Proof Reverse Washington Quarters ( 1956-1964) The Ultimate Variety Part I
A two part article series written by Dr. Richard S. Appel
I first became aware of these remarkable Washington Quarters at a coin show in the late 1990's. At first glance I was quite taken aback and captivated as I viewed my initial specimen. Its combination of a normal obverse image with a Proof die reverse was fascinating to behold. Despite my initial excitement, I didn't recognize the true importance of these exceptional coins for several years. Since their discovery there has been disagreement and controversy among noted numismatic experts regarding how and why they were actually made. My hope is to dispel some misconceptions and bring to light why these important coins even exist.
At the time they were referred to as Type B or Variety II Reverse coins. This denoted that their reverse was different from the Type A or Variety I Quarters. These bore the original eagle design that had been used on all regular minted coins since the Washington Quarter's 1932 début. Professional numismatists and sophisticated collectors alike called the Proof Reverse coins errors, mistakes, accidents or even mules.
It was originally thought by most that the reverse dies for the coins were produced from a Proof hub, and were not from the actual Proof dies themselves. I believe ANACS was the first grading service to attribute them, and stated on their holders; "Proof Reverse Hub Design". This theory has been largely carried forward from that time. However, I believe there is now sufficient information to change this concept.
I believe there are two possible explanations how these coins were produced. In the first, the Mint either used a Proof hub to make the dies or rejected Proof dies were utilized. The second was retired Proof dies were used after they became too worn to continue coining Proof specimens. In the former case why would the Mint do this for nine consecutive years? Someone gave the order or made a similar mistake each year, and produced coins of higher relief which would be harder for businesses to stack and use? Doubtful: Or, they continually produced faulty Proof dies and didn't want to throw them away? Unlikely! Possibly, the master circulation strike hub broke so they used a Proof hub? This is not the case because it didn't! To my mind this leaves the second possibility; the Mint intentionally used earlier retired Proof dies. But why?
Other than a few 1964 Philadelphia Washington Quarters, I don't remember seeing another 1956-P through 1964-P Type A quarter with a hint of Proof surface on its reverse. However, many of the Proof Reverse issues of each year display some remaining Proof surface, with a number possessing a substantial Proof appearance. This indicates that at least when the dies were initially used they had some remaining Proof surface that was transferred to the early circulation strike coins. Ultimately I believe all numismatists will agree on their Proof die origin. For this reason, and after much thought and research, I feel the earlier descriptions are inaccurate in attributing the significance and great merit of these extraordinary coins, and that Proof Reverse Washington Quarters deserve a place as integral members of every complete set of Washington Quarters. See if you agree. From its inception the U.S. Mint was charged with the production of our nation's coinage. Each year the Mint's emissions entered circulation to facilitate our country's general business transactions. They were struck at various government facilities and were usually referred to as regular mint issues or business strike coins. On occasion an error was made, or refinements or modifications to existing hubs or dies were performed. Or, a slip of a sculptor or engraver's hand occurred. The resulting products of these events were normally dubbed "varieties" or "mint errors". Most were subtle, but some presented impressive differences from the intended obverse or reverse artwork.
The question arises in determining which category Proof Reverse Washington Quarters reside. They were neither the product of a Mint modification nor an error. Some experts believe they may have been the result of an accident or mistake. Given that they were produced in each of nine consecutive years I believe this conclusion is unfounded. To my mind they were produced with the INTENT of becoming regular issue coins. It was as if the Mint generated entirely new reverse dies to be married with the usual George Washington bust obverse. Indeed, I believe they were the result of a stand-alone, conscious decision by U.S. Mint officials to mate Proof Reverse and normal obverse dies in the years they were minted. The resulting coins were then to be placed into circulation for all regular commercial transactions.
To make this even more intriguing, I suspect the genesis of these unique coins resulted from a major miscalculation by the Mint. In 1954, after 101 years of uninterrupted service, the U.S. Mint closed their San Francisco facility. They apparently believed the remaining two mints in Philadelphia and Denver could bear the burden of producing sufficient coins for our country's needs. I originally thought an unexpected increase in demand created a dilemma for the Mint's executives. However, after researching the era, I now believe that in 1956, the officials underestimated the number of Washington Quarter reverse working dies they would need to produce that year's Quarter production. It was their scrambling to rectify the mistake that an eleventh hour decision was made. This allowed them to produce the needed number of 1956 Quarter Dollars, and were thus able to avert a potential disaster.
As the year 1956 wore on I believe the Mint's officials began to realize that they would need additional reverse working dies. As time passed and the end of the year drew closer, I suspect a sense of panic overwhelmed those charged with supplying our coinage. So a choice had to be made. If they decided to produce new reverse dies they would not only be constrained by time, but would have to bear a substantial additional cost. That is, if they hadn't already waited too long. I'm sure the thought they had lost the window to first generate the needed dies, and then work to mint sufficient coins to meet their quota, passed through many of their minds. To save the day, an unnamed Mint official struck upon a unique and unprecedented solution. Why not use retired PROOF REVERSE DIES that were on hand to solve their dilemma?
