Monday, July 13, 2009

Coin Monday: Matte Proof Gold, taken with a grain of sand

July 13, 2009
Posted by John Dale

U.S. coinage designs evolved rapidly during the early 20th century, creating a complex web of changes that broke up the Mint Engravers’ oligopoly on hard money motifs.

In 1905 just three designers – Christian Gobrecht, James B. Longacre and Charles Barber – could be credited with circulating coinage designs struck that year, and the first two were long dead. By the end of 1921 their designs were done, swept away by creations from artists outside the Mint. (A recent and excellent treatment of the time period is Roger W. Burdette’s Renaissance of American Coinage trilogy; together, the three books are among my most-consulted cataloging references, and for good reason.)

These rapid shifts brought with them a number of challenges, including the question of how to strike proofs, the carefully prepared, sharply struck, and all-around special versions of workaday coins.

The “first wave” of new designs, the gold denominations as re-imagined by Bela Lyon Pratt and Augustus Saint-Gaudens, was not well-suited to the mirrored-field (or brilliant) style of proof coinage to which collectors were accustomed. To find a solution, U.S. Mint officials used the time-honored tactic of cribbing from Europe, where the matte proof, as exemplified by this 1912-dated Saint-Gaudens double eagle, was highly popular as a finish for medals. The matte proof is named for the non-reflective quality of the surfaces though Burdette prefers the term sandblast proof, a reference to the sandblasting that gives matte proofs their finely granular texture.

The logic behind a matte proof is that since there is no flashy luster or shine to distract the viewer, the focus is going to be on the design. Unfortunately for those who championed the matte proof in the United States the switch from brilliant to matte was jarring enough to stir complaints, and appeals to sophistication and technical necessity went largely unheard. The controversy surrounding matte proofs was one of several reasons why proof coinage was suspended in 1916. Even today, while the matte proofs of yesteryear are revered, they are an acquired taste for most collectors (myself included!), and after proof production resumed in 1936 as a response to the increasing popularity of coin collecting, brilliant proofs were the rule.

With an understanding of what matte proofs are, though, an exquisitely preserved specimen offers a vaguely exotic but undeniable beauty. The aforementioned focus on the design is particularly welcome in the case of the Saint-Gaudens eagles and double eagles, which are often praised as among the most beautiful American coins.

In 1912, sales of the matte proof double eagle amounted to just 74 pieces, and today survivors are distinctly rare. These elusive and lovely coins may not shine in person, but in the eyes of many collectors, their reputation has plenty of luster.

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-John Dale

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