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Hope that you will take few minutes to read this short article but at least be sure to check out the pictures at the bottom of the page!
THOUGHTS ON CERTIFIED CAMEOS
BY JEFF WERLIN
FIRST, A QUICK LESSON ON CAMEO PROOFS FROM THE 1950S AND 60S FOR THOSE OF YOU THAT MAY BE NOVICES IN THIS AREA...
The dies used to strike the collector proof or SMS (Special Mint Set) coins of this era were prepared by acid etching the recessed areas (the designs on the struck coin) and polishing the highest flat surfaces of the die (the background on the struck coin). The polishing of the high surfaces was meant to make the background on the struck coin look like a mirror. The point of the acid etching of the recessed areas was to create a frosted effect on the designs of the struck coin so that the proof coin enjoyed a “WHITE ON BLACK” or “CAMEO” effect. Unfortunately, the minting technology of the 50s and 60s era did not allow for this effect to last for many strikings of new dies. The frost on the recessed areas of the dies wore away rather quickly…after as few as 50-100 strikes. The result is that “CAMEO” proof coins of this era are very scarce. Less than 1% of the proofs minted in the 1950s qualify to be called “cameo”. In the early 60s, less than 2% of all proofs minted qualify to be called cameos. The effect lasted a little longer by the 1960s. Today, nearly every proof coin struck by the U.S. mint is a full cameo.
From 1965-67, the mint did not strike any full proof coins. Instead they struck “Special Mint Set” coins which were supposed to be “prooflike”. The dies were prepared more hastily and with much less care for the “cameo” effect. For 1965-67 SMS coins, the cameo percentage is significantly less especially for 1965. 1965-67 SMS pennies are exceedingly rare because most of those dies were simply not prepared with any frosting effect at all…a poor job by the mint.
OF COURSE THE VERY EARLIEST STRIKES OF FRESH DIES CREATE THE MORE HEAVILY FROSTED AND THUS INTENSELY CONTRASTED BEAUTIES!! Later strikings created less heavily contrasted coins until the effect was completely gone and the entire proof coin looked mirror-like with no frost at all on the design elements (called the devices). The proofs with no frost represent the vast majority of the proof coin production of the 1950s and 60s era. VERY SIMPLY STATED, THE CAMEO PROOFS OF THIS ERA ARE QUITE RARE RELATIVE TO FULLY MIRROR-LIKE UNFROSTED EXAMPLES!! THE STRONGER/HEAVIER THE CAMEO, THE MORE RARE, MORE STUNNING, AND MORE VALUABLE IS THE COIN!! THE VERY EARIEST STRIKES CAN BE MONSTER CAMEOS THAT BRING MONSTER PRICES!!!
With a few exceptions, the cameos are less strong and less plentiful as you go back through the years from 1970 back to 1936.
There is an excellent reference book on the subject which was authored by Rick Tomaska. I highly recommend this book as an educational resource. The title is "CAMEO AND BRILLIANT PROOF COINAGE OF THE 1950 TO 1970 ERA".
In this article, I would like to share with you my thoughts regarding the importance of certified grades in this wonderful collector niche of cameo proofs. The whole concept of third party grading arose for one predominant reason: to end disputes between buyer and seller over a coin’s grade. Why end the disputes? Because it is generally accepted that there is a direct correlation between grade and value (or price). In the pure investment market, this correlation is often accepted with reckless abandon by speculators who really don’t have a collecting interest and therefore blindly accept this premise and the grade/price relationship.
In the pure collector market, this relationship is not quite as “black and white” (no pun intended). As a matter of fact, the pure collector will most assuredly tell you that he prefers to buy the coin which is most eye appealing and that he will generally pay more money for the coin which wins in that regard. Although the full determination of market value of a rare coin can be quite complex, I believe that given a denomination/date/mint, it is this eye appeal concept which is the next most fundamental issue in establishing the market value Further, I believe that it is this concept of what is more pleasing to the collector’s eye which in fact drove the birth of the numerical grading system and its subsequent refinement. The collector is the backbone of our field and the following very basic premise is simple folks: given a denomination/date/mint, the coin which is more pleasing to look at is fundamentally worth more to the collector.
