Skip to main content

Take a look at proof-only

Back in 1975 the yearly proof set included a San Francisco proof Lincoln cent. That might not sound like a big deal, because collectors know that there were “S” mintmarked cents in all the proof sets 1968-1974 as well.

Back in 1975 the yearly proof set included a San Francisco proof Lincoln cent. That might not sound like a big deal, because collectors know that there were “S” mintmarked cents in all the proof sets 1968-1974 as well.


However, because the Mint stopped issuing “S” cents for circulation at the conclusion of 1974, for the first time ever that proof San Francisco cent became a proof-only “S” cent. Buying the set for the $7 issue price became the only way for collectors to get an “S” cent for the year.

It was certainly a newsworthy change, but maybe we did not know how newsworthy it was at the time as nothing has been the same since when it comes to collecting Lincoln cents.
Congress jumped in in 2005 to mandate four new Lincoln reverse designs in 2009 and a new reverse in 2010. It might well be time to take a serious look at the San Francisco proof-only Lincoln cents.

Even before that first 1975-S appeared there was an awful lot of history involved when it came to the idea of producing proof-only Lincoln cents at San Francisco. In fact it is probable that the officials who made the decision had little idea what a hornets’ nest of history they were stirring up when they decided to have proof-only cents.

As usual, the Mint hierarchy did not like the fact that collectors were saving cents by mintmarks during a time of periodic cent shortages, but collectors were not overtly blamed as they had been a decade prior.

Congress did not adopt aluminum as the new composition in 1974, so what better way to help keep the existing cent supply in circulation than stopping collectors from saving the new “S” mint cents as they were produced?


It wasn’t as draconian a measure as abolishing all mintmarks was in 1965 and it looked like something was being done to combat the cent shortage besides public relations exhortations to not hoard cents. Besides, cents were the only circulation production items left at San Francisco. It could be argued that for efficiency’s sake cent production should be consolidated in Denver and Philadelphia, and so it was done.

Certainly officials were aware that producing proof sets at San Francisco starting in 1968 would be a change. Historically, the proof set was something that was produced at the main facility in Philadelphia. There had been proofs produced at branch mints before, including San Francisco, but realistically they had been primarily individual coins made in very special circumstances. The famous 1894-S Barber dime is seen as a San Francisco proof and there had certainly been any number of other branch mint proofs stretching all the way back to the late 1830s, and some believe, crude proofs stretch all the way back to the earliest days of the Mint in the 1790s.

That said, the simple fact was that when it came to assembling proof sets it was a process done in Philadelphia and that too had a long history. The proof set produced sometime in late 1834 to be carried by Edmund Roberts to be presented to King Ph’ra Nang Klao in Siam on his trade journey on the U.S.S. Peacock was produced in Philadelphia. By 1860 proof coinage became a routine issue.

So the decision to switch proof set production to San Francisco in 1968 was altering a tradition that dated back more than a century.

The decision was a part of an assortment of considerations for the Mint in the mid 1960s. It must be remembered that there was a national coin shortage in the mid 1960s. For a time, about the only coins readily available for use in adequate numbers were cents and nickels.

In 1965 when the Mint discontinued mintmarks, also suspended was the yearly offering of proof and mint sets. It was all an effort to discourage collecting as collectors were being blamed for the coin shortage. In fact, the coin shortage was a result of millions of average Americans who were not collectors hoarding silver coins. They knew that in 1965 silver was eliminated from the dime and quarter and was reduced to 40 percent of the content of the half dollar.


People simply figured if the government was stopping the use of silver, there must be a good reason, so they wanted to get that precious metal. The easiest way to get silver was to simply look at a coin and if it was dated before 1965 it could be put with the others in countless numbers of small hoards.

Probably not helping the situation was a premature decision back in the 1950s that resulted from the determination that the San Francisco Mint was not needed for coin production. While the mintages at San Francisco had not been as high as those in Denver or Philadelphia, the fact remains that it took some options off the table in terms of adding to the numbers of coins produced each year. Under normal circumstances, that lost capacity did not matter, but in the mid 1960s every added coin would have helped fight the shortage, but once you take a facility off line in terms of production, it takes time to bring it back.