The Quarter Dollar is the workhorse of our nation's coinage. Additionally, the lower, reverse die takes the brunt of stress during the coining process. Before a coin is struck, a planchet, the round disc of metal that is to become the coin, is placed upon the anvil die. The upper hammer die is then forced with enormous pressure onto the planchet. As the disc is squeezed between the two dies, its metal flows into the recessed parts of each. This forms the desired obverse and reverse images. The immense pressure that is transmitted through the planchet and onto the lower die is why they suffer the most stress, and is the reason reverse dies typically wear out faster than obverse ones, and are needed in greater quantities.
Proof Reverse Washington Quarters were minted each year from 1956 through 1964, and were produced solely at the Philadelphia Mint. This was likely because that Mint was the appointed facility that coined Proof Specimens for inclusion in Proof Sets for the collecting public. Proof dies only have a limited period of usefulness. Their special, deeply mirrored surfaces quickly deteriorate and must be frequently re-polished. This simultaneously reduces the definition of the artwork. When a Proof working die loses too much of its mirror-like appearance and detail it is retired from production. This is long before it begins to show signs of structural wear. They are then kept on the Mint's premises until such time when the officials decide to destroy them.
In late 1956 and with the solution in hand, the Philadelphia Mint coined their first Proof Reverse Washington Quarters. They simply picked up a discarded reverse Proof Die, and pressed it into service paired with a normal business strike obverse die. I suspect that Mint officials unanimously breathed a great sigh of relief. Their new, extraordinary decision had saved the day! They likely did not recognize it, but they had created a new, unique class of Washington Quarters.
Herbert P. Hicks wrote an outstanding, award winning series published in 1986 in the "Numismatist", and reprinted with revisions and updates in 1987 in "Coin World". It was entitled, "Multitude of Artwork Creates Varieties, Author Traces Strengthening of Washington Design". In it he wrote referring to Proof Reverse coins, "Another possibility involves the use of worn-out Proof dies". He went on to state that, "but this has been fervently denied by the Mint". If I am correct, I suspect the Mint's denial reflected their embarrassment.
This new capability did not go un-utilized in the ensuing years. Each year through 1964, the Mint did not hesitate to use retired Proof Reverse Washington Quarter dies whenever the need arose. With this new option, Mint officials knew they only had to produce the minimum number of reverse dies they projected to need. Any shortfall could be easily rectified by reusing Proof Dies that remained on hand, and at a substantial time and cost savings. While it was not their intent, they produced a nine year series of impressive rarities for the eternal enjoyment of the coin collecting fraternity. Interestingly from 1969-1972 some Denver Mint Quarters bear the Type B Proof Reverse image instead of the newer Type C Reverse. Also, in 1992, 1998, 1999 and 2000, Proof Reverse dies were used to coin some Lincoln Cents.
Proof Reverse Washington Quarters display many impressive dissimilarities with their normal business strike counterparts. First, the Eagle has greater detail. It is of higher relief, appears thinner, and its crisp tail edge is one of its hallmarks. Next, the lettering and leaves are substantially sharper and well defined. The letters have flatter tables, and their corners and edges are more squared. Also, the "A" in Dollar is touched by a sharply detailed leaf on the Proof version, while there is a separation on regular examples. Further, the leaf before the arrow bundle upon which the Eagle stands curves slightly to the left. It projects above and obscures the arrow points on the Proof, while terminating noticeably lower on non-Proofs leaving a gap between the leaf and uppermost, visible arrow's point. Importantly, many Proof Reverses exhibit some remaining tell-tale Proof-like surfaces with some exhibiting substantial, remaining mirrored fields. Finally, The "E" and "S" of States are widely separated on the Proof version, while they nearly touch one another on regular issues.
Of great relevance to their rarity is the likelihood that all Proof Reverse Washington Quarters were coined in the latter few weeks or even days of their year's production. Thus, they were all minted in limited quantities. Despite the fact that millions of coins may have been minted in a year, only a minute percentage bear the coveted Proof Reverse die's characteristics. The 1956 emissions are decidedly the rarest. This is thought by many experts to be the result of the Mint's delayed decision to even produce them.
To further limit the number of available Proof Reverse specimens for numismatic specialists and neophytes alike, is the result of a little recognized fact. In 1964, the rise in the Spot Silver price caused the metal in our nation's Silver coinage to be worth more than the coin's face value. This fostered a nationwide hunt for 1964 and earlier Silver Dimes, Quarters and Half Dollars. As a result, millions upon millions of these coins went to refiners and were melted for their Silver content. Furthermore, because Uncirculated Washington Quarters dated 1956 through 1964 rarely sold for a premium to Circulated examples, little if any distinction was made. Not only did the ongoing 60 year melting of U.S. Silver coins claim the preponderance of pre-1964 Silver coins, but it also destroyed the majority of both the Circulated and Mint State Proof Reverse Washington Quarters. What remains is only a handful compared to their original meagre mintages. Statistics given below are from combined PCGS and NGC population report totals.
This article was published in the March 13, 2015 issue of the COIN DEALER CND MONTHLY SUPPLEMENT newsletter and written by the below author.
The author has given me permission to publish this article here and if you have any questions you can contact him below.