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Branch proofs mysterious and valuable

 An 1838-O reeeded-edge half dollar struck as a branch mint proof sold for $444,000 at the beginning of the year at a Florida United Numismatists auction called by Heritage. It was graded Proof-63. (Image courtesy Heritage Auctions)

An 1838-O reeeded-edge half dollar struck as a branch mint proof sold for $444,000 at the beginning of the year at a Florida United Numismatists auction called by Heritage. It was graded Proof-63. (Image courtesy Heritage Auctions)

By Ginger Rapsus

Specially struck coins for special occasions. That could describe almost any proof coin. But there exist a few beautiful coins that indeed are special. Those are the proof coins struck at branch mints and not at Philadelphia.

All proof coins were struck at Philadelphia until 1968, except for a few of the branch mint proofs struck for special occasions. Many of these coins have no documentation or historical records. Some coins’ proof status is in question. Many collectors are not aware that these coins exist. Indeed, except for the 1894-S dime and 1838-O half dollar, few collectors knew about these special and exceptionally rare pieces.

Proof coins are specially struck from polished dies. The coins are handled carefully to preserve their beauty. Bagmarks and other contact marks should not appear on a proof coin. Details on these coins, including the rims, are full and sharp. The coins are brilliant with mirror-like fields. These descriptions pertain to all proof coins, whether from Philadelphia or another mint.

Branch mint proofs may show lesser quality than the famous Philadelphia Mint proofs, since the branch mints did not have the equipment nor the expertise for their limited mintages of proof coins. However, the branch mint proofs are beautiful and special coins, of great rarity, although not always recognized by collectors. These coins are exceedingly rare, with little background information known. Some of these pieces have appeared at auctions and went unsold. Only two branch mint proofs are listed in the Red Book.

Probably the best known branch mint proof coin is the 1894-S dime, a coin with a good story behind its creation. For years, it was believed that 24 of these dimes were struck to balance the books. Why they were specially made proofs, no one seemed to know. Years later, Hallie Daggett, the daughter of the superintendent of the San Francisco Mint, reported that her father had the coins struck on request from a number of bankers. Hallie was given three of the coins, but as the story goes, she spent one on a dish of ice cream. A couple of the known specimens are well worn after years of circulation. One, in good condition, supposedly was found in circulation in 1957, and purchased over the counter in New York. Another is in About Good condition. Less than half of the reported 24 specimens are known to exist today. Years ago, a coin publication wrote an editorial, urging collectors to look for the missing 1894-S dimes. One turned up from a collector who forgot that he had it.

The only branch mint proofs listed in the Red Book are the 1894-S dime and the 1838-O half dollar. Perhaps 20 specimens of the half dollar were struck, with less than a dozen known to still exist. Two of the known coins show evidence of circulation.

One of these half dollars was sold in 1890 with a letter from the superintendent of the New Orleans Mint, claiming that only four of these half dollars were minted. The 1838-O half dollar was mentioned in a Numismatist magazine of 1894, with a document accompanying the coin claiming that “not more than 20 pieces were struck.” One is in the Smithsonian and was put on display at a recent World’s Fair of Money. This coin was cleaned but has aged beautifully, and shows the strong detail of a proof striking, down to Liberty’s curls and the folds in her cap.

A few 1839-O half dollars are known, from a smaller mintage of, perhaps, 10 pieces.

Morgan dollars struck in proof are objects of great beauty, showing off the design in detail not seen on circulation strikes. The hair strands above Liberty’s ear are present, along with rich detail on the eagle’s breast, wing tips and head. Even the wreath on the reverse shows stunning detail. A number of Morgan dollars from the branch mints have been certified as proofs.

The 1883-O Morgan dollar in proof was mentioned by the superintendent of the New Orleans Mint, in The American Journal of Numismatics in 1884. This coin was minted for a special occasion – the founding of Tulane University, perhaps. Only 12 were minted, with less than half that number known to exist.

Carson City struck 12 proof dollars to commemorate the closing of that Mint in 1893. And New Orleans struck 12 proof dollars in 1879 to honor the re-opening of that mint. One is in the Smithsonian. One or two dozen 1921-S Morgan dollars were reportedly struck in proof for numismatist Farran Zerbe, although this coin’s proof status is open to question. These coins show the flat strike common to all 1921-dated Morgans and may lack the pristine fields usually seen on proofs.

A number of other branch mint Morgan dollars can lay claim to proof status. Among these are lovely specimens of the 1882-CC, 1884-CC, 1884-O and 1892-O. Some of these have been professionally graded as proof or specimen, and a few have appeared at auctions and went unsold!

The famous silver dollar collection of Jack Lee included four proof Morgans and two graded as Specimen strikes. The Anita Maxwell Trust collection of Morgan dollars included four proofs, two specimens, a 1921-S graded MS-64 Prooflike, and a 1887-O graded MS-65, Deep Mirror Prooflike.

Other branch mint proofs are known for other denominations. A few gold coins, including an 1854-S double eagle, a 1906-D eagle and 1906-D double eagle. The latter two may have been struck as presentation pieces upon the establishment of the Denver Mint as a coin minting facility. Proof specimens of the 1875-S 20-cent piece have been found, along with a few Barber quarters and half dollars of the 1890s, struck at New Orleans.

A compilation of branch mint proofs can be found in Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of United States and Colonial Proof Coins. Many of these pieces have not been seen in years, if indeed they are true proofs, and not especially beautiful circulation strikes. Many of these coins are described as “unverified” or “unattributed.”

Branch mint proofs are coins rarely seen, with very little known about them, and a lack of comprehensive research until fairly recently. But these lovely coins were specially struck, as the best product the branch mints had to offer, for presentation or special occasions. All of this makes these coins true numismatic treasures.

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News. >> Subscribe today.

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