Discussion regarding the cause of over polishing on 1936-1942 Proofs (Particularly 1936)
In a recent conversation with Roger Burdette ATS about a thread that I had recently posted here, a very in depth and informative discussion ensued and we both agreed that the end result and opinions would be beneficial to share. This is going to be a long one, there’s a lot of details to go through.
The topic was to the cause of the frequency that the mint’s proof dies 1936-42 were over polished, particularly in the year 1936. Firstly, I’d like to state that no conclusions can be proved for certain by mint documents that we currently have, but the opinions are very likely to be what really happened. A lot of this post is opinions, as documentation is really lacking. A few sets were preserved with Satin proof coins contained in them, which is how we are able to tell with a degree of accuracy what the silver denominations looked like earlier in the year vs. later based on the knowledge of when satin proofs were struck in 1936. I cannot prove that the images of proofs that I post are from the times I state, but it is likely based on what others have observed and relayed to me, particularly Roger.
The dies for proof coinage from 1936-42 were often polished to the point where the design detail would be severely degraded, in extreme cases the design on the finished coin would be so degraded that circulation strikes retained more of the design elements. Mint documents do not give us an insight into the cause of this problem, so there is an opportunity for collectors to form conjecture on what really happened. 1936 in itself provides an opportunity for us to look into two different types of coins in the year - those struck early in the year when satin proof cents and nickels were being produced, and those struck later in the year when all coins were brilliant. It is of note that all silver proof coins in 1936 were intended to be brilliant - there were no satin proofs of any denomination higher than five cents in this era.
One major event that happened between these two time periods of when satin proofs were struck (early 1936) and when satin proofs (late 1936) were not struck is that collectors complained that the surfaces of the proofs struck were not distinct enough and therefore they were dissatisfied with the proofs.
They did not just complain about the satin proofs, but also the brilliant proofs produced in early 1936. Their main complaint was that the mirror like fields were of inferior quality to those of 20th century proofs. This comes into play with later letters in the year where the collectors of 1936 wrote to compliment the mint on improved quality of the finished proofs - particularly reflectivity of the coins.
A note: The proofs referenced here on out are only the silver proofs- none of this refers to satin proofs produced in 1936.
Those proof coins produced earlier in 1936 often bear good detail with duller fields. While there are no mint documents to support the following, it is likely due to the fact that the planchets were unpolished, thereby resulting in the mirror die conforming to the average surface of the planchets- a dull mirror. Engraver John Sinnock had no idea how to produce the proofs as they were previously, so it was a trial and error process. It is likely that in early 1936 he did not realize that the planchets as well as the dies needed to be polished for a full lasting mirror surface for the run of proof coins. As such, he likely never did polish the planchets in early 1936 leading to a duller surface. It is of note, however, that these coins bear oftentimes better details - suggesting that the dies were not over polished as much in early 1936. This could have been because the mint viewed the duller proofs as distinctive enough, and not knowing better until collector letters came in, continued to produce proofs with unpolished planchets and dies that had mirrors that conformed to the planchets - in a word, dull. An example of such a coin is below:
It has nearly full details on the low points (flag, hand, eagle's feathers, sun's rays) and weak reflectivity.
The late 1936 proof coins show oftentimes better reflectivity - once again coming back to the planchets. Engraver John Sinnock likely managed to polish the planchets in late 1936 which led to increased reflectivity on the planchets and also reduced the number of repolishes needed for a die to have a mirror surface. One would then, logically, assume that the dies would maintain more detail due to the lowered need for repolishes, and the mirror reflectivity would increase while the detail remained the same or better. However, this is not the case. Late 1936 proof coins are characterized by deeper mirrors and oftentimes severely decreased detail when compared to the early 1936 proof coins. Here is an example:
It has nearly obliterated low point detail, with very nice reflectivity. It is also of not that this coin appears to have some contrasted devices on the high points, which suggests that the die pair was likely in its initial polish stage, and has Riley not gone through any repolish cycle - that means that it suggests that that too many repolishes was likely not the cause of the degraded detail.
