The United States Mint Proof Set was once an eagerly anticipated offering and a must-have for many collectors. It provided a convenient method for acquiring an example of each of the year’s circulating coins in high quality proof format. In recent years, the product has fallen out of favor and sales have declined dramatically.
While updating one of my websites Proof Set Guide, I was surprised at just how far sales had fallen from their peak. I thought it would look particularly dramatic in chart form, so I put together the chart below, which shows the mintages or last reported sales for the basic annual US Mint Proof Set from 1936 to present.
There are many contributing factors to the decline in proof set sales that has developed and recently accelerated.
For a period of many decades, the annual proof set and mint set were just about the only products offered by the United States Mint. As the only game in town, sales remained robust as collectors would faithfully purchase one of more sets each year. This situation changed starting in 1982, when the modern commemorative coin era began. From this point onwards, there would be multiple US Mint products competing for collector budgets. A few years later in 1986, the choices available to collectors would expand once again with the annual offering of proof American Gold and Silver Eagles in addition to commemorative coins, which were now regularly issued.
At the same time, the US Mint had begun to offer different variations of the basic proof set, starting with the Prestige Proof Sets introduced in 1983 and continuing with the Silver Proof Sets and Premiere Proof Sets introduced in 1992. These higher priced alternatives may have been purchased by some collectors in lieu of the basic proof set.
Starting in 1999, the US Mint would further divide interest by offering lower priced alternatives to the full set. This took the form of State Quarters Proof Sets introduced in 1999, State Quarters Silver Proof Sets introduced in 2004, and Presidential Dollar Proof Sets introduced in 2007. These products each contained only a potion of the coins included in the full annual set, but could be purchased by collectors of the respective series instead of the full set
Last year, the Mint added even more variations such as the Birth Set and Limited Edition Silver Proof Set. This year, we will also apparently see a Congratulations Set and Birthday Coin Set Set, although the exact contents of these products are still unconfirmed.
All the while, other factors were also no doubt having an impact on annual Proof Set sales. The poor secondary market performance of prior year Proof Sets may have served to discourage some collectors purchases. Outside of a few isolated issues, most clad composition proof sets from 1968 to present can now be purchased for less than their original issue price.
The general mainstream popularity of coin collecting also has an impact on the sales of this basic set. Most recently, the renewed interest in collecting that came with the launch of the 50 State Quarters Program in 1999 seemed to contribute to higher sales for the annual proof set. This impact has subsided and failed to be renewed by the launch of the America the Beautiful Quarters Program.
Finally, collecting tastes may have shifted. An annual set containing each of the year’s coins in proof version does not carry the same appeal that it once did. Collectors have a greater variety of options available including precious metals products, annually rotating designs, alternate types of finishes, limited edition products, and even more diverse options from other world mints.
Although the basic annual US Mint Proof Set will likely never carry the same appeal and popularity that it once did, the sell out of the most recent release may provide some reprieve. The 2012 Proof Set has seen an immediate secondary market boost due to the low sales of 794,002 units and the unexpected nature of the sell out. Recently complete eBay auctions show sets sold for around $60 each.
Usually following an unexpected sell out and higher secondary market prices, collectors respond by ordering more heavily in the following year. The 2013 Proof Set is scheduled for release on March 28, 2013.