category. As such, the answer to “What is a proof set?” has changed over time. At the time, proof sets would have included things like all silver coinage, all gold coinage, or all minor coinage. Today, the U.S. Mint’s Proof Sets include examples of each coin released for circulation.
Today, proof coins are some of the most popular choices among collectors. Some coins are struck only as proofs, while in other cases, proofs are issued along with bullion counterparts. The American Silver Eagle, American Gold Eagle, and American Platinum Eagle have proof versions that are extremely popular among collectors.