Photo © Ken Potter 2006
Q: I have a 1999-W $5.00 Gold 1/10th Eagle that was struck by the Mint with an Uncirculated Matte Finish instead of the intended Proof finish for the West Point issue. Is this an error or variety? Also, why is it referred to by the grading service as struck with “Unfinished Proof Die” when the die has clearly been “finished” albeit the wrong finish?
A: Troy, these are good questions! In answer, by my definition, it is both an error and a variety. Clearly, giving a West Point die an uncirculated matte finish was an error but any error, be it planchet error, die error or striking error may also be considered a variety depending on who’s definition you use. For example as defined by Daniel Webster the following definitions apply, “1 : the quality or state of having different forms or types” and “3 a : something differing from others of the same general kind.”
According to Alan Herbert in his book, The Official Price Guide To Mint Errors:
“Only a small fraction of the mint product is an “error.” The E word was born back in the dark ages when almost nobody knew anything about the minting process. Today we know enough about the complexities of minting coins to be able to pinpoint the exact cause, or causes, in 99 percent of the cases. We desperately need the proper language to fit with that increased knowledge. Teaching novice collectors nicknames and slang is akin to teaching a chimp how to use a baseball bat. It curls my hair to hear professional people, engineers, doctors, lawyers and other college graduates misusing the language like they do.
We know that many actions by mint personnel are expedients-things done to speed up production, salvage worn or damaged dies, use up substandard planchets, or just simply to save money. Obviously, an expedient is not an “error.” It was done deliberately. Other mint products are different because of wear and tear to the dies, coin press, or other equipment. Again this stretches the definition of “error” to have to include a normal result of heavy usage.
The more we know about the minting process, the harder it is to stretch the E word to fit the end result. The simple solution is to have a “real” term which will include any and all variations, and-just as important-will include “errors,” but in their proper perspective. That term is minting varieties.
A minting variety is, by definition, “A coin which is normal or which exhibits a variation of any kind from the normal, whether intentional, accidental, or due to wear and tear on the equipment, as a result of any portion of the minting process, whether at the blank or planchet stage, as a result of a change or modification of the die, or during the striking process.”
Having been employed within a manufacturing environment for over 30 years I can confirm Herbert’s statements as being accurate. The fact is the majority of items stated to be errors in our hobby most probably were not made in error! Just like any other factory in the world, the Mint must knowingly make many of them as an expedient or for other logical reasons.
However, on a more practical level I do realize that the term error is here to stay, like it or not, and that the terms error and variety carry certain connotations to many in the error-variety hobby. So, I will not debate the pros and cons of the terms and in most cases on a commercial level I will refer to those items most often referred to as errors as just that.
On a more scholarly level I recognize that most items termed errors are not. Certainly minor changes in a die due to age and use such as die chips, die dents, die breaks, clashes, die flow lines, etc., are no more errors than age lines on a person’s face. Another way of putting it is: would you consider the effects of wear and tear on the tires on your car resulting from driving it back and forth to work to be errors? Nonetheless, there are differing opinions as to whether or not normal wear and tear on a die should be considered an error when it is used to strike a perfectly acceptable coin.
On the question of referring to your coin as struck with an “unfinished proof die,” you are correct in alluding to this being incorrect terminology. The fact is the die was finished completely, so calling it unfinished is inaccurate. The proper terminology would be “improperly finished proof die” or something to that effect. It would be proper to elaborate further by saying “… finished as a matte uncirculated die” or similar. I hope that helps.