They are not proof sets, and they are not uncirculated sets, popularly called mint sets, but Special Mint Sets are special in their own way, and are worth a second look.
The Treasury Department announced in 1964 that proof sets would not be produced in 1965. The announcement came at an interesting, and turbulent, time in American numismatics. A nationwide coin shortage was happening, along with the debate on removing silver from circulating coins and replacing it with another metal or metals. Also, mintmarks would not appear on 1965 coins.
A press release dated March 8, 1966, gave details about the new collector sets of these coins that would not be proofs, but would not be mint state either, but “better in appearance” than uncirculated coins as the press release claimed.
The San Francisco Assay Office began striking 1965 coins early in 1966 for inclusion in the new Special Mint Sets. Special Mint Set coins were not proofs, and were not uncirculated, Mint State pieces. Dies for the coins were overpolished, while the planchets themselves were not polished. The resulting SMS coins have a brilliant, prooflike appearance, much nicer than the run-of-the-mill circulation coins. The SMS coins did, however, come into contact with other coins, so they were not perfect; some had marks on their surfaces.
Collectors did not especially love the new sets. Proof sets containing three 90 percent silver coins had been sold for $2.10, while Special Mint Sets had no 90 percent silver coins and sold for $4. Mintage of the 1964 proof set was 3,950,762. Demand for the SMS was hardly more than half at 2,360,000 in 1965, then 2,261,583 in 1966, and only 1,863,344 in 1967.
The 1965 sets were sealed in soft plastic pliofilm, and included a blue and silver plastic medal embossed with the words, “United States Special Mint Set.” Sets of 1966 were packaged in hard, pale blue plastic holders, labeled “United States Special Mint Sets,” and a note at the bottom of the holder, “Packaged by U.S. Mint.” The holders came in dark blue cardboard sleeves, with the 1967 set labeled with the date on the sleeve.
Many years ago, I spotted a 1966 Special Mint Set that was sealed in the soft plastic holder used in 1965, complete with the blue medal. I did not examine the set carefully, to see if the set had been repackaged by a private firm, or if the coins were really SMS coins and not Mint State. Perhaps the coins were regular uncirculated pieces, sealed by a private firm – but why include the blue medal, and where did it come from? I have always wondered since then if a few 1966 sets were housed in the old-fashioned holder; I never saw another one.
The first 1965 Special Mint Set coins had a satiny surface, with later coins appearing more brilliant. Most of the 1966 coins were brilliant, while the 1967 coins are fully brilliant, with a better quality than their predecessors.
Special Mint Sets of 1965, and sometimes 1966 sets, sold for less than their issue price for many years. When production of proof sets resumed in 1968, the Special Mint Sets were all but forgotten.
Years later, when collecting the finest known specimens became popular, and collectors began Registry Sets, beautiful examples of modern coins were in demand. The best examples of early clad coins had to come from the specially made Special Mint Sets. Sets were broken apart to obtain individual pieces that were professionally graded and slabbed in grades as high as MS-69; or rather, Specimen SMS-69.
Many of these SMS coins were quite pretty. While not proofs, they showed surfaces with full brilliance and strong strikes. The coins of 1967, in particular, showed how fine a clad coin could look, as more care was made in making these coins.
I once owned a 1967 set with a nice-looking Kennedy half dollar. I opened the plastic holder to get a better view. The coin could hold its own against a 1964 silver proof Kennedy; although it was not a proof, it was the best available of its kind, and it was a choice coin.
Collectors of Kennedy half dollars sometimes obtain one of each date and mintmark, and also purchase the proof and specimen coins to makes their sets really complete. These collectors wanted the SMS Kennedy halves for inclusion in their sets. (And don’t forget, the SMS Kennedy half dollars are 40 percent silver.)
More people have turned to Washington quarters since the beginning of the statehood quarters, and they, too, have discovered modern proof and SMS coins to complement their sets.
Yes, there are rare coins to be found within the SMS series. A small number of 1964 Special Mint Sets were made, perhaps as prototypes. These remarkable coins were not recognized until 1993, when a number of them were sold at auction. The 1964 SMS coins are difficult to find, and a number of them may have been lost or spent as regular coins. About two dozen of each denomination are known.
A few varieties are known within the SMS series. Some 1966 half dollars lack the designer’s initials, FG, on the reverse. Some 1967 SMS quarters have a doubled-die obverse. There may be others that have not been discovered.
Special Mint Sets, considered a stop-gap between years of proof coinage, are lovely in their own way. Never a collecting favorite, these three sets – and maybe a fourth – are souvenirs of an historical time in United States coinage, the time when 90 percent silver pieces, proof sets and mintmarks disappeared for a while, leaving these SMS coins as the best the Mint had to offer.
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