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February 29, 2016

A Rough Reflection:

Die State Analysis of the 1947-S/S RPM FS-501 Washington Quarter

DM Rare Coins coin photography service illustrates a prooflike washington quarter that is also Cherrypicker's Guide RPM FS-501.

The concept of die progression is something of a mystery to many collectors, and to many dealers alike. It will not be found on any price sheet or date list; it is the study of how a specific die was made and how it wears out, and requires hands-on examination of many coins. Despite a general lack of published information on the subject, only a basic knowledge of what can be done to dies by the Mint, and what happens to dies as they wear, is required to understand the life of a specific die marriage. Unique die features can be followed from stage to stage and read like fingerprints.

For instance, a common sense, physical examination of a few die progressions of 1947-S/S, RPM FS-501, will show that the polished Prooflike coins, which are occasionally seen for this die marriage, and are assumed to be the result of refurbished dies, are actually the earliest stages of the variety. Every stage of the dies, on all coins we have examined over a period of more than six years, shows some remnants of the polishing lines that originate on the PL coins. By studying the progression of this die pair, one can watch the smooth glass mirrors vanish, the polishing lines become more pronounced, and then everything slowly fade away, as starbursting erases most features. Simultaneously, fine details are seen to disappear from the dies. Such details could never be restored, which further confirms that the PL coins are the earlier impressions.

It would seem this fact is cut and dried, but there is a wrinkle. While most evidence indicates that these coins are first impressions, some of the very smooth PL coins actually show extensive starburts striations, which are typically associated with late die states. The presence of these remains a quandary, as no earlier stages are as of yet known. Our used die transfer theory does put forth a possible explanation; that moderately used dies were sometimes shipped from the Philadelphia Mint and to the branch mints, where they were refurbished for use continued use. If correct, it would be unclear, in a technical sense, whether or not the polished Prooflike coins can be referred to as Early Die States, even though they clearly seem to be the first coins struck from their respective branch mint die marriages. For the sake of this discussion, we will nevertheless refer to them, here on, as an Early Die States.

The 1947-S/S RPM FS-501 Washington quarter die marriage was chosen for this study because it is effortlessly distinguishable and relatively easy to find in various die states, although the Early Die State coins are rare. This study can be repeated for a number of other issues known to be affected by this polished Prooflike finish, and so the example of the 1947-S/S should in no way be viewed as an isolated case.

While some features disappear quickly; like the Prooflike surfaces, which last for only two to three stages, some features linger on through the life of the die. The scattered rough spots and some of the finer die scratches actually become more pronounced for a short time, in the early and middle stages, before starting to fade away during the middle to late die stages. Eventually, only the strongest features hold up to heavy die wear and starbursting; yet the ability to trace those features through the life of the die allows us to establish the correct chronology.

For instance, the obverse shows a particularly strong group of parallel die scratches in the left field below and across the L of LIBERTY. On early stages, the lines run the length of the left field. On later die states, the lines shorten, and by the terminal stage, only the faintest traces of the polishing lines near L and on the nose and mouth remain, as reminders of how pockmarked this die once looked before die wear turned the surfaces into a thick, even frost. By stage F below, the die details were so eroded that the obverse die was replaced with a new, polished PL die, seen in Stage G.

Additionally, Washington’s nose has a distinctive series of polishing lines running across the bridge and into the nostril, and a pair of parallel die scratches rising up at an angle from Washington's lip. These distinct die lines are visible on each stage, but will of course disappear when the new obverse die appears in Stage G.

Additional evidence of the obverse die change is that the original obverse die of FS-501 is a minor DDO, with mild separation to the south on IN GOD WE TRUST. The new obverse die in Stage G is not a Doubled Die. Also, it has much crisper features, ones that could not have been restored if this were simplay a case of further die polishing of the original obverse die.

The reverse die is much easier to follow through the stages, due to the strong RPM. Nevertheless, the reverse also shares several distinct diagnostic features. It is also interesting to watch the glassy, PL fields change first to satin, and then the heavy frost, as the die deteriorates with use. Watch as the fields chance form reflective to frosty. Also note the die polish lines above the S, as they actually become more, and not less, pronounced as the die begins to wear.

Early and middle states show a patch of five short, heavy, parallel die lines adjoined to the eagle’s beak. They dissappear by the latest stages.

Aditionally, all stages show at least a remnant of several long, curving die scratches running the length of the eagle’s left-facing wing (from top corner to wing tip), in addition to another squiggly die line beneath the left side of the wreath, above QUAR. These meandering die lines could easily be mistaken for die cracks, if one were to examine only one die state. However, these lines actually fade away as the progressions continue, unlike die cracks, which typically stay the same or get larger with natural die deterioration.

This reverse die actually does develop a die crack on that wing in the Very Late Die State, stage G, around the same time that the obverse die was changed, and just as the last traces of the long die lines had virtually disappeared due to heavy die wear. The Mint clearly must have prioritized the quality of their obverse dies over that of their reverses, and deemed this heavily worn, cracked stage an acceptable match for a new obverse.

Clearly, all of the above progressions originate from the richly Prooflike, heavily polished A stage. However, even the earliest stages seem to show evidence of star bursting from previous use. After more than six years of searching, we are still unable to locate an impression made before the dies were refinished, strongly suggesting that, for whatever reason, this die marriage did not strike FS-501 quarters prior to the polishing treatment. For further reading, we recommend reading our sister article, "Jekyll & Hyde: The Prooflikes of 1934 to 1954."