Proof or Uncirculated, what's the difference?

We Explain the Difference

We are always being asked the difference between proof and uncirculated or bullion sovereigns, and similarly for other coins also. One very brief explanation is that proofs are shinier, but of course this oversimplifies the matter slightly.

Uncirculated

Modern coins, including gold sovereigns are manufactured using high-speed machinery. The round blanks are handled in large quantities, fed into presses that strike them so forming the familiar pattern on both sides and the 'milling' in the edge. After striking the coins are ejected from the machine into a metal bin, just like any other product.

The word "uncirculated" means exactly what it says, the coin has not been in circulation, however "ordinary" uncirculated coins often have bagmarks, edge knocks and other small scuffs and imperfections. Bearing in mind that coins are mass produced it's hardly surprising that they have knocks and bangs. Their purpose is to be exchanged between people and it is expected that they will wear, so for 'normal coinage' little care is taken to ensure pristine product.

Uncirculated "specimen" coins issued specially for collectors are often more carefully produced and handled, so they may be better than ordinary coins mass produced for circulation, but may still have some small imperfections.

Proof

Proof coins are specially produced to a much higher standard of finish using specially prepared dies that give the finished coin a brilliant shine. Originally, proofs were intended as pre-production samples. As a printer would produce a small number of "proof" copies for checking and approval, so a mint would produce proofs for approval by the mint master, the monarch, and for other purposes. When coin collecting began to become popular about two centuries ago, a larger number of proofs were sometimes made for sale to collectors. This has developed enormously in the past few decades, and most countries, but not all, produce proof coin and sets every year or on special occasions.

Bullion Sovereigns

For many years, the word bullion as applied to gold sovereigns meant gold sovereigns which were traded wholly or mainly on the basis of their gold bullion value, with little regard for date, design type or grade. Since the British Royal Mint recommenced issuing uncirculated in addition to proof sovereigns in 2000, it has adopted and adapted the word "bullion" to mean ordinary uncirculated coins, i.e. a bullion grade of coin. This now creates confusion, because dealers like ourselves will refer to bullion sovereigns with its original meaning, whereas customers who have seen the Royal Mint's adverts will ask for bullion sovereigns when they intend to ask for this year's uncirculated sovereigns.

Different Proof Finishes

Not all proofs are the same. The most common understanding of proof is that the flat background parts of the coin have a highly polished mirror finish, and the raised parts of the design have a matt finish, giving a higher level of contrast between the two. This is achieved by sand-blasting the die, the hardened steel punch with which the blank coins are struck, to give a matt finish, followed by giving the raised parts of the die a highly polished surface, usually by polishing them with diamond powder. The coin blanks themselves are usually produced to a higher quality of finish before striking. Proof coins are usually double struck at lower striking speeds, to give a higher and sharper definition. They are usually produced on a special machine, and may be hand, rather than mechanically fed into and extracted from the coining press. They are usually individually inspected, and packaged. A proof coin should provide an excellent specimen, and its quality should approach perfection.

Some proof coins are made with an all matt finish, as for example the 1902 Edward VII Coronation proof coins, while others are produced as "reverse proofs", i.e. with the raised parts polished and the background matt.

Photographs showing the difference between uncirculated and proof sovereigns

We have shown two photographs, both of the reverse side of 2001 sovereigns. The top photo shows a proof coin, the lower photo is of an uncirculated one. It is not easy to photograph coins. The background of both coins looks a very dark chocolate brown, but in real life they are yellow. The contrast between matt and polished surfaces shows up very well on the proof coin and this allows fine details to be seen more easily, whereas on the uncirculated coin, the raised design is also slightly polished, and this results in it being more difficult to distinguish the details of the design from the background.

Which is the Better Buy, proof or uncirculated ?

Some collectors only collect proof coins, others only non-proof coins. For the non-collector, it can be difficult to decide which is the better coin to buy. We are often asked for advice when people wish to buy a sovereign as a gift. Our general advice here is that it depends what you think the recipient will wish to do with the coin. For use in jewellery, it is better to use ordinary non-proof coins, as proofs would be spoilt. If the recipient is likely to keep and display the coin in its original box, then a proof one may be better.

Sovereigns in Jewellery

Even "ordinary" sovereigns will become worn and polished by wearing as jewellery; this can not be avoided. Some people worry that this will detract from their value. While this is true, the same argument could be applied to almost anything. Using and driving a car will cause wear and tear, and will decrease its value, however it would be rather stupid for most people to own a car just to leave it in a garage and never drive it. It's similar with using sovereigns and other coins in jewellery. The important thing is to obtain value by getting the pleasure of ownership.

Investment & Future Value

Normally proof coins will sell for higher prices than non-proof ones, however this does not always apply. Our advice is to buy coins for the pleasure you will obtain by owning them, wearing them, or giving them. If you follow this advice, any future value will be a bonus.