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Proof sets mostly forgotten?

The silver American Eagle bullion coin is probably the most widely followed coin issue of the United States Mint.

Is there a collector in the land who does not own one?

Only quick sellouts of things like the Truman Coin and Chronicles set seem to break into the ongoing drama sparked by the Eagle’s stop-go sales pattern.

However, from time to time it pays to look away from the Eagle soap opera to examine other Mint issues.

Remember the traditional clad proof set?

It appears fewer and fewer people do.

Sales so far this year stand at 384,029 (at least until the Mint releases the latest weekly report late this afternoon).

That is a pathetic number compared to the high water mark of proof sets in 1981 when over 4 million were purchased by collectors.

Now sales are by no means finished for the year.

We have another 24 weeks to run in 2015 and sales will probably extend beyond that, but at the present rate, the number of 2015 proof sets taken by collectors will be around 550,000.

That’s a drop of 86 percent in 34 years.

Should we be worried?

A lot has changed since 1981.

The age of electric typewriters and land line phones has passed.

Are standard proof sets also an obsolete product?

Clearly if you want to sell them immediately on eBay they are.

Collectors have gotten the message that most proof sets are lousy investments.

We should be happy that fewer people are throwing away their money on them.

However, the decline of proof sets has taken something from us.

It used to be that buying a proof set was a numismatic rite of passage. To get one was to join millions of others in an annual pilgrimage to the shrine of the U.S. Mint, original source of all of our fondest collecting dreams.

In 2018 will come the 50th anniversary of proof set production at San Francisco.

Should we celebrate by eliminating this set from the Mint product list?

That might be going too far, but the trend line is not encouraging for this most basic Mint product. Odds are that 2018 output will be less than it is now.

Another three decades of similar decline and proof set mintages will be back where they were at the start of the 1950s, a golden decade for growth in coin collecting generally and proof set purchases specifically.

Such an outcome is sad to contemplate.

Before I sign off, I will put a final note here relating to yesterday’s blog. I inadvertently called the upcoming 2016 gold Walking Liberty half dollar a three-quarter ounce coin. I should have written half ounce. It says so right on the images of it shown to the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee in June. My apologies for the slip. If you want a three-quarter ounce half dollar, buy one of the remaining gold Kennedy coins.

Buzz blogger Dave Harper is winner of the 2014 Numismatic Literary Guild Award for Best Blog and is editor of the weekly newspaper “Numismatic News.”

• If you enjoy reading about what inspires coin designs, you’ll want to check out Fascinating Facts, Mysteries & Myths about U.S. Coins.

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