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February 29th, 2016

"Jekyll and Hyde:"

Prooflike Coins of 1934 to 1955

DM Rare Coins coin photography service captures prooflike Washington quarter, Cherrypicker's Guide RPM FS-501, from various angles to show the unusuall properties of Prooflike coins of this era.

 The same Prooflike Washington Quarter, shot from two different angles.

A highly unusual Prooflike finish appears on a select group of 20th Century U.S. coins, and its exact origins remain unexplained. On the archetypal Prooflike coin; many examples of which can be found, from ancient to modern; the fields are finely polished into smooth mirrors. Sometimes, fine die polishing lines will be seen at certain angles, but the primary appearance is something that resembles a reflecting pool or a mirror, much like an actual brilliant Proof. In contrast, the surfaces of the S and D mint Prooflike coins struck between 1934 and 1955 are heavily reworked; crude grinding and filing scratches are seen, crisscrossing the surfaces in both parallel rows and in irregular patches.

Yet, the most perplexing feature of these heavily abraded dies is that the surfaces are peppered at random with rough, grainy spots. These defects, at first glance, resemble either strike-through Mint Errors or planchet voids; yet they are actually part of the die surface. At first glance, the extremely  amalgamated appearance of these many and varied anomalies resembles the granularity of granite, and can be quite off-putting to the casual observer. However, as these coins are tilted under a grading light, those wildly irregular surface features change into a deep, glassy, smooth, mirrored surface, just like a normal PL coin; and the die imperfections seem to vanish. These beautiful mirrors often earn Prooflike and Star designation at NGC. The earliest strikes will typically show light Cameo contrast over the high points of the devices. This "Jekyll and Hide," rough versus smooth, granite versus Prooflike surface is clearly not your typical die finish, and it had to be deliberate, but for what reason?

The first documented report of the peculiar finish came in 1949, when some of these weird, obviously Prooflike 1949-S Franklin Half Dollars were released at the ANA. Speculation continued for decades, thereafter, that this was a special finish made just for the 1949 halves released at the show, and that these coins might even be Branch Mint Proofs (Flynn, 30). Unfortunately for such theories, our research has now documented this finish on a large number of 20th Century U.S. coins, and our proprietary research suggests it is limited to those minted between 1934 and 1955, and only at the Denver and San Francisco Mints.

Primarily encountered on Dimes, Quarters, and Half Dollars, (prevailing in that order), the finish has also been seen on a few 1930s and 1940s, S-Mint Jefferson Nickels, on a handful of 1934-D Peace Dollars, and on a number of S-mint, Classic Commemorative halves. Generally, examples from the 1940s are the most common, followed by coins of the 1930s, which are much scarcer. Fully Prooflike coins of the 1950s, in contrast, seem to be very rare. It is important to reiterate that this finish does not seem to exist on Philadelphia coinage, whatsoever. In fact, during this time period, the only Prooflike Philadelphia coins that we have seen, or that appear in the NGC population report, of any kind, are a few dates of Classic Commemorative halves, and all examples we have seen display the classic PL finish, which of course lacks the peculiar, granite-like texture we are discussing.

Clearly, the finish on those 1949-S Franklin halves had nothing to do with the 1949 ANA Convention; but what is the reason for this weird finish, why is it only seen for 21 years, and why not on Philadelphia strikes? It has been documented that a discrepancy arose concerning the thickness of halves produced between the three mints in 1949; San Francisco halves were thicker than Denver and Philadelphia coins. This problem was resolved when San Francisco began “lapping off .003” of the margins of each die received to strike half dollars to the standard thickness” (Flynn, 18). Could this have resulted in the heavily resurfaces appearance? While it is a possibility that a treatment like this could have such an effect, the theory is a moot point, because so many other pieces, from so many different years and denominations, are found with this finish, including some 1949-S dimes and nickels. It does, however, illustrate that the Branch Mints were able to do drastic things to the dies they received from Philadelphia, where they were manufactured.

