Most Branch Mint Specimens and Proofs are of the highest rarity and are represented by a few to perhaps 10 examples of a particular issue. Historic events were sometimes commemorated with these special strikings, and in some cases the coins remain long after the event has been forgotten. Famed numismatic researcher Walter Breen in his Encyclopedia of United States and Colonial Proof Coins 1722 – 1977 aptly stated in his chapter on Branch Mint Proofs, "If early presentation pieces and pre-1858 proofs are caviar to the average collector, then branch mint proofs are perhaps to be compared to dishes of peacocks’ tongues." Breen goes on to say that even he had doubted their existence or authenticity until he saw several at the Smithsonian and learned of the circumstances of their presentation. Today both NGC and PCGS have graded several of these prized rarities using names such as "Specimen" or "Branch Mint Proof" to set these special coins apart from regular circulation strikes.
At first glance the present coin appears to be a normal Philadelphia coin struck in Proof, as the obverse displays wholly mirrored fields which contrast with the frosted devices. Turning the coin over, the similar combination of highly reflective fields and frosted devices is immediately seen. However, this is a New Orleans coin with the O mintmark in the normal position below the eagle’s tail. The color is bright white on the devices while the fields show a delicate glaze of russet-gold on their mirror surface. Fully struck throughout, with sharp definition on Liberty’s curls, including the one over her ear, which is notoriously found softly struck on this date and mint. The eagle’s breast shows solid feather separation as well. In sum, this is an elegant coin which has special characteristics and stands as an important and historic Specimen of this elusive date.
The New Orleans Mint produced a handful of Proofs or Specimen coins at various times in the Morgan silver dollar series including the 1879-O, 1883-O, 1887-O, 1895-O and 1896-O, all of which NGC has certified at least one example as listed in their Census. This particular issue, 1895-O, has two Proofs listed, one more as Proof Cameo and two examples as Specimen. This stunning Specimen-65 and another listed as Specimen-61 are the only two certified thus far by NGC. As stated long ago in Van Allen-Mallis’ Encyclopedia of Morgan and Peace Dollars, coins that exhibit Prooflike surfaces are extremely rare from this date and mint. To date PCGS has not certified any of this issue as Branch Mint Proof or Specimen, but they do note a total of 10 grading events with Prooflike or Deep Prooflike surfaces in their Population Report, far fewer such coins than commonly seen from this series of other dates and mints.
This coin is the VAM-3 variety with the slightly repunched 5 on the top of the flag; faint die file lines are also noted before Liberty’s forehead, eye, nose and lips, close to these devices from careful die preparation. Such lines are imparted to the die by the coiner after the dies have been polished or otherwise prepared to strike coins, and are caused when the dies are brushed to remove any fine burrs or metal fragments such as dust from the recesses of the die. These faint die lines often fade away once coinage begins from normal die wear. For the reverse there are faint raised die lines within the tiny wreath ribbons below the eagle’s tail. No other unusual diagnostics present themselves under scrutiny of a strong loupe.
Two other denominations of 1895-O Specimen or Proof coinage are known, these being the Barber quarter dollar sold in a Lester Merkin auction of October, 1969 as lot 182, and a half dollar sold in Lester Merkin’s auction of June 1970 as lot 311. Both these coins were considered to be Branch Mint Proofs by Breen and their whereabouts today are unknown. The Barber quarter does not appear as a Branch Mint Proof or Specimen as certified by either grading service but two Barber Half Dollars of 1895-O are noted in the NGC Census. No specific event is known to have brought about a special striking of 1895 coinage in New Orleans, but a review of that year would likely yield more than a few possible events worthy of striking these impressive coins as Specimens. Other New Orleans dates and denominations are known and listed in the NGC Census as Specimens or Branch Mint Proofs.
The popularity and desirability of these special issues have increased in recent decades as more and more collectors have sought to own these extremely rare and important issues. The upcoming Stack’s Bowers Galleries Rarities Night sale on January 24 in New York City presents a prime opportunity!