This leads to the question - why? Why does the detail of late 1936 coins decease when it should have remained the same or better?
One main factor that plays a role was how the mint was playing with the relief of dies in the 1930s and it was trying to lower it to presumably increase the longevity of circulation dies in the press and by relation the amount of coins produced by those dies. Since proof dies are circulation dies that were polished for this era, they suffer the same lowering of relief and this likely played a large part in the polishing (accidentally) of relief for proof dies. Here is a chart of such changes as Engraver John Sinnock recorded them:
It is of note that the 1936 dies in this chart are very similar in characteristics to each other, only the last column is different. Therefore, it seems unlikely that the changes in relief in the 1930s caused the drastic change in detail between early and late 1936 proof coins. However, it could very well and likely did play a role in the changes in over polish between 1936-37 and onward.
In the discussion, four main possibilities arose to answer the question of why such a drastic change in proof die detail occurred in 1936. In order of likelihood that they happened (my opinion, not necessarily Roger Burdette’s, although he did help me form some of these possibilities with his opinions), here they are.
1.In late 1936 only, the dies were intentionally over polished to fit collector concerns as a direct result of collector letters about the coins not being very different from circulation strikes. This led to the relief being intentionally polished in late 1936 only and the resulting changes in relief from 1937 onwards account for the over polish in those years. The letters had no impact on proofs produced 1937 onwards and all over polish can be accounted for by the relief changes and the Engraving Department workers' error in polishing.
2.That as a direct result of the letters from collectors in 1936 and onwards, the mint intentionally decided to over polish the dies to ensure that the resultant coins had distinct surfaces. This added an extra layer of protection (to produce brilliant coins) along with the polished planchets, but cost the dies detail.
3.Due to a change in relief and that change only, the dies suffered detail loss due to the inability of the workers to polish the dies effectively and maintain die detail with said lowered relief.
4.Sheer chance and luck can never be ruled out, but it remains very unlikely that such a drastic change occurred by chance with no outside influence.
Here is a breakdown:
Number one is very likely and is my adopted answer as in 1937 the designs maintain quite a bit better detail with deep mirrors. It seems that the relief change could easily cause the poorer detail while the now polished planchets maintain the deep mirrors. The vast decrease in detail in late 1936 would therefore be caused by the intentional polish of the recessed detail to address collector complaints. Starting 1937, the dies were not polished so intensely in the recess and any over polishing evident was a result of the change in relief shown in the die chart above. This is a combination answer of numbers two and three, which fits both Roger and my statements nicely.
Number two is similar to number one except that it assumes that the dies were polished in the recess intentionally after 1936. This does not account for the slight increase in detail and this makes it more unlikely.
Number three is the opposite of number two in that it assumes that only the change in relief accounts for the drastic change in detail between early and late 1936 proofs and has nothing to do with collector letters. This seems unlikely that this is true as the dies in 1936 did not change much, but they did in the transition into 1937.
I of course can’t rule out pure luck (number four), but it is very unlikely that such a drastic change occurred to cause this by chance. The mint was able to maintain a high degree of consistency in its die production, shown in the consistency of the early 1936 proof dies and the late 1936 proof dies. This essentially rules out this option.
This was an excellent discussion for me and it pushed my experience to the max. Roger provided excellent sources and support for his argument, and I tried to do so for myself.
The main difference we had in opinion was whether or not the mint intentionally over polished dies in late 1936 because of collector letters. I said yes, Roger said it was based on the lowering of relief and other factors. This is why it seems option number one is so likely. It blends our opinions and it makes it so both opinions are right. Given there is no evidence as far as I can see to refute either answer, a blend seems to be best.
As always, I intend fully to create a discussion with this post. Any opinions, ideas, rebuttals, or statements are welcome and encouraged. It’s not often that collectors get an opportunity to talk about something and try to find why the mint did something and then essentially prove it, especially when there is very little evidence. Let’s have some fun with this!
Young Numismatist, Coin Photography: https://forums.collectors.com/discussion/1090140/flyingal-coin-photography-10-photos#latest