Some have theorized that this heavy abrasion of the dies simply must be a form (albeit an unprecedented one) of die refinishing, meant to restore damaged or aging dies to a more proper working order. Many Prooflike coins do result from die refinishing, so this seems like a valid theory.

However, our sister article, revealing an analysis of a specific 1947-S/S quarter die marriage, presents a problem. It suggests that no pieces were struck prior to the polishing of the dies. In other words, these weirdly polished coins are apparently the first strikes from their respective die marriages. But could these coins really be Early Die States, and new dies?

By documenting the die progression of the 1947-S/S FS-501 quarter, we can demonstrate that traces of the polishing lines show on every progressive stage of the dies, from deep, glassy Prooflike, through frosty deterioration. Is it possible that the odd polishing patterns are the result of a finishing process applied to new dies, perhaps ones that showed small defects on the surface after their initial manufactured? Numismatic researcher and author, Roger Burdette, has uncovered evidence that in the late 1920s to early 1950s, dies with manufacturing defects were treated with abrasives to remove what he calls “small burrs” in the dies’ surfaces. This date range runs tantalizingly close to the 1934-1955 span, in which the weird Prooflike finish can be observed; and a mechanical lapping of the dies to remove lumps seems like a possible culprit for the rough spots that are scattered across each side. Yet, the range is not identical, and there are other discrepancies.
For example, mechanical lapping results in parallel, circular lathe lines on the coins, and does not necessarily produce a PL finish. Close inspection reveals no indication of lathe lines on the PL coins in question. Additionally, clear evidence of hand filing and other hand polishing do exist, putting this granite-like finish clearly at odds with the circular, mechanical die lapping already mentioned.

Some of the earliest strikes of the studied 1947-S/S marriage actually show tiny lumps of metal, organized radially, like those seen here on Washington’s neck. These are actually starburst die striations, caused by fatigue from extended die use. This confirms that the dies, at least of 1947-S/S FS-501, were actually used prior to the receiving this weird finish, and that, whatever methods were used, the abrasion was intended to smooth starburst striations on used, moderately worn dies.

How could this be, if the freshly polished pieces are the earliest stages of the marriage? And furthermore, knowing these dies were manufactured in Philadelphia, why does this PL finish not appear on Philadelphia coinage, in addition to the various Denver and San Francisco issues? These seemingly divergent questions may be closely related.

Is it possible—being that all dies were manufactured at Philadelphia and then distributed to Denver and San Francisco—that some of the dies leaving Philadelphia were actually used dies? Did Philadelphia strike its coinage from fresh dies and then send the operable leftovers out to Denver and San Francisco? Yearly Philadelphia mintage figures typically dwarf those of Denver and San Francisco, and it may be plausible that enough leftover Philadelphia dies were workable to go on and strike much of the outputs of Denver and San Francisco. Doing so would likely provide the branch mints the motive and impetus for polishing out any starburst distortions and other imperfections, probably with a crude method of aggressive, overlapping filing strokes, as seen on the coins in question. Recall the lapped 1949 half dollar dies; we do know that San Francisco was perfectly capable of working on the fields of their dies.

Additional evidence of use, on some of the Prooflike dies is the tiny portions of the lettering and parts of the design that have been polished away by rough abrasion, as though the fields were ground down to re-establish an outline around worn out, indistinct lettering. After grinding and filing, it seems a more refined polishing treatment was used to smooth out the surfaces to a watery mirror, and the devices were then either acid etched or sandblasted, lending the Cameo effect on freshly worked dies. The fields are polished down to Prooflike or even Deep Prooflike mirror depth, but because the weaved pattern of die filing is etched into the metal of the dies, it still shows up at certain angles, leaving the weird Prooflike finish we find today.

Another suggestion that the polishing was done at the branch mints comes in the form of slight variances between Denver and San Francisco finishes. Some D-Mint pieces show the same surfaces as the S-Mint ones, while some other Denver Prooflikes have an orange peal textured PL luster, in addition to the polishing lines. Slightly different methods were used at each mint.