Our current grading system is a very reasonable attempt to capture the answer to the following question: On a scale of 1-70, how pleasing is a given coin to look at? A F-15 coin is more pleasing to look at than a VG-8 coin, an AU-55 is more pleasing than a XF-40, a MS65 is more pleasing than a MS63 etc. You may have heard in your travels, that the services occasionally “bump” up the certified grade of a coin due to exceptionally pleasing toning. NGC’s “star” designation is yet another attempt to help in refining the grade of a coin to officially recognize that it is well above average for the given grade. In as much as the grading system is successful in properly answering this question, then current market price level (according to certified grade) can be more easily established and published. At the very highest end of the Mint state scale, there is what I see as an arguable exception. There it is simply the quest for “perfection” that seems to drive desirability and thus value. The difference between a 69 and a 68 coin or a 69 and a 70 coin is so tiny that I find it very hard to rationalize that there is a real difference in eye appeal that justifies the price differences. In these cases, it is the “perfectness” factor that seems to dominate the value determination.
What does all this rambling have to do with cameo proof coins? This fabulous niche is surely biased to the collector side of the coin market. Even my customers who are the most concerned about appreciation potential are equally concerned about eye appeal. Cameo buyers all love their coins (including us dealers!). For most coins, the current grading system does a reasonable job of answering that question which I posed above. I’m afraid that it does not do a really good job of answering that question in our cameo niche! Many of you know that I do a lot of my sales on ebay. I’ve often included some of my thoughts which follow when selling a coin which is a mile or so over the CAMEO borderline and “oh so close” to DCAM.
In our niche, the 2 major services use only 2 certified cameo grade levels verses 10 numerical grade levels which try to capture the more technical factors affecting eye appeal. I doubt that a single person reading this article would argue that the 2 cameo designations are enough to describe the continuum of eye appeal from a purely brilliant proof coin to the very deepest cameo proof! There is a huge eye appealing difference between a purely brilliant proof coin and one that just misses the contrast level that the services have set as the CAMEO designation borderline. The same huge eye appealing difference exists between a coin that just made it to the CAMEO designation borderline and one that just misses the DCAM designation borderline. In my professional opinion this eye appeal difference is much larger than that between a given Proof 66 coin and that same coin at the Proof 67 grade (or Proof 67 vs 68 etc). Now that same premise regarding the relationship between eye appeal and value is certainly true for cameos as it is for other coins. You agree, don’t you? I’ll bet that not a single cameo collector would argue against that point of view. Given that, as it stands today, the major services have only helped the cameo niche a little in answering that question about eye appeal. Fair prices for those cameos at the higher ends of their graded level (non cam, cameo, or dcam) are not nearly as well established as are those for cookie cutter MS64, 65, 66 Morgan dollars or the like.
Those dealers who really specialize in the cameo niche and the really seasoned cameo collectors have the best appreciation for these values. The novice cameo collector is left clueless! If you want the higher end coins, you must expect to pay a premium for them so choose a specialist dealer with a good reputation that you are sure you can trust.
Given that cameos are not a specialty of the major grading services but just one small area in the entire coin spectrum, it is unlikely that they will ever fully solve this problem for us. I hope that sometime in the future, we can convince them to add at least one more cameo level (for a total of 3) to their scale.
Here are just a few pictures that should really drive home my main points above. All were taken with identical lighting and camera settings so that you are definitely comparing apples to apples when you view these pictures:
Which 1953 half would you prefer to buy?
Click on image to enlarge
Do you think that the 1954 half on the left is worth less than 1/3 of the one on the right?
Click on image to enlarge