I bought my first proof set from the Mint when the 1969 issue was put on sale by the U.S. Mint Nov. 1, 1968. The set sold out in just six days.
Wow. What an exciting way to be introduced to new issues. That exhilaration seems to be shared by each generation of collectors as serial interest in commemoratives, American Eagles and First Spouse coins keep many collectors on sellout watch.
Today’s collectors have it easy compared to the collectors of 40 years ago. Nowadays collectors can put coins on their charge card, get delivery and sell them on eBay before they pay the bill. Better yet, if they do not like them, they can return the coins and get a credit also before the bill is paid.
Delivery is another improvement. In 1968, the expectation was that deliveries would be completed by the end of calendar year 1969. So it was conceivable that a collector at the end of the six-day sellout line would wait 14 months for his sets. I think I waited five.
But what is more amazing is that the total number of sets ordered was 2,934,631.
Looking at this year’s sales totals, we are on track for the Mint to sell 1.3 million of the clad proof sets.
What happened? Where are the 145 million coin collectors the Mint says are out there? We didn’t have near that number of active collectors in 1968. How is it that we could order more sets?
Regular readers know that I am skeptical about the 145 million number. It makes good copy, but a good case can be made that there were more collectors in 1968 than there are at present. The proof set sales totals would help make this point.
Arguing against this is the proliferation of Mint products dividing collector attention. Back in 1968 there were two choices for buying coins at the Mint, the proof set and the mint set. That was it. The proof set was $5. The mint set was $2.50. For a grand total of $7.50 I could be current with all of the Mint’s issues of the year. That was an easy expense from my paper route-supported personal budget.
Nowadays, we have rolls and bags of dollars; American Eagles and Buffalo coins in precious metals, and all sorts of other expensive offerings like First Spouse gold coins.
It doesn’t stop there. There is the silver proof set, which was introduced in 1992. The dime, quarter and half dollar coins in the set are made of the traditional pre-1965 .900 fine silver alloy. Then it was a “gift” to collectors nostalgic for those halcyon days of circulating silver coins. That part is forgotten. Now I get questioned as to why the cent, nickel and dollar coins in the set are not silver as well.
But even if we add the silver set total of 576,521 to 1.3 million, the resulting roughly 1.9 million sets is still significantly below the numbers that used to be commonplace. The shared experience and excitement of buying the annual proof set is now gone the same way as America watching Walter Cronkite, Huntley-Brinkley or Howard K. Smith as their news sources. We have so much more choice in everything nowadays.