February 29th, 2016
"Jekyll and Hyde:"
Prooflike Coins of 1934 to 1954
The same Prooflike Washington Quarter from two different camera angles.
A highly unusual Prooflike finish appears on some 20th Century U.S. coins, and its exact origins remain unexplained. On the archetypal Prooflike coin; of which many examples exist for numerous coin types, throughout history; the fields are finely polished into smooth mirrors. Sometimes, fine die polishing lines can be seen at certain angles, but the primary appearance is something that resembles a reflecting pool, much like an actual brilliant Proof. In contrast, the surfaces of the unexplained Prooflike finish are crudely and heavily worked, with grinding and filing scratches crisscrossing the surfaces both in 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 defects; yet they are actually part of the polishing pattern worked into the metal of the dies, themselves. The extremely off-putting appearance created by the amalgamation all these anomalies resembles the granular texture of granite. Even more intriguing, however, is that the rough textures vanish at certain angles and the surfaces become deep, watery mirrors, earning many of these coins the Prooflike designation at NGC. The earliest strikes will sometimes even show fine Cameo contrast over the high points of the devices. This "Jekyll and Hide," granite-like versus Prooflike appearance is clearly not your typical Prooflike finish.
The first documented report of the peculiar finish came in 1949, when weird, 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 those theories, this finish has since been documented on a number of 20th Century U.S. coins.
Our proprietary research suggests it is limited to those minted between 1934 and 1954, and only at the Denver and San Francisco Mints. Primarily encountered on Half Dollars, Dimes, Quarters (prevailing in that order), the finish has also been seen on a few 1940s, S-Mint Jefferson Nickels, on a handful of 1934-D Peace Dollars, and on a number of S-mint, Classic Commemorative halves. Again, it 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, 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 Franklinhalves had nothing to do with the 1949 ANA Convention; but what is the reason for this weird finish, why is it only seen for 20 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 received from Philadelphia.
However, our sister article revealing an analysis of a specific 1947-S/S quarter die marriage, presents a problem, suggesting that no pieces were struck prior to the polishing of the dies. Thus, these freshly polished coins are the apparent first strikes from their respective die marriages. But could these coins really be Early Die States?
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, through their 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 fits tantalizingly closely with the 1934-1954 run, 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.
Some of the earliest strikes of the mentioned 1947-S/S actually show tiny lumps of metal on Washington’s neck. However, 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 mere die lapping. Moreover, the tiny lumps seen on the 1947-S/S are organized radially, and could only be starburst die striations, caused by die fatigue from extended 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 worn out dies. How could this be, if the freshly polished pieces are the earliest die states? And, knowing these dies were manufactured in Philadelphia, why does the phenomenon not appear on Philadelphia coinage, in addition to various Denver and San Francisco issues.
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? Did Philadelphia strike its coinage from fresh dies and then send the operable leftovers off to Denver and San Francisco? Yearly Philadelphia mintages 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 the outputs of Denver and San Francisco. Doing so would likely provide the 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. We do know, from the 1949 example mentioned above, that San Francisco was perfectly capable of lapping off the fields of their dies.
The application of a course abrasive to the surfaces of a starburst die could also be the cause of the random rough spots. Additional evidence of use, on some of these dies, is that tiny portions of the lettering and parts of the design have been polished away by rough abrasion, as though the fields were ground down to re-establish an outline around worn out, indistinct lettering.
Finally, 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, watery mirrors, 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. As the mirrors begin to erode, the pattern actually becomes more pronounced before the die again begins to erode into a frosty finish, obscuring most of the evidence.
It is true and duly noted that some of these coins resemble the starburst affects seen on early 1940s Proofs. While it is an intriguing thought that perhaps these Prooflike dies were simply leftover Proof dies, it doesn't hold water. Washington quarters used a different design hub for Proofs, known as a Type B reverse. Additionally, the phenomenon starts in 1934, years before Proofs were issued, and many of the dates don't make sense to have been made with leftover or used Proof dies.
An alternate theory is that dies were simply used for a time at Denver and San Francisco, then refinished and put back into service without transferring them to another mint. Again, the 1947-S/S FS-501 marriage does not seem to exist without this die polishing, but 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 this with any certainty.
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. And again, 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.
That is, if this treatment was standard procedure for worn dies, it should appear across all three mints. Thus, it seems more likely that the need for this specific type of refinishing was something encountered only at the branch mints, and that it did not occur in Philadelphia.
With several overlapping possibilities, it remains unclear exactly why we see these unusual Prooflike coins between 1934 and 1954, 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 them out. 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, the dies sometimes show starburst striations, as seen on the 1947-S FS-501 example, and finally, once again, the finish only appears on Denver and San Francisco coinage, not on Philadelphia strikes. The only question not answered by the used die theory is why it only occurred between 1934 and 1954. The most likely reason is that this weird finish prevailed at the San Francisco Mint, which wound down production in 1955, striking only dimes and cents that year, and closed in 1956. Conceivably, the trend would have continued, had the San Francisco Mint remained open.
Perhaps a combination of circumstances is to blame for this granite-like Prooflike phenomenon, and 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 once more. No examples of the 1934-1954, "Jekyll and Hyde" finish have been seen before or since.
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.