The Evolution Of Cameo Proof Coinage







I continue to get questions from new clients regarding the relative rarity of cameo proof coins, spanning from the 1800's to the present. I also get questions from newer clientele regarding the availability of the earlier, pre-1968 coinage (including SMS) in cameo. If these collectors were with me 15-20 years ago, they would know how significantly more difficult it now is to locate pristine cameo proof coinage from this earlier era now, than it was in the early 1990's and before.   Going back to the early 19th century, the U.S. mint recognized the beauty of their cameo proofs and went to great trouble in order to create the two-toned cameo effect. Despite the comparatively primitive technology of the time, on very rare occasions one can find a stunning cameo proof coin from the 1800’s.  Proof coins from that early era are extremely rare, given the fact that total proof mintages were typically less than 1,000 coins in any given year, and importantly that inert storage materials like plastic would not be available for 100 years.  As a result, the great majority of proof coins struck in the 1800’s are either very darkly toned or harshly cleaned.  Compounding the issues with modern coins was a brief hiatus of proof coin production from 1943-1949.


When the mint resumed production in 1950, the packaging was the same as the packaging used during the 1936-1942 era. All five coins were issued in a single cardboard box, approximately 2 inches by 2 inches by 3/4 inch. Each of the five coins were in their own cellophane envelope in the box, with the five envelopes stapled together. These envelopes were also wrapped in tissue inside the box.

To help better understand the relative rarity of cameo proofs from 1950 to present, I have broken down the evolution of U.S. proof production during this period into 5 eras. An encapsulation of each follows:



Era I  1950 - 1967




The 7 year lay-off had an apparent affect on the quality of proof coinage in 1950. The half dollar, having been the largest in denomination and size, displayed evidence of the most problems. All five denominations suffered from plentiful hairlines and glue-stains. The hairlines were due primarily to the packaging. The cellophane envelopes did not adequately protect the delicately polished proof surfaces of the coins housed inside, and any rubbing of envelope on coin resulted in light scratches on the coin's surface - referred to as "hairlines".  The very large surrounding field of the Franklin obverse made for increased risk of hairlines. The end result is that the 1950 proof Franklin, despite have a mintage several times higher than the proof Walkers of the earlier 1936-1942 era, is far rarer than all the proof Walkers but the 1936 in non-cameo proof 67.



Glue-stains were also a major problem for 1950 proof coins, caused by the glue coming from the seal on the cellophane envelopes.  Many of the 1950 proof dies were also overused. The result was the majority of 1950 proof Franklin halves were very shallow mirrored, and looked little different from BU coinage.


Slightly more than 50,000 proof sets were issued, unfortunately due to storage issues, and poor quality control, deeply mirrored cameo proof 1950 coinage is very scarce.  Consequently all denominations in DCAM/ULTRA are either rare or exceedingly rare.


The mint eventually recognized the problems, and began taking steps at improving the quality of proof coins with each passing year.  Gradual increases in proof production for each year culminated in 1957 when over one million proof sets were issued. The mint tackled the packaging problem and came out with the "flat pack" in mid-1955. All five coins were now housed in a single cellophane envelope, each with its own compartment. This cellophane envelope was of far better quality than earlier envelopes.


While proof production continued to increase, with the mint reaching a plateau of three million sets annually beginning in 1961, the percentage of cameo proof coins struck remained quite small. For many issues in many years, the percentage of coins struck with ultimate DCAM/ULTRA contrast was infinitesimally small, usually representing far less than 1% of total proof production for that issue.


Important note: One cannot estimate CAMEO or DCAM/ULTRA CAMEO rarity based on mintage figures. For example the 1959 proof Franklin is a hundred times rarer in DCAM/ULTRA than the 1956 proof Franklin, even though the 1959 had a 50% higher mintage. Conversely, the 1956 proof Jefferson is hundreds of times rarer than the 1956 proof Franklin in DCAM/ULTRA, even though they were struck the same year, and had the same mintages.




During the 1950-1967 period dies were dipped in a bath of 5% nitric acid/95% alcohol. This solution would acid-etch the die, and then the fields were buffed and polished. Since the device of the die was recessed, it did not receive this polishing and would therefore retain its acid-etched cameo effect.



This acid-etched cameo was very delicate and would quickly wear under the intense pressure of planchet on die. Each successive strike would display slightly less cameo effect than the previous. For most years, relatively few coins would be struck that displayed truly DCAM/ULTRA contrast.  Additionally, the obverse and reverse dies wore at different rates. During the 1950-1967 era, the mint only replaced those dies that were badly worn, leaving its mate on the press. This practice was responsible for most of the mismatched cameo proofs of this era.


Of paramount significance: As a percentage of total proof production, there is a far smaller percentage of 1950-1967 proof and SMS coins struck in cameo than proof coins struck in the 1800’s.


