The purpose of this guide is to provide you with tips on how to get the most for your dollar when you bid on the silver proof sets of the late 1950's and early 1960's. To establish my credentials, I have bought, sold, and studied coins for over 40 years. One of my special areas of interest are the proof sets of this period, in which the half, quarter, and dime are 90% silver.
First, a little history. The 1954 Proof Set came in a square box and the coins were in individual cellophane holders wrapped in tissue. Starting in mid 1955, the sets came in a cellophane holder, inside a brown envelope. In 1965, 66, and 67, no proof sets were minted. Instead, Special Mint Sets were substituted, of 40% silver. The 1965 was in a white envelope, the '66 and '67 were in plastic holders in a box. It's important to note that the envelopes of the 1965 sets were not sealed. So, if you see an offer for a Never Opened 65, avoid it. Proof Sets resumed in 1968 and are also in plastic holders inside a box.
The sets from 1955 to 1964 are where buyers need to be knowledgeable, or they will get burned. The first problem is the envelopes. If you look at the auctions of these items on eBay you must reach one of two conclusions: 1). Of most of the sets minted during those years, hardly anyone bothered to open any or, 2). There is a widespread scam being perpetrated on eBay bidders. It seems there are literally thousands of "Unopened" sets out there. Okay, picture this. It's 1959. Your new Proof Set arrives in the mail. You say to yourself, "Hmmm, I don't think I'll ever open this for the rest of my life. I bought the coins, but I choose to never look at them." Either you or your heirs eventually sell the set to a dealer, still unopened. The dealer thinks, "Hmmm, there could be coins in here worth thousands of dollars, but I'm not going to bother to find out. I'll just sell it on eBay unopened, because I'm a real charitable guy and I want someone else to get lucky." So he advertises it on eBay that YOU are likely to get these fabulous rarities. Now multiply that thinking by thousands of collectors, and thousands of dealers, over a period of 40-50 years, all thinking the same way. No one ever had the curiousity or numismatic interest to open any of them. Give me a break. On eBay you can buy dozens, if not hundreds, of what appear to be reproduction proof set envelopes in "new" condition. It's easy for any dishonest person to set up shop stuffing reproduction envelopes with junk proof sets, sealing them, and advertising them as "Unopened," and potentially "worth thousands of dollars". I feel bad when I see the high bids people make on these items because they are not informed. Buy what you can see.
Having established that you should buy what you can see, what should you look for? There are basically two ways opened sets are most frequently offered. The first is in the original cellophane, with or without the original brown envelope. The other is in a secondary market plastic holder, such as a Whitman holder.Your first thought might be that the original packaging is the best choice. Not necessarily. The quality of the condition of storage is a factor, as is the cellophane. I've seen many original sets where the coins while problem free, (no spots or cloudiness), have more of a matte finish than the mirror finish we expect. I believe chemical compounds in the cellophane are responsible, and that is why the Mint eventually went to hard plastic which is chemically more inert. I've seen many sets in hard plastic that are pristine. However, there is a caveat. It depends on how carefully the person transferring the coins from the cellophane to the plastic holder handled them. If he/she touched the surfaces with fingertips, the coins may have fingerprints. If the handler breathed on them, they may have carbon spots. If the handler was smoking, they may be discolored.
So, what should you do? Look for auctions that have coins you can see, and quality scans. Study them carefully for carbon spots, cloudiness, or other imperfections. Pay particular attention to the cent, which is often the first coin to be effected by poor storage conditions. If in doubt, ask before you bid. An honest seller will always be glad to answer your questions. Look for coins that have Cameo devices. This is standard on today's proof sets, but in the 50's and early 60's it was rare and those coins command a premium (the fabulous rarities you are promised in the "unopened" sets). Finally, check the Feedback of the seller, and determine if he/she is someone who specializes in coins or is simply handling an "Estate" sale.
The Proof Sets of the 1950's and early 1960's are undervalued by today's prices. Many sets were broken up for singles, and many were damaged. They are beautiful coins at a great price, but study them carefully to avoid disappointment. I have gotten some hate mail from dealers who misrepresent sets as "Unopened,'" and are not happy about being exposed, as well as some negative feedback on this guide for the same reason. That is all the more reason to question what is advertised. Know what you are looking for, buy what you can see, and you will get what you pay for!