Making Moderns column from the July 13, 2015, issue of Coin World:
A common criticism of modern coins is that they all look the same.
Modern U.S. Proof coinage fits into this framework well. New issues
always have a sharp contrast between frosted design elements and
This characteristic appearance is called “cameo.”
Certification companies also recognize coins with especially strong
Guaranty Corp. labels them “Ultra Cameo” and Professional Coin Grading
Service uses the term “Deep Cameo.” The majority of U.S. Proof
coins made since the late 1970s fall into this category.
Coins from the early part of that decade, though, are commonly seen
with little or no cameo contrast. And coins from 1971 are scarce in
Ultra Cameo. Consider for example the 1971-S Washington quarter dollar.
NGC and PCGS have graded 2,629 examples in all grades. Only 119 of
them are designated Ultra Cameo. A coin graded Proof 69 trades for
under $30, while the record auction price for a Proof 69 Ultra Cameo
quarter was set in 2007 when an example traded for $7,475 in an
auction by Heritage.
The scarcity of these coins is explained by the method of Proof die
manufacture employed from the 1950s into the 1970s.
Chromium-plated dies were dipped in a solution of nitric acid to
etch the surface. The fields were then, in multiple steps, buffed to a
shine with a diamond-dust polish.
The acid etching left on the devices created a delicate frost that
wore away quickly, so only a small number of strikes produced coins
with strong cameo contrast.
A change was introduced in 1971 that significantly increased the
number of cameo coins produced from each die pair.
Instead of acid etching the dies, the dies were sandblasted with
very fine sand. This required that the field areas of the coin be
covered with masking before sandblasting, a process that added
considerable labor. But the end results were worth it.
Certified populations demonstrate the effectiveness of this change.
Of the 2,294 examples of Proof 1972-S quarter dollar graded by NGC and
PCGS combined, over a fourth of them (591 coins) are Ultra Cameo. The
change is even more dramatic for Proof 1973-S quarter dollars. Of the
3,149 coins graded, 2,494 of them, nearly 80 percent, are Ultra Cameo.
Because of their comparative abundance, the Proof 1973-S Ultra Cameo
quarter dollars are valued at about 50 percent of 1972-S Ultra Cameo
coins. The Proof 1972-S quarter dollar graded Proof 69 Ultra Cameo
trades for around $100 and the 1973-S issues can found for under $50.
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