SMS Coins:

Finally, the SMS coinage of 1965-1967 deserves special mention. Many of the early SMS issues look little different from BU commercial coinage. However, a small handful of examples were struck from each year with exceptional cameo contrast, and surfaces bordering on proof quality.  Coins from this period will have bagmarks, but unlike proof coins, which were individually handled, SMS coins were not.  SMS coins were dumped into bins, the same treatment as commercial coinage. All SMS issues, regardless of denomination, are scarce to rare in cameo, and all are rare to extremely rare in DCAM/ULTRA.

Era II 1968 - 1970



The mint adopted hard plastic cases beginning in 1968. Although this further helped protect the coins from physical damage like hairlines, these holders were not as airtight as the previous cellophane envelope used from 1955 to 1964 for proof coins. As a result, many proofs from this era have developed a very heavy, hazy toning.


In an apparent response to collector demand for more beautiful cameo proof coins, the number of cameo proofs struck as a percentage of total proof production began to increase in the 1968-1970 era. The Kennedy half dollar is the most common issue in exceptional DCAM/ULTRA condition from this period.


The Washington quarter continues to be extremely rare in DCAM/ULTRA. The rarity of the quarter in DCAM/ULTRA is primarily due to the harder clad planchet used for quarters minted after 1964. While the dime was composed of the same metal as the quarter, the smaller dime planchet required much less pressure for striking, and so would wear the die slower.


Interestingly, the cents, while not rare in DCAM/ULTRA, are rare in Proof 69 DCAM/ULTRA.  Beginning in 1968, cents began to exhibit a disturbing number of ticks/scratches as they came from the mint. It is unclear why proof coins, supposedly handled individually, had been allowed to be released with so many obvious imperfections.


Era III 1971-1976



EDITOR'S NOTE: When I originally wrote this article, I had in mind only the cent through half dollar denominations found in the proof sets of that year when I referred to their rarity in DCAM/ULTRA. The Eisenhower dollar was issued separately, and is much easier to locate in DCAM/ULTRA than any of the other issues produced that year. To put it in context, there are arguably more 1971-S Ikes in DCAM/ULTRA than the rest of the other 1971 issues combined.


In 1971, the mint was still using acid-dipping techniques to create cameo proof dies. Harder non-silver planchets complicated the process, as the harder planchets wore these delicate cameo dies at an even faster rate than the earlier silver planchet. The half dollar was the last denomination to go clad, beginning in 1971.


All 1971 proof coinage is elusive in the heaviest DCAM/ULTRA level of contrast.  Many 1971 proof issues can be found with exceptional DCAM/ULTRA obverse contrast, but with little or no cameo contrast on the reverse. It is apparent the mint did not give the reverse dies the same attention as the obverse.

While all the issues are uncommon in exceptional cameo, the quarter is the most elusive.  Followed by the cent, half, nickel, and dime.


Marks continued to be a problem. Most cents and nickels have numerous ticks, scratches and gouges.  Locating a 1971 (editor's note: Again I am NOT referring to Eisenhower dollars) proof issue in ultimate PR 69 DCAM/ULTRA can be challenging.


Quality improved in 1972, with a substantially higher percentage of exceptional cameos being struck than the previous year, but it was not until 1973 that major progress occurred, when the mint began using sand-blasting techniques to create a much heavier cameo effect in the die preparation.  Furthermore the die was given added durability when it was chrome-plated, which all contributed to an increase in cameo quality in proof coinage.


This basic technique has been employed ever since. However, it was years before the technique was perfected.

Ticks and scratches remained a problem, and the mint changed the packing contents of the packaging, to the detriment of the delicate proof coins. The materials used were apparently not inert. Most proof coins housed in this packaging for any length of time (several decades) have developed a heavy dull toning. Of the five denominations, cents through halves, the Lincoln cents are by far the toughest denomination to locate in Proof 69 DCAM/ULTRA condition.


Era IV 1977 - 1989 



With the yearly improvements in the production techniques, by 1977 virtually all proof coins struck and released by the mint exhibited DCAM/ULTRA contrast. I have yet to see a proof coin from this era in fully brilliant condition.


The biggest problem continued to be the ticks and scratches still found on many cents and nickels, and the packaging. While the mint used a hard plastic inert case to protect and view the coins, the mint continued to use materials inside the holder that were not inert, and which continued to tone the coins.


Era V  1990 - Present     



The last major hurdles, the ticks and the packaging materials, were finally overcome in this modern era. One can purchase an original proof set from this period, and generally be assured that most if not all the coins in the set will grade at least PROOF 69 DCAM/ULTRA if submitted.


Congratulations to the mint for a job well done. However, hopefully this brief overview will give the reader some appreciation for the challenges we collectors of this beautiful coinage face when trying to acquire those "ultimate" examples of the earlier years. I have great admiration for any collector fortunate enough to acquire top quality issues of proof coins from the 1950 - 1971 era, and also for many issues of the 1972 - 1976 era. A lot of luck and hard work generally goes into acquiring these coins.