By the time San Francisco was ready to begin production again, the worst of the coin shortage was over. That said, without admitting it, officials learned their lesson and San Francisco was used immediately to produce extra numbers of cents and nickels, but the featured role for the facility would be to produce yearly proof sets and in later years other special collector issues. To see San Francisco return to production of any type back in 1968 was significant for any collector who could recite the story of its closure in 1955.

The San Francisco association with cents was also very significant. The S-mint and collectors had something of a special relationship basically since 1908 when the first “S” Indian Head cent was produced and again in 1909 when both an Indian design and the new Lincoln design carried an “S” mintmark.

Collectors noticed that over time the San Francisco cent mintages tended to be lower than those of Denver and Philadelphia. For generation after generation of cent collectors that meant the San Francisco cents with very few exceptions such as 1914 were the cents that were the most difficult to find and that were also more costly.

In addition, San Francisco had been responsible for most of the well-known key cent dates, such as the 1909-S Indian Head cent, the famous 1909-S VDB Lincoln cent, the 1909-S Lincoln cents and the other Lincoln cent with a mintage of fewer than 1 million pieces, the 1931-S.


Even when San Francisco had produced what many thought was its final cent back in 1955, the 1955-S true to form had been the lowest mintage Lincoln cent since the 1930s.

That long history meant that any time San Francisco did anything relating to cents it was important to cent collectors. Certainly in 1968 when San Francisco resumed production of cents with both a proof and a business strike, Lincoln cent collectors were interested and that was especially true because the business strike 1968-S as usual had the lowest mintage of the year.

For a number of years, however, San Francisco was producing both proofs and business strikes of both the cent and nickel. That was similar to the situation in Philadelphia before proof set production was moved to San Francisco.

While it is interesting when there is both a proof and a business strike from the same facility each year, there is no pressure to acquire the proof. For years collectors had simply filled their sets with a business strike obtained for face value without bothering to break up proof sets.

Collectors needing just one example of each date, would opt for the cheaper one, so that limited premiums that collectors would pay at the time for the proofs.

That changes when the proof coin becomes the only game in town. Certainly the possibility of a proof-only cent from San Francisco had to be considered by some collectors as early as 1968 when the dime, quarter and half dollar in the proof set became the only examples of the denomination from San Francisco that year.

In 1971 the nickel joined the proof-only group, but it would still be another four years before there would be the first proof-only San Francisco cent.

Realistically, unlike a number of other denominations there was really relatively little history of special note when it came to proof cents. Proof cents had been made from about 1817 on. There were, however, no proof-only dates as the cent being always in heavy demand was not a denomination that would be produced only in proof. Business strikes of cents were always needed.

Certainly an enterprising collector might put together a collection of proof cents over the years and it would be an interesting collection. You start with what are generally rare issues up until about 1854. At that point proof examples become more possible as roughly 100 of each date would be made.

The Flying Eagle cent in proof is not common, but an 1858 is more available than the others. The 1859 Indian Head cent is a key proof simply because it is a one-year type, but it had a proof mintage of roughly 800, so they are available although the quality is very uneven.

Although usually with problems, the copper-nickel Indian Head cents are available and the bronze Indian Head cents thanks to growing mintages are even more possible.


The early Lincoln matte proof cents up to 1916 were made with a special treatment of the dies giving a pebbled appearance.

The modern proof sets of 1936 to 1942 and 1950 to 1958 are usually well struck from polished dies. In the case of the Lincoln Memorial proofs, which started in 1959, examples are numerous and usually well-struck.

By the time the first San Francisco proof Lincoln was produced in 1968 there had been roughly 150 years of proof cent production, but nowhere in the assorted issues produced in that period was there a proof-only cent date. That continued with the first proof set mintage in 1968, with the most interesting of the proofs prior to 1975 being a 1970-S small-date proof that lists for $75 in Proof-65 and is not that available.

So, to say it again, the world of Lincoln cents changed in 1975 with the first proof-only San Francisco Lincoln cent. Perhaps because there were greater numbers of people assembling Lincoln cent sets, the 1975-S was likely to have a greater impact than any of the other denominations when they had their first proof-only San Francisco date.

That 1975 proof set is all the stranger because it contains the proof 1976-S Bicentennial quarter, half and dollar. There are no 1975-dated coins of those three denominations.

