Proofs vs. Business Strikes

The issue of differentiating between proofs and business strikes is one which we feel hasn’t been thoroughly addressed for Liberty Seated Dollars. Many have discussed the characteristics of business strikes vs. proofs. Few have studied in detail the actual dies used to mint the coins. There are exceptions, most notably the rare early proofs, those minted prior to 1859. But for coins minted after 1858 the available reference material is very limited. We hope to change that picture. Some of our conclusions may be a little radical.

Differentiating a Liberty Seated Dollar proof from a business strike can be very tricky. The dies were large compared to other denominations. For first use they were usually polished, resulting in first strikes that have many of the characteristics of proofs. We’ve seen many examples in proof holders that, upon close examination exhibit features such as minor die cracks and/or light clash marks that aren’t usually found on proofs. We suspect that they aren’t proofs, just early business strikes. We looked for some systematic way to separate proofs from business strikes.

Our major observation has been that, in almost all cases, proof and business strike dies weren’t mixed. The evidence points to a mint process that very carefully identified specific dies for use in minting proofs, and preserved the reverse dies for later re-use. The primary indicator that leads us to this conclusion arises from our attribution of the dies used for proofs. In many cases the reverse proof die is used for several consecutive years. There are numerous notable examples of this practice:

  1. The reverse die used for 1840 proofs continued to be used through 1854.
  2. The reverse die used for 1866 proofs was later used to strike proofs for all years through 1870.
  3. Most reverse proof dies were used for at least 2 years.

We seldom find examples struck from dies that have been used to strike proofs that are obviously business strikes. Dies used to strike proofs are almost never found with cracks, clash marks, or other indications that they were allowed to deteriorate like business strike dies. We never find proof die marriages with frosty surfaces, die flow lines, or other indications of a business strike. We have found numerous proof-only die marriages that have been circulated, but they always retain some of the proof-like characteristics that one would expect to see on a mishandled proof. We conclude that they are indeed just that – mishandled or lightly circulated proofs.

There are exceptions to this rule. Those that we recognize are:
  1. 1840 – This is the year that exhibits the most mixing of proof and business strike dies. Two different die pairs struck both proofs and business strikes. We believe that interest in the new series created a demand for proofs that was, on occasion, met by using current business strike dies to strike a small number of proofs.
  2. 1850 proofs were minted with an obverse die that was subsequently used for business strikes mated to a reverse die that was only used for proofs.
  3. Another 1850 proof die marriage paired an obverse die that was unique to proofs with a reverse die that was used for business strikes beginning in 1848.
  4. 1852 issues used a single obverse die for both business strikes and proofs.
  5. 1855 proofs used that same dies used for business strikes. Only one obverse die and one reverse are known to have been used for that year. This contradicts Breen’s observations in his reference on proofs (reference 7), but after much searching we have been unable to confirm the existence of a second die pair for 1855 proofs.
  6. The 1857 proof obverse die was also used to strike business strikes, although these used a reverse die that was NOT used for proofs.
  7. The 1860 proof die pair was subsequently used to strike a significant number of business strikes.
  8. One of three 1869 proof obverse dies was first used to strike a small number of proofs (about 15% of the total proof mintage for the year), then paired with a business strike reverse die to strike the most common 1869 business strike die marriage.
  9. The 1870 proof obverse die was subsequently paired with a business strike reverse to strike a small number of business strikes.

If our observations and resulting conclusions are correct, there are a significant number of coins now in proof holders that should be re-classified as business strikes. We’ve also noted quite a few proofs, mostly circulated, in business strike holders. We invite discussion on the subject.

Copyright © 2015, by Dick Osburn and Brian Cushing, All rights reserved.