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From the June 2003 issue of ACCent, the newsletter of the Anchorage Coin Club:


Why So Few Proof Coins In 1861?

By Mike Nourse  


     I have probably mentioned in one article or another that I consider the Proof coins of 1861 to be tied with 1858 as the most desirable of the entire 1858 to 1916 classic Proof coin series. The 1858s had the lowest mintage of the series at 100 pieces in each denomination, and currently are the scarcest of all the dates in terms of survivors today. So why aren't the 1858s my runaway favorite date in this series? Quite simply, their scarcity is well known today and these coins trade for a (well deserved) premium price.

     Not so for the 1861 coins. When you look at any standard reference book such as the ubiquitous Redbook, the 1858 coins stand out and scream "Rare!" with that 100 mintage figure. A look at the 1861 coins will show a rather uninspiring mintage of 1000 pieces. Don't get me wrong, 1000 pieces is an extremely low mintage! Just look at all the commotion that the Buffalo Dollar generated a few years ago with a mintage of 'only' 500,000 pieces. It's just that the 1861 is surrounded by other dates in the 1860's with mintages in the 500 to 600 pieces range, which appear to be much more desirable coins. Some examples may include the 1863 with a mintage of 460 pieces or the 1864 with a mintage of 470 pieces.

     The desirability of the 1861 Proof coinage hinges on two factors. First, out of the 1000 piece mintage for each denomination, over 600 of each went back to the furnaces to be melted in early 1862 because they had not been sold. The other factor is, unlike the 1858, the 1861 coins sell for little if any premium above the other pre-1866 dates. In the case of the quarter, half dollar, and dollar, we can only compare the 1861 coins to other 1866 and earlier coins as the addition of the motto on the reverse of these denominations created a new design type.

     Lots of Proof coins from 1861 were melted, but the real question is how many of the various dates from that era survive in collectable condition today. A Look at the NGC and PCGS population reports shows that the 1861 really is the scarcest of all dates from 1858 through 1916, save the more expensive 1858. Numismatic researcher Walter Breen estimates that just over 100 coins remain in existence for each denomination. The population report data seem to support the theory that well under 200 coins exist for each denomination.

     If one were interested in building a set of these very desirable Proof coins of 1861, it can be done, though it may take a while to find all the pieces. A set such as this would consist of seven pieces, and will cost a small fortune, though not much if any more than any other 'no motto' Proof set.

     Such a set would lead off with an 1861 Indian Head cent, made of copper nickel. This coin is a prize in itself as one of only six dates of Indian cents to be made from that particular alloy. Over those six years only about 4000 pieces were minted, and a goodly portion of those went into the melting pot without being sold. Hence, you have not only a scarce date but also a very scarce type coin.... available at a very reasonable price! The best value comes in the form of a Proof-63 coin which has a retail value in the neighborhood of $1300.

     The next piece, though tiny, is a real conversation starter. The 1861 three cent silver piece (or 'trime' or 'fish scale') is an example of the third type for this series, distinguished by x outlines around the star on the obverse and x on the reverse. While about 11,000 Proof three cent silver pieces were minted in total over the years 1851 through 1873, again many were melted, and you just don't see many of these coins around at all in Proof condition. I would not be at all surprised if this ends up being the hardest of the seven coins to locate! The best grade to purchase one of these in is Proof-64 which should retail for around $ 700.

     In the case of the half dime and dime, 1861 is year numero two for these denominations in which our country's identity had been moved to the obverse, and the petit wreath on the reverse was replaced by a big bushy wreath consisting of a wide variety of vegetation. We are now into the silver issues, and it should be noted that essentially all original Proof coins from 142 years ago have toned by now. If you want a white specimen, you will have to settle for a coin that has been dipped. Do not be afraid of toning - enjoy it! Toning will make your coin unique among the several dozen survivors, as no two coins will have the same exact toning. Both the half dime and the dime offer the best quality for the price in the grade of Proof-64, which will run about $ 900 for the half dime and $ 850 for the dime.

     Moving into the larger silver coins, the quarter, half dollar, and the silver dollar, we are getting into some very desirable coins, with large price tags to go along with that desirability. In 1861, we are still in the 'no motto' era leading up to the addition of the motto 'In God We Trust' on the reverse of these three denominations in 1866. Therefore, being pre-1866 Proof coins adds greatly to their appeal (and price!) as only about 5000 coins of each denomination were struck for the entire type, and a healthy number of those were melted. Due to their high prices, the best bet is probably to shoot for a grade of Proof-63, which will retail for around $ 1225, $925, and $3350 for the three denominations in increasing order.

     Time for a quick note about the Proof gold coinage of 1861. Up until 1859, Proof gold coins could be purchased at the mint facility at Philadelphia for face value. Few people took advantage of this bargain though, and all pre-1860 Proof gold is super rare and frightfully expensive. The mint decided to try to start generating a bit of profit in 1860 and 1861 by allowing customers in those years to purchase any Proof gold coin at face value plus a 25 cent charge. There were six gold denominations in production in these years with a face value of $41.50. Adding in the 25 cents per coin gives a total cost of $43 for the full set, equal to about $2000 in today's dollars. 1861 would prove to be the last year that you could buy individual Proof gold coins, as the policy from 1862 - forward was to sell them only in complete sets for $43.

     So why are there so few Proof coins in existence from the year 1861? It all comes down to the fact that these coins did not sell well in 1861 and all remaining inventory was melted in early 1862. Of course, a large part of the limited demand can probably be attributed to the beginning of the Civil War that year, but sales were better in the other Civil War years of 1862 through 1865. Possibly more 1861 Proof coinage could have been sold if the coins had been held over for sale in later years, but that did not happen so there is little point in speculating. Besides, any held over coins would likely be in rough condition as the Proofs of that day were simply thrown in a drawer and handled with little care by the Mint cashier. A few months of that kind of handling is bound to create hairlines or worse.

     One interesting note about the Proof coins of 1861: they were all struck on April 15th of that year. In most years of that era there would be several strikings of Proof coinage throughout the year, but that was not the case this year. There are not many coins out there in which the exact day of striking can be identified, but this is one of them!


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