What is interesting about the 1975-S cent is that it appears to be potentially a good bargain today. The mintage back in 1975 was 2,845,450, and while that is not the lowest mintage of the proof-only San Francisco Lincoln cents, since that time it is one of the lower totals yet, the 1975-S today lists for $5.50 in Proof-65. You might think it should be higher, but if you look at the prices of the 1968-S proof to the 1990-S proof, the full picture emerges that the 1975-S is one of the most expensive dates. That would comport with the fact that this is the very first proof-only S-mint cent.

Sets with lower mintages are likely to be more expensive and they tend to be in the 1990s. But prices do not necessarily reflect mintage because nowadays with dealer bulk purchases, numbers can be distorted.

If three million collectors each buy one set, that is a market distribution that strongly underpins the market price of the individual coins. If through the bulk purchase program dealers were able to stock up a few extra hundred thousand sets, that weakens the market price because there could be a large floating supply.

That might explain the differences in prices for the 1992-S cent, which has a mintage of 4,176,560, and the 1994-S cent, which has a mintage of 3,269,923.

The higher mintage coin has a $5 Proof-65 price while the lower mintage coin is $4.

There is another interesting aspect and those are the grades. To date the Professional Coin Grading Service has yet to grade an example of the 1975-S as Proof-70. Yet the 1993-S has reached Proof-70 58 times. It could suggest that perhaps the quality of the earlier proof- only dates is not quite as good as the quality of the more recent dates.

A reason for caution is that the numbers graded are not high enough to really allow us to reach a conclusion. The prices of the early dates tend to be too low to make it worthwhile to submit a coin for third-party grading. But the fact remains that the 1975-S as well as other dates from the 1970s tend to be roughly a full grade lower in terms of the top grades seen by PCGS than the dates since 1980.

There is certainly little doubt that the proof-only San Francisco dates in recent years have caught on with collectors. The 1997-S has moved from $7 to $11.50 since 1998. Others have moved up as well. None is really expensive.

It is actually very difficult to tell precisely how the dates will line up in terms of prices in the future. In theory the lowest mintage dates should be the most expensive, and while that is generally true today, prices are not lined up perfectly with the lowest mintage being the most expensive.

There is also an unknown factor in that the numbers of individual cents available will be the numbers taken from proof sets that are broken up, but not all sets are broken up so it is not certain just what the availability of a certain date will be and it can change dramatically if a quantity of sets of one date suddenly come on the market.

What does seem likely is that the end to the Lincoln Memorial reverse could well produce additional demand. The proof-only Lincolns would probably be a major feature as they as a group are clearly the best Lincoln Memorial reverse cents.

What cannot be known is how many collectors will remain attached to the lowly cent and for how long into the future. Emotionally, many collectors have fond memories of it. The question will come when a new generation of collectors arrives. They might think less of the cent than the Baby Boomers did.

Whatever the case, the future of proof- only San Francisco Lincoln cents seems assured for at least the short term.

It may not really be possible to predict which dates will emerge as the keys over the long term, but it is possible to suggest that the grades to watch will be Proof-69 and above. The quality conscious collectors of today will likely be followed by even more demanding collectors in the future and while there have been too few examples of most proof-only San Francisco cents graded to draw any conclusions as to unusually tough dates, the bulk of the coins submitted from all dates have fallen into the Proof-68 to Proof-70 range. When making purchases you will want your coins to be toward the top of that grade range.

Unlike years past, consideration nowadays of completing a set of the proof-only dates since 1975 is not just a matter of filling holes in the way prior generations did. For years, many collectors simply accepted whatever coin they got in their proof set and that was that.

The door opened by grading services to finding the finest known example of each date makes the challenge of the proof Lincoln Memorial cent set far higher than any Baby Boom collector once thought possible.

That could turn a coin that was long taken for granted into something that fans the flames of collector interest for at least another generation.

More Resources:

• Subscribe to our Coin Price Guide, buy Coin BooksCoin Folders and join the NumisMaster VIP Program

2010 U.S. Coin Digest, The Complete Guide to Current Market Values, 8th ed.

State Quarters Deluxe Folder By Warmans

Standard Guide to Small-Size U.S. Paper Money, 1928 to Date

Strike It Rich with Pocket Change, 2nd Edition