In the quest for the best coins, exactly what is perfection? Recently, I read that one very knowledgeable professional numismatist recommended that her client purchase a lower grade coin for his registry set because another coin that graded one point higher was not as attractive. Shortly after, while screening sets of state quarters for Proof-70 examples, it struck me that there are differences in eye appeal even for coins that merit the highest grade possible.
When I related this observation to one of my colleagues, he quipped that, perhaps one of the other 20 grading services will soon be announcing a Proof-70 “Star” designation for the very best coins they grade 70. I replied, possibly so; but I see decimal grading or a one to one hundred grading scale as the next step to evolve. Hmm, PR-69.8 star, PR-70 star…
In actuality, there really are some perfect coins that could rate this imagined 70 star grade. If you should ever get the chance to examine a large selection of one type of coin in mint-sealed packaging, you may find one of those exceptional specimens that catch your eye because they really are perfect. To verify your find, you’ll need to open the mint packaging because the plastic holders can hide small imperfections. Thankfully, for most modern sets, that has become very easy to do because of the type of plastic cases being used by the U.S. Mint.
Unfortunately, the printed page and even micrographs are not sufficient to portray the differences between the PR-70s I am writing about, so let’s see how well I’m able to put it into words. I’ll use the six-piece modern proof state quarter sets as examples here. These coins are readily available at coin shows and in coin shops.
The first requisite to finding a “gem among gems” is to have access to as many coins as possible. The modern coin graders at the major services have this opportunity. For example, one day last week, the graders at ICG in Tampa examined over 600 state quarter sets looking for Proof–70 examples from each state. Every so often, one piece chosen for the Proof-70 grade will stand out far above the other coins making that grade. The best way to describe it is to say that you’ll know one of these coins the moment you see it. That particular Proof-70 will just look different.
Let me try to describe it. A Proof-70 coin should have a fully strong strike. On most of the modern proofs, there will be a deep cameo contrast between its field and relief. Some collectors like to describe this contrast by saying that its relief is “white” and the surface of its field appears “black.”
Take a look in the Red Book at the illustration of the 1984 Olympic $10 proof gold coin to see the type of “black and white” contrast I am describing. You may find that some Proof-70s have a minute break or two in the frost of their relief surface. This usually indicates that something came between the blank and the dies when the coin was struck. This characteristic often appears as a tiny, shiny area surrounded by the normal white surface.
Struck-through blemishes can also occur in the field. These appear different from the shiny marks on coins due to impact with each other that will drop the coin from the 70 grade. One over-simplified difference is that struck-through marks are usually “soft” and rounded while impact marks are sharp at their edge.
Some original planchet surface marks or tiny struck-through errors are tolerated for the perfect grade; but our PR-70 star coin has none of these. Proof-70 coins should have no hairlines. Spots are generally not acceptable on coins reaching the highest grade either. Some Proof-70 coins will have a very slight hint of haze, either around the rim or in a small quadrant of the coin. It should not be unattractive. Much of the time it is not visible unless the coin is in a certain orientation to the light.
Our 70 star coin is free from any haze. Many Proof-70 coins are struck from dies that are beginning to show use. They will exhibit tiny, bright dash-like streaks and blemishes in their field that radiate out in the direction of the metal flow.
Another characteristic allowed on Proof-70s is some small irregularity in the original planchet that appears as a small undulation in the surface. Often, it’s an “artifact” of the original planchet that was not polished out completely.
The special Proof-70 coins I am writing about that “knock your socks off” are free of both these surface characteristics. They appear to be struck by fresh dies on perfect planchets. Their surface is ultra flat, dust free and unmarked in any way. This produces what some collectors like to call a “headlight” effect between a perfectly flat unmarked mirror surface and the blast white perfect relief. Whew! Can you see it yet? These once-every-so-often coins jump out from the other coins that merit the 70 grade. Happy hunting.