Proof Small Cents 1856 - 1909
By Richard Snow Eagle Eye Rare Coins, Inc.
Back to the Article Index
Collecting Proof examples of the Flying Eagle and Indian Cent series is quite a challenge. This, in fact, may be the primary reason many collectors attempt to do it! Regardless of your finances, a quality set is not something that can be assembled in a brief period. In every case the opportunity to buy an exceptional coin far outweighs the cost to get it. The exceptional proof will have deep mirrors, frosted or cameo devices, orange peel fields (which I'll explain later in this article), and minimal spots, hairlines, or unattractive toning. This is the ideal for a proof, but don't expect these to be available all the time.
Flying Eagles. The Flying Eagle proofs are all very rare and expensive. The 1856 is common (mintage over 1000) compared to the extremely rare 1857 (50 minted) or the 1858's. The 1856 will not have deep reflective mirrors or be too bright, but should be well struck. A gem proof 1857 or 1858 is a joy to behold. These have the look of an Eagle flying on a clear moonless night. They're worth the effort to acquire them.
Copper Nickel Indians. These are all challenging with the exception of the 1862, of which a hoard of 200 or so pieces were found at the Mint in the 1870's. The quality of the other dates is usually fair, a little searching will turn up some real beauties. The 1859 is singled out as a one-year type and is much more expensive because of it. The 1861 is one of the toughest dates in the series. The mintage figures don't relay this fact, but the population figures do. It seems the quality suffered that year, making gems very difficult to find. Lower your standards for this year.
Bronze Indians. You probably have committed to memory the rarity of the various Indian Cents: 1864 No L and 1865 is common, 1864-L, 1866 to 1878 are tough and the 1879 to 1909 get easier as you approach the end of the series. Well for proofs you can throw that information out the window! The 1864 No L and the 1865 are very tough! The 1864 With L is a major rarity with only 20 examples known! The 1866 to 1876 dates get easier as you approach 1877. The 1877 is much more available (and cheaper) than its Mint State counterpart. The dates in the 1880's are mostly the common ones, and the dates in the 1890's and 1900's are moderately to very tough! Even the people who write the price guides do not fully understand the rarity relationships in the proofs.
Mintage figures for proofs are somewhat accurate, but it is important to note how those numbers were arrived at. Prior to 1878 The mintage figures come from research into the sales records from The Mint rather than actual striking records. Proofs were not recorded as actual money, so their accounting is very sketchy. For instance, the 1864 No L is a very tough proof with 150 examples reportedly sold that year, but their estimated rarity based on numbers handled by us and others would indicate that about 250 or so were originally struck. Perhaps 100 or so pieces were held back as unsold until the early 1870's. Because of this lack of hard mintage figures up to 1877, the prices are based on actual survivors rather than initial production. Population figures by NGC and PCGS help a great deal here. Starting in 1878 the mintage figures are based on actual coins produced.
Beautiful toned proofs from the Prosky hoard. Coincidentally or not, Starting in 1878, it seems that one of the major coin dealers on the era, David Prosky, started buying up all the remaining specimens of the proof cents, 3 cent pieces, and 5 cent pieces leftover at the end of the year. This hoard of proofs was accumulated throughout the rest of Indian Cent series and numbered in the hundreds of coins per year. This group of Indian Cent proofs was still intact when the entire hoard was bought by Frederick C.C. Boyd, I believe around 1910. Later these were mostly all sold to Howard MacIntosh of Tatham Stamp & Coin Co. By this time the coins had mostly acquired beautiful iridescent purple toning and were advertised as such in their monthly ads in The Numismatist throughout the 1940's and 1950's. Today these purple toned beauties are very tough to find. Many have had their toning muted due to early rejection by PCGS and NGC. (They know better now and will most likely grade any original iridescent toned proof, if found) Although iridescent toned bronze coins invariably get graded as "Brown", they certainly don't trade anywhere near the "BN" bid. We accept iridescent toned coins labeled Brown as Red-Browns and price them accordingly.
Another hoard of Indian cents was owned by coin dealer Wayte Raymond (these may have been a subset of Proskey's coins). Raymond kept these coins at his summer home in Moutauck, NY - on Long Island by the salt air of the Atlantic Ocean! Needless to say these did not survive very well, and many spotted examples undoubtedly come from this source. While gem proof Indians are a delight, spotted low end Indians are a blight! Avoid them always!
Orange Peel fields. A real joy to behold is a gem early die state proof. These will have deep mirrors, frosted devices, and orange peel fields. When the dies are first made the steel is soft so that the design and date can easily be impressed into it. While the dies are in this soft state they are given a very fine polishing. After the die is hardened, the steel contracts slightly creating a wavy look on the polished fields. It looks like orange peels! After a small striking period the die may be reground and the orange peel will be wiped away. These later proofs will not have the deep mirror cameo appearance of the earlier die state pieces. It should be an automatic buy signal when you see Orange peel fields in my inventory listing.
The market. We list the proof retail values in our value guide. (See Proof Values) It is important to realize that the retail prices listed are for examples without heavy spots. Because collectors desire proofs for their beauty, ugly ones are not wanted. Sight unseen bidders have a hard time unloading the fish that get tossed at their low ball bids. They in turn must price them so low that it's hard to pass them up. But just like real fish, you want to buy the choice catch, not the smelly rejects. If you find yourself tempted to buy an ugly proof because it's cheap, remember that someday your going to want to sell it, and you'll have a very hard time of it.
The name of the proof collecting game is quality. Now and in the future, the highest demand will be for the prettiest examples. I don't mean the highest graded examples either, although their prices tend to outperform the lower graded specimens. My meaning is that whatever grade you buy, make sure it's a quality piece for that grade. We don't list too many proof in PR63 or lower because many of these pieces are just not pretty.
Provided Courtesy Richard Snow, Eagle Eye Rare Coins
Copyright 1999 Rick Snow & Eagle Eye Rare Coins, Inc.
Web site URL www.indiancent.com
Downloaded November 2002.