From a technical perspective, the purpose of a proof coin is to display the original design as faithfully as possible. Historically, proof coins were made at the very start of a production run to check the quality of the dies being used. The key feature common to all proof coins is that they are struck by the die multiple times, often at a slower striking speed than usual, thus forcing metal into every crevice of the die and giving the coin a much finer detail compared to regular strikes. Usually, dies are specially polished for production of proofs, giving parts of the design (most often the “field,” or flat background) a shiny, mirror-like appearance.
While proofs were initially struck in England in the late 17th century, they were not officially struck in America until 1817. Some rare early US Mint samples have proof-like characteristics and are sometimes designated as “specimen strike” and graded as proofs. Early proofs were often given as gifts to dignitaries and were not offered for sale to the general public until 1858.
With technological improvements in the late 1800s, many European mints began experimenting with different techniques to produce proof coinage. One method, popularized by the Paris Mint, involved striking the coins with unpolished dies and sandblasting them after they were struck. This gave the coins a much more matte finish compared to previous proof coins. The sandblasting eliminated almost all reflectivity. Instead, coins had a “granular” finish throughout, the coarseness or fineness of the finish dependent on the size of the sand particles used.
The US Mint was impressed with these new technologies and issued proof gold coins with the new matte finish in 1908 (roughly coinciding with new Indian Head and Saint-Gaudens designs). Collectors were much less impressed with the results. Most felt the new matte finish compared unfavorably to the shiny, reflective surfaces present on previous proofs. Correspondence of the time refers to the new coins as “dull proofs,” even in a technical context, reflecting the comparison. Sales were grim.
The following year, 1909, saw the US Mint try a different technique on some gold coins: “Roman” or “satin finish” proofs, produced with carefully-made dies and without sandblasting afterwards. Unfortunately for the Mint, these Roman finish proofs were also poorly received by the public. To many, these were inseparable in appearance from well-struck circulation coinage! Sales were again poor.
The Mint resumed production of the sandblasted matte finish coins in 1911, and they were produced in very limited quantities until 1915. In the ensuing years, similar matte finish techniques would be used on Lincoln cents, buffalo nickels, Peace dollars, and a few commemorative issues.
Many decades later, numismatic interest in the matte finish proofs of this era began to increase. Many collectors recognized the extreme rarity of these coins: the highest mintage for any coin in the series was just 682, of which most had been melted down. The matte proofs also represent an interesting era in the history of the US Mint, demonstrating a clash between technological advancement and consumer tastes.