What is the cause of the random rough spots? As we found earlier die states, we realized that these additional striations are in some ways related to the star-bursting. These are effectively stretch marks that quickly developed as the delicately mirrored surfaces first begin to wear. A virtually identical effect is seen on 1940s Proofs. It does not take much use for star-bursting to start on a Proof die, or a die that looked much like a Proof when its use began. The question remains, why do these striations not happen on PL dies made before 1934 and after 1955? It remains a possibility that some of these develop where imperfections were ground off the used dies.

It has been duly noted that some of these coins resemble the starburst affects seen on early 1940s Proofs. That said, there is no possibility that these dies were intended to strike Proofs. While it is an intriguing thought that perhaps these Prooflike dies were simply leftover Proof dies, it does not hold water, even if the mirrors seem like they do! Many PLs exist for years where no Proofs were being made. Furthermore, certain Proofs of the period used a different design style than that used for business strikes, anyway. Finally, no mint will intentionally strike their presentation-quality Proofs from refurbished dies.

An alternate theory is that new dies dies were simply used for a time at Denver and San Francisco, then refinished and put back into service. Again contradicting this idea, the 1947-S/S FS-501 marriage does not seem to exist without the die polishing. Getting deep into the weeds, it is theoretically possible that the die began with a single S punch, and then received a new S over the original punch when the die was refurbished. Because of the extensive alteration of the die surface, it is virtually impossible to match it up to a normal 1947-S die to confirm or deny this, with any certainty.

And, while it remains a possibility, it seems unlikely. The tilted position of the original S punch seems a more plausible reason for its re-punching. Plus, numerous dies at San Francisco and some at Denver were treated in this fashion, but none have been seen from Philadelphia, making the finish hard to explain away so easily as routine die refinishing.

With several over-lapping possibilities, it remains unclear exactly why we see these unusual Prooflike coins between 1934 and 1955, and why we do not see them on Philadelphia issues. Perhaps used dies were indeed shipped out to Denver and San Francisco when Philadelphia was done with them. Or, maybe Philadelphia shipped defective, new dies and kept the nice ones for their own use, leaving Denver and San Francisco to crudely polish the defects out. It could be that both happened. More research into the nuances of die distribution practices could shed light on this, or at least narrow the possibilities.

That said, the theory fitting the most criteria is that which states that used dies were shipped from Philadelphia and then crudely lapped and hand polished at Denver and San Francisco. The coins are apparently early stages of their respective S and D die marriages, yet the dies sometimes show starburst striations, as seen on the 1947-S FS-501 example. Finally, the finish only appears on Denver and San Francisco coinage, not on Philadelphia strikes. The only question not answered by this Used Die Theory is why it only occurred between 1934 and 1955. The most likely reason for its end is that this weird finish prevailed at the San Francisco Mint, which wound down production and closed in 1955, striking only dimes and cents that year. Conceivably, the trend would have continued, had the San Francisco Mint remained open. Denver examples seem to have stopped appearing in the mid to late 1940s.

Perhaps a combination of circumstances is to blame for this granite-like Prooflike phenomenon, and that more than one theory is true. Some of these coins are likely true Early Die States from heavily worked defective dies, while others are probably refurbished dies that were put back into service at the same or at another mint. Of course, none of this explains why such a weird finish was deemed acceptable for the general coinage, in the first place. If this was refinishing, something certainly went terribly wrong. Regardless of what we don’t know, we do know that Philadelphia coinage output managed to sidestep this strange finish, altogether; and in 1955, the phenomenon vanished completely. Around 1959, Prooflike coins began appearing again, but with the classic Prooflike finish known in years prior to 1934. Some of these were even struck with retired Proof dies, and yet, non come close to resembling the granite-like coins of 1934 to 1955.

Bibliography

Flynn, Kevin. The Authoritative Reference on Franklin Half Dollars. Kyle Vick, Rosewell, GA. 2012, p. 18, 30.

NGC Census. https://www.ngccoin.com/census/. 2/26/16.

Special thanks to Numismatic Researcher and Author, Roger Burdette, for his contributions to this piece.