US Coins

Mint puts finish testing into production

This is the opening part of a feature story on finishes used on U.S. coins that first appeared in the June 6, 2016, Monthly issue of Coin World:

What’s in a coin’s finish?

Apparently quite a lot, considering the effect on value for some coins struck by the United States Mint.

The Mint’s extensive experimentation over the past decade with coin finishes — sometimes using multiple finishes on one or both sides of the same coin — has factored into some individual coins’ appreciation in value (or lack thereof).

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Most special finishes are employed on limited-edition numismatic products, but some larger canvas releases like gold, silver and platinum American Eagles and commemorative silver dollars are subjects of special finishes also.

The special finish experiments have not been restricted to just one production facility. Special finish products have been struck at all four Mints.

As experiments progress with technology advances and are implemented, the U.S. Mint’s production development specialists at the Philadelphia Mint have tinkered with the bureau’s ability to execute multiple finishes on the same coin

Some collectors may think coins have just two finishes — Proof, in the modern sense, with frosted devices contrasted against mirrored fields, and the business or circulation strikes mass-produced for use in commerce.

Not so.

Today, U.S. Mint production facilities have the capacity to produce coins and medals having multiple finishes executed by a combination of manual and mechanical means.

Even “Uncirculated” now means different things on different coin issues. 

Until 2006, American Eagle bullion coins were promoted as having an “Uncirculated” finish. Then, to muddy the waters, the Mint introduced a new numismatic series of American Eagle gold and silver coins celebrating the 20th anniversary of the series. The new finish was described as Uncirculated. At the same time, the Mint stopped using “Uncirculated” to describe the finish on the bullion coins and instead simply promoted that series as “American Eagle Bullion Coins” with no reference to finish. (The meaning of the term “Uncirculated” may also vary, depending on the year of issue, in describing the finish on the coins in the annual Uncirculated Mint set.)

To distinguish the U.S. Mint’s newer “Uncirculated” finish from the traditional use of the word, the numismatic trade includes the additional descriptor “Burnished” in reference to the 2006 and later nonbullion Uncirculated American Eagles.

The introduction of the new series within a series brought the number of finishes at the time to three — bullion, which from 1986 to 2005 was designated Uncirculated and described coins exhibiting no Mint mark struck on raw planchets by dies with no special treatment; Uncirculated, a higher-quality matte-finish on coins bearing the W Mint mark of the West Point Mint; and the traditional Proof finish on W Mint-marked coins struck from polished dies and planchets.

The three finish designations for platinum American Eagles were added in 2007 on the 10th anniversary of the platinum coins.

Further added to the mix of finishes in subsequent years are the United States Mint’s Reverse Proof, Enhanced Uncirculated and other special finishes, some on limited-edition numismatic products — collectors today need a score card to keep track.

The finishing touch

Mint experiments with finishes beyond Proof and Uncirculated date back more than 20 years.

Starting most prominently in 1994, the Mint began experimenting with different finishes on collector coins, introducing a Matte Finish on a special 1994-P Jefferson 5-cent coin.

While the coin’s appearance was a technical coup for the production gurus at the Philadelphia Mint, where the experimentation was being executed, it was an extremely well-kept secret.

Mint officials didn’t formally announce at the time of the 1994 release of the Thomas Jefferson Coinage and Currency Set that the 5-cent coin in the set was struck with a special finish.

Disclosure and confirmation from the Mint came only month’s later, after numismatist Thomas K. DeLorey questioned the surface condition of the 5-cent coin in the set.

U.S. Mint officials explained, in response to Coin World queries, that the finish executed on the 5-cent coin was developed to replicate the Uncirculated finish on the Uncirculated 1743–1993-P Thomas Jefferson 250th Anniversary silver dollar.

The finish on the 5-cent coin, described as “Matte Finish” or “Matte Proof,” resulted from the copper-nickel planchets being struck twice with sandblasted dies. Grading services variously designated the strikes as Mint State or Specimen.

Whatever it was called, collectors viewed the 1994-P 5-cent coins as a different issue, separate from the usual circulation strikes that were struck at high-speed with no special treatment of dies or planchets.

The Thomas Jefferson Coinage and Currency Set — comprising an Uncirculated 1743–1993-P Thomas Jefferson 250th Anniversary silver dollar, Uncirculated (Matte Finish) 1994 Jefferson 5-cent coin, and a Series 1976 $2 Federeal Reserve note bearing Jefferson’s portrait on the face — had a pre-issue price of $34, for orders placed during the introductory period, and $39 per set for orders placed during the regular-issue period.

The U.S. Mint intended to limit production to 50,000 sets, but that restriction also was never included in promotional sales literature or on the set’s certificate of authenticity.

The U.S. Mint responded to public outcry by striking the set to order, with final sales reaching 167,703, which is the final official mintage for the Matte Finish 1994-P Jefferson 5-cent coin.

In the months after the release of the 1994 sets, the value of examples of the Matte Finish 1994-P 5-cent coin graded and encapsulated by third-party grading services rocketed to $750 each. The value, however, has precipitously dropped since then. Recent completed auctions on eBay show ungraded examples from the set selling for as low as $33.70, and for an example graded Specimen 69 by Numismatic Guaranty Corp., the price was $41. The highest price paid in a recently completed eBay auction was $161.59 for an NGC Specimen 70 coin. One intact Jefferson Coinage and Currency set sold in a recent eBay sale for $39.99.

A Professional Coin Grading Service Mint State 70 Full Steps 1994-P Jefferson 5-cent coin sold for $1,725 in a Feb. 4, 2010, sale by Heritage Auctions. The higher premium on that piece was likely due more to the number of complete steps found on Monticello on the coin’s reverse than to the coin’s finish.

There were indications from U.S. Mint officials that a number of the Matte Finish 1994-P Jefferson 5-cent coins not used for the sets were placed into general circulation.

Since coming clean about the experimentation resulting in the Matte Finish 1994-P Jefferson 5-cent coin, U.S. Mint officials have been more forthcoming. Now when there’s something special inside, like in a box of Cracker Jack, they usually release information before sales of the numismatic product begin.

Before releasing the 1997 Botanic Garden Coinage and Currency Set, limited to 25,000 sets at $36 each, U.S. Mint officials disclosed the set contained a Matte Finish 1997-P Jefferson 5-cent coin.

The 1997 sets sold out more quickly than the 1994 sets because of the advance knowledge of the Matte Finish 5-cent coin.

The value of the Matte Finish 1997-P Jefferson 5-cent coin also quickly moved up in price soon after release, but unlike the 1994 coin, the later coin, with its limited mintage, has held much of that value.

Recently completed eBay transactions show a Matte Finish 1997-P 5-cent coin from the set sold for $110.49 in Professional Coin Grading Service MS-69 Full Steps; another PCGS MS-69 Full Steps coin sold at $150.65; a PCGS Specimen 69 example sold for $197.75; and an NGC Specimen 70 coin sold for $349.95.

Heritage Auctions sold an NGC Specimen MS-69 example for $143.75 in a Nov. 25, 2002, sale and a PCGS MS-68 example for $101.20 in a Jan. 13, 2003, sale.

Coin World’s Coin Values lists the Matte Finish 1994-P 5-cent coin at $100 in Mint State 66 Full Steps and the 1997-P at $125 in the same grade.

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