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Having Fun Collecting Proof Sets

1996-S Kennedy half dollar. (Images courtesy of Stack’s Bowers)

1996-S Kennedy half dollar. (Images courtesy of Stack’s Bowers)

The United States Mint has been doing an impressive job for the past few decades doing much more than their basic job, meaning the production of circulating coins. They have also been pounding out numerous commemorative issues every year. As well, they have produced a wide variety of gold, silver, and other precious metal bullion coins. Not stopping there, they have also designed, produced, and marketed numerous medals on an annual basis. And woven into all that, the Mint has also produced proof sets.

Older collectors might make the claim that collecting proof sets is a part of the hobby that had its heyday sometime in the past, but based on the number of sets being sold each year in the past decade or so, and based on the different possibilities among such sets, we can make a strong claim that proof set collecting is still on a high today. For those of us who have never really paid these gorgeous sets a lot of thought, let’s look at how we might go about collecting a run of them today.

The year 1992 to the present

Plenty of collectors consider the year 1936 the start of the era of modern proof sets. There were proof coins minted before that year, but that was the date that sets were first generally made available to the public. When it comes to collecting proof sets today, it might be smarter to work backwards in time however, since the most recent sets tend to be the least expensive. And the year 1992 marks something of a milestone when it comes to such sets.

The year 1992 saw the Mint produce silver proof sets in which the silver coins were once again really silver. To be a bit more specific, the dime, the quarter, and the half dollar were once again made of the same alloy that had last been used in our circulating coins in 1964. The number made always seems to fall into a zone that is smaller than the proofs without silver coins, and yet large enough that the collector community does not go wanting. Today the 1992-S silver proof set, for example, only costs about $20, which puts it in another zone everyone likes: the low-price zone.

Before we go farther, let’s hammer out a few details about proof sets, just to keep things straight. First, the usual United States Mint proof set is going to contain one coin of each circulating denomination. For many years, this meant a cent, nickel, dime, quarter, and half dollar. When coins like Susan B. Anthony dollars, or the Sacagawea dollars, came out, these too were included. Second, the silver metal we are talking about is the just-mentioned silver dime, quarter, and half dollar. We’ll refer to proof sets that have these three coins in the clad coin version as regular proof sets. Third, there have been some amazing additions to the proof set offering in the recent past. Not only have all the quarter designs made it into proof sets, but in the past couple of years, since 2019, proof sets have been offered with silver coins that are all silver, but which also have a one-ounce silver Eagle in them. These all qualify as proof sets, undoubtedly. But we’ll focus here on the regular proof sets and the silver proof sets.

So, with this in mind, from 1992 to the present we can aim at collecting silver proof sets, still in Mint packaging. During this time, packaging has always been sturdy, and the chance of the coins being loose, or in some way being damaged over the course of time, is rather slim. The prices are never particularly high, although perhaps obviously, the years with multiple reverses for the quarters will cost more, since five more silver quarters are included in each set.

For those of us on a tight budget, we can also do the entire string of years from 1992 to the present with clad versions of the dime, quarter (or quarters), and half dollar. This tends to keep prices down – and the coins still look extraordinarily good, as all proofs do.

1968 Jefferson nickel.

1968 Jefferson nickel.

From 1968 to 1991

There have been copper-nickel clad proof sets every year since the change-over from silver metal in 1964, which means that if we choose to collect proof sets from years before 1992, we’ll be looking at those with a copper-nickel clad dime and quarter, and for most of that time a clad half dollar as well.

When we look at any price listing of proof sets, those from 1968 up to 1991 always appear to be impressively affordable. We might even say, downright cheap. But let’s remember that during this time, the Mint was years away from the programs we consider common or normal today. There were no states reverse quarters – and each proof set then had only one twenty-five cent piece in it. A dollar coin had been introduced, but not the multiple programs of them we have today. For most of those years there were no commemorative half dollars, and certainly none included in the annual proof set release. The proof set of the year was a five coin set with no silver metal in the silver coins. Some collectors may find this almost boring today. Others find it refreshingly simple.

1968 Roosevelt dime with no S.

1968 Roosevelt dime with no S.

No ‘S’ proofs

The years 1968 to 1991 are not completely devoid of any eye openers, though. In fact, in 1968, in 1970, in 1971, in 1975, in 1983, and again in 1990 there exist the possibility of a proof set with a coin missing the ‘S’ mint mark. Traditionally the proof dies were prepared, and the ‘S’ mint mark was added at the San Francisco facility right before production began. Four of the years we just mentioned saw a few sets released with the mark missing from the dime. In 1971 it was a few sets in which the nickel was missing the mark; and in 1990 it was the cent. These are the rarities within this series then, and their price tags reflect that. For those of us who want to venture into these waters, the 1970-no-S dime set, and the 1983-no-S dime set will be the most affordable. The best we can say about their prices is that each set costs less than $1K.

1950 Franklin half dollar.

1950 Franklin half dollar.

The classics, 1950 to 1964

There were no proof sets at all from 1965 to 1967, although the Mint produced what it called “special Mint sets” during that trio of years. This means that the proof sets of 1950 to 1964 are something of a group unto themselves. Interestingly, from 1950 to 1957 the number of sets climbed steadily, from just over fifty thousand to a tiny bit more than one million. Today that means that from 1957 to 1964 the sets are quite inexpensive, since the numbers produced were always high. But because proof sets at that time were often ordered so that collectors could add these coins to the classic Whitman blue books, many of the sets were broken up right when they were received. That was easy to do, since the packaging of the time was nowhere near as sturdy and protective as it is today. This in turn means there are less sets left today that a person might be able to get their hands on.

1940 Washington quarter.

1940 Washington quarter.

The early birds, 1936 – 1942

A lot has been written about the earliest proof sets, mostly focusing on their high prices. We will add only a bit more. We’ll say that as sets, these are virtually all gone. The sets have been broken up and dispersed over the years, and anyone wanting one will most likely have to reassemble it from individual proof coins. We will also make the comment, perhaps an odd one, that since the 1940 proof set, the 1941 proof set, and the 1942 proof set have roughly the same price, the 1940 might be undervalued. This is because the number of sets produced in 1940 is only 11,279, while in 1942 the Mint cranked out 21,120.

1940 Lincoln cent.

1940 Lincoln cent.

Are there more?

Certainly, there are more options for proof sets than just those we have turned our gaze to here. For example, from 1983 all the way to 1997 the Mint managed to produce what it called “prestige sets,” which contained not only the usual proof versions of circulating coins, but also the commemorative of the year, or at least those commems that were not the gold issue of the day. Such sets will always cost more than what we can call a “regular” proof set, but certainly look impressive, and do have a silver dollar in them. We have already mentioned the “silver limited” sets of the past few years. And these are just two possibilities that go beyond the normal, annual proof sets. Some looking around will undoubtedly uncover more.

Overall, United States proof sets are now a very common sight at the Mint, at coin shows, and in collectors’ holdings, but still one that can offer collectors a great deal by way of education and fun.