Very proof-like business strikes and the curious case of the 1856 Flying Eagle cent
As I am aware, there are quite a few business strike issues that can be found very PL. Certain seated liberty dimes for example come with cameo frost and mirrors, as with many Morgan dollars designated as DMPL. No-one really argues that these are business strike. Key diagnostics can at least show that the dies used to make these PL examples are the same ones used to make business strikes.
As we are told by the experts, the term "proof" is more about the coiner's intent, and less about the die used. In several discussions about this with John Danruther I have been told that for several gold issues, individual dies have been used to strike proofs, then used to strike business strikes, and then ONCE AGAIN used to make more proofs. In cases such as these, it would seem that the coiner's intent is obvious, more or less.
Certain issues though, definitely spark a little more heated discussion. Take the Isabella Quarter, or the Columbian Half. In the case of the Quarter, a total of four have been graded by PCGS out of a purported mintage of about 100. This number is undeniably low. As I understand, these were supposedly the first ones struck, seemingly as proofs. The rest were merely struck later in the run, perhaps with "run of the mill" planchets and the same dies. In my (and others) opinion, the reason so few are graded as proof is that there is no real distinguished characteristic of a "proof" versus a "non-proof", so what? Better safe than sorry?
As for the case of the 1856 Flying Eagle, I'm sure most of us have heard the story. With the cost of the old "large" cents exceeding the value of the coin, a new less expensive "small" cent was proposed. After a few pattern runs in the early 1850's, a design was settled on. Supposedly 500 of these were struck as business strikes in 1856 for presentation to members of congress for approval. These 500 (or so) coins have been identified by their die characteristics as "Snow-3". The easiest way to identify these is by the re-punched 5 in the date. As the design was approved, many of these coins were spent and can be found with varying degrees of circulation wear.
To continue the story, these small cents were hugely popular. Tales of people lined up with wheelbarrows full of large cents to trade in for small still persist. Collector interest soon sparked a search for these small cents dated 1856. By some accounts this was one of the genesis points in American numismatics. By 1858, the very concept of a proof coin really came into its own. Looking back, the "proof" mintages of the pre-1850 US mint were small, usually well under 25. After 1856 there was a collector boom. The notion of much larger mintages... 100, 500, 5000 specially made "proofs" took hold. These could be sold at a premium to collectors. in 1858 it would be decided to strike an additional quantity (about 1500) to satisfy demand. These coins were all struck as proofs, and were available individually or as part of a set that could be purchased from the mint. The majority of these 1500 coins are identified as the "Snow-9" die pairing.
So now we have, for the most part, 500 business strikes made in 1856 and 1500 proofs made in 1858, all dated 1856. From this we get the "Approx. 2000" mintage number that many of us remember right under that cardboard plug in the old blue Whitman albums. For most of us, there was never really any distinction between the die varieties. The total mintage of 2000 made this an undeniably rare issue, virtually unobtainable, regardless of the true nature of each individual coin.
Now, and for the past 30+ years, third-party grading and authentication services like PCGS, NGC, ANACS, etc have been certifying coins as authentic. Early on, it would seem that the primary focus was on "is it real" and not so much on die varieties or the provable nature of the coiner's intent. Generally, if it looked like a proof, it was a proof, and if it didn't, it wasn't. I mean sure, circulated proof only issues were graded as proofs, but also the converse, where very proof-like business strikes have been mistakenly attributed as proof. I mean, hey. (Sh)It happens.
Perhaps the most egregious cases of mistaken identity are with these 1856 Flying Eagle Cents. Mint records were pretty clear and understood by authenticators, but going off the old "looks like a proof" method, lots of mistakes were made. Just looking at CoinFacts images of business strike 1856 cents, it is clear that many of them are actually Snow-9's. And of course, many Snow-3 cents were also designated as proof. As I am told, a decision was made by grading company management that in light of these "errors", from this point forward all 1856 cents would be designated as "proof" regardless of their die pairing or appearance.
This was unfortunate, especially for collectors. And ESPECIALLY for collectors trying to complete a set of business strike Flying Eagles. I mean, sure, anybody with enough time, luck, or money could locate a true business strike, but unless it was previously designated as a business strike, it would be graded as a proof and not eligible for inclusion in the set. Worse still, many improperly attributed proofs exist in business strike holders, masquerading as the "real-deal" in registry sets. In this case, one of the primary purposes of third party grading services has failed the collector. Imagine how you would feel if you were sold a restrike as an original, unbeknownst.
Would you care? I mean, the plastic says.
For me, the distinction is important. First, the distinction that a coin is an original, not a restrike, is paramount. My biggest pet-peeve in numismatics is coins that are made AFTER the date on the coin. Sure, maybe I'll never buy an 1804 dollar. Whatever. I don't collect dollars anyway. But for small cents there are at least a couple examples that rub me the wrong way. The 1864-L Indian cent proof is another. From a purported mintage of twenty, perhaps only 8 are known to have been struck with original 1864 dies. The PR2 die pairing (10 known) has been shown to be a restrike produced sometime between 1868 and 1871. I guess that if this matters to you, then you'd better pay attention when you buy.
Going back to the original point of this post, be it regarding 1856 cents, Isabella Quarters, Seated Dimes, and the intent of the coiner, I'd like to hazard a guess. My gut tells me that early on in the production of any issue, especially for a new type, when the dies are new and the planchets are among the first struck, regardless of the intent of the coiner, certain coins can be produced that really look proof-like. I don't think it's far-fetched that coins produced "in business-like fashion" made to impress members of congress would be, in the early part of their run, extremely well made.