If there's one thing that devotees and critics of the pre-decimal proof series agree on, it's the variability and individuallity of these proofs. Collectors of modern proof coins see absolutely no variation between the quality of this year's proof set and the next.
The pre-decimal proof series is different. Yes each issue is of proof quality, but also has individual traits giving it a specific character. There are many stages in the production of proof coins. subtle variation in any of these stages can produce different end products. The mint can do any of the following things; Vary the brilliance of the planchet prior to striking; poloish or sand-blast dies; use specially cut dies for striking; lacquer the coin after striking and strike with different pressure settings. These different techniques will all affect the final proof finish. They were all used at various times in the pre-decimal proof series.
The general appearance of a Pre-Decimal proofs are the best quality pre-decimal coins you can buy. Their detail is more clear and complete than circulation strikes; their fields are more constant in finish and in most cases they are more brilliant and original in colour than even B UNC graded coins. They give you a depth of detail and crispness of strike not matched on circulation coinage.
To the untrained eye, however, there may be very little to distinguish these proofs from uncirculated coins. There are a number of areas the collector can study to train the eye: 1. The Fields: A proof coin is struck with more pressure than a circulation strike-usually twice, so that the fields will have a very flat mirror-like quality. The fields of an uncirculated coin may have some undulation about them made visible by variation in the luster. 2. Hairlines: The extra pressure of strike for proofs tends to make the definition of Her Majesty's hairline clearer. One of the most distinct spots is where the fringe meets the forehead. On circulation strikes this tends to just merge with the facial level, but on a proof the fringe has a distinct endings. 3. Rims: A proof will have good aquare rims, often with a raised wire-line that is quite sharp. A visual test will show the rim is at good right angles to the field and cleanly manufactured. 4. Denticles: The denticles on a proof striking (whether circular, as used on the florin, or beads as used on the sixpence), will have a symmetrical shape when viewd under a magnifying glass. Gereral circulation striking, because of the weakness of strike, tends to have flate beading and denticles that listlessly taper off to the coin serface.
These are the most general tests you can apply in looking for a proof. There are others that relate particularly to a denomination. This includes examining the coat-of-arms on a florin or sixpence for detail ( in particular the top left hand segment) or examining the stalks of wheat on a threepence or the markings on the ram's horn on a shilling. With pre-decimal proofs, the greater a person's experience with the series, the greater their expertise-that applies to dealers just as much as collectors.
New collectors to the series must be aware that, most pre-decimal proofs were available to collectors direct from the mint on a coin-by-coin basis. The packaging? Most coins were sent out wrapped in tissue paper! The result of this is that not all proof coin are perfect.
The collector should be very wary of the following shortcomings, all of which substantially reduce the desirability and value of a pre-decimal proof coin. 1. Carbon Spots: Very easy to detect. They are usually a couple of millimeteres in diameter, forming a crusty cake on the coin. This cake is actually part of the coin that has been eaten by the disease. Obviously, such spots are disastrous on a proof coin and should be avoided. The copper proofs are more likely to suffer this problem, though it is also known to attack silver. 2. Flecking: The problem known as flecking is different to carbon spotting in that the spots are not active i.e. destroying the coin. They usually result from a chemical splashing on the coin surface and turning black. As the name suggests, flecking consists of only minor spots and is not damaging to the coin. Many collectors and dealers belive flecking adds character to a coin, making it identifiable and not a reson to mark a coin less than perfect. However, as it alters the coin from the time of minting and is not a natural reaction on all coins, it should be considered to reduce the quality of the proof coin concerened. 3. Damage with circulation: Any form of wear, knock bump, or scratch, usually associated with a coin that has been in circulation, reduces the grade of a pre-decimal proof coin. If such a coin has seen circulation, or bad handling makes it appear as if it has, then it should not be deemed perfect. 4. Excessive Toning: There are special considerations for the Melbourne copper proofs of 1955-59 regarding toning. As an example, a perfect and bright untoned proof penny will be a first quality, and demands top dollar. If it has toning that upsets the bright finish, it drops to second quality with a drop in value by upto 50%. If you add some flecking, or maybe another minor detriment, it becomes third quality and should reduce the value by upto75%.
Most collectors do not appreciate the full importance of this shortfall. If a proof coin from Perth or one of the Melbourne silver coins is toned, it dramatically reduces its commercial value.
Special considerations for Melbourne copper proofs, The Melbourne Mint produced all the pre-decimal proof silver coins, plus copper coins over some years in the 1950's. In general, the silver proofs are top quality striking and are dazzling with a shining white brilliance. The copper proofs on the other hand are a constant source of bewilderment. The Melbourne Mint did not coat their proof copper with any lacquers or protective finish and as a consequence, the delicate proof finish is usually heavily toned. As long as the collector bears this in mind, there are still some attractive proofs out there with sharp detail and good looking fields.
The collecting of pre-decimal coins is both a challenge and a great potential investment area. The key point to enjoying these coins is not to compare their manufacture with modern proof coins which belong to a second generation of craftsman.