US Coins

Authenticating Proof or circulation 1880 nickel vital

Coin Lore column published in the Aug. 17, 2015, weekly issue of Coin World:

With a mintage of just 16,000 circulation strikes, the 1880 Shield 5-cent coin is the key to the series. 

With a mintage of 3,955 Proof strikes, the 1880 Shield 5-cent coin is the second most common Proof issue. There’s a little demand pressure on the Proof from date-collectors who can’t afford circulation strikes. But Proof 1880 Shield 5-cent coins still sell for a few hundred dollars.

Proofs and circulation strikes were struck mostly from the same dies. (One reverse die with a recut S in STATES is believed to have been used only for circulation strikes.) After the dies were retired from Proof production they were used to mint circulation strikes.

The polished surfaces of the dies imparted prooflike surfaces to early circulation strikes. Differences between Proof and circulation strikes stem from three factors:

??Circulation strike planchets were not polished.

??The dies wore slightly while striking Proof examples, making circulation strikes a little less defined than Proof strikes.

??Circulation strikes were not as forcefully struck as Proof strikes, leaving edges less sharp and details less defined, especially the center vein on the  leaves beside the shield.

Telling circulation strikes from Proof strikes can be devilishly difficult, but the difference in price can be enormous. Auction listings for Uncirculated coins tend to be filled with reassuring details and explanations.

Earlier this year, a Professional Coin Grading Service Mint State 64 coin sold for $21,150 at Heritage Auctions’ April 23 sale. The lot listing says, “Moreover, the wreath leaves are not fully brought up, which is typically indicative of a circulation issue, not a proof.” In Proof 64, the coin lists for $525.

In 2014, a PCGS MS-65 coin with a green Certified Acceptance Corp. sticker sold for $88,125 at Heritage’s Aug. 5 sale. This coin was struck from the reverse die with the recut S. 

The catalog listing says, “Another differentiating characteristic of circulation strikes, one that is also seen on the present coin, is incomplete venation of the wreath leaves; such softness is a rarity on proof strikings, and its presence offers further reassurance as to the legitimacy of the circulation strike designation.” 

The same coin in Proof 65 lists for just $950 in Coin World’s Coin Values.

Ron Guth notes in PCGS CoinFacts, “Thus, a poorly made proof example, of which there are many, is often presented as a circulation strike, which is worth considerably more than a Proof. To counter this, we recommend dealing only in certified examples, because these have been checked out and vetted by the experts at PCGS.”

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