1936 Proof Set Value: How Much Is It Worth Today?

For numismatists, few proof sets hold greater prestige or historical significance than the 1936 U.S. Mint Proof Set. Marking a triumphant return for the Mint‘s proof coinage after a 20-year absence, the 1936 set represents a new chapter in American numismatic artistry. With a mintage of just 3,837 sets, it has become a "holy grail" for collectors of 20th-century U.S. coins. Join us as we explore the fascinating origins, contents, and current value of this numismatic treasure!

The Rebirth of Proof Coinage in America

Philadelphia Mint building circa 1936

To understand the importance of the 1936 proof set, we must first journey back to the early 20th century. In 1916, facing waning collector interest and rising production costs, the U.S. Mint ceased producing proof coins altogether. For two decades, as America endured the hardships of World War I and the Great Depression, official proof sets were absent from the numismatic landscape.

However, as the nation slowly emerged from the depths of the Depression in the early 1930s, interest in coin collecting began to rebound. Numismatic societies and publications flourished, and collectors increasingly clamored for a return of the Mint‘s prestigious proof coinage. Mint officials took notice, and plans were laid for a revival.

According to a Numismatic Scrapbook Magazine article from January 1936, the Mint announced that "proof coins are to be struck in 1936 at the Philadelphia Mint in sufficient quantity to supply the demand." The article noted that the sets would include the cent, nickel, dime, quarter, and half dollar, priced at $1.89 each. Excitement swelled in the collecting community at the prospect of the first newly struck proof coins in a generation.

"The [1936 proof] set struck quite a responsive chord in the coin collecting fraternity, and orders fairly flooded the Philadelphia Mint, which had made no proof coins of any denomination since 1916."
– Wayte Raymond, Standard Catalogue of United States Coins (1957 edition)

The initial 1936 proof coins, however, left many collectors underwhelmed. The Mint used new chromium-plated dies and a sandblasted finishing process, resulting in coins with a matte-like surface that numismatic researcher Walter Breen described as "an unfortunate and garish satin finish." Many collectors felt these coins too closely resembled circulation strikes to merit a premium.

Mint officials quickly pivoted, refining the proof die preparation and polishing process to yield the deeply mirrored fields and frosted devices that have become synonymous with modern proof coinage. Numismatic author Q. David Bowers recounts, "Beginning in July, the Mint modified the [1936] proof format, with the devices (designs and lettering) being lightly sandblasted and the fields (background areas) polished to a high mirror finish." These new and improved proof coins proved immensely popular, and orders surged.

By year‘s end, the Mint had produced a total of 3,837 complete 1936 proof sets. While this number vastly exceeded the Mint‘s initial estimates, it was still a tiny fraction of the millions of circulation strike coins produced that year. This relative scarcity, combined with the set‘s status as the vanguard of the modern proof revival, has made the 1936 set an enduring favorite among collectors.

The Coins of the 1936 Proof Set

1936 proof set coins obverse and reverse

Each 1936 proof set contained five denominations struck at the Philadelphia Mint, meticulously crafted to showcase the full beauty of the era‘s iconic coin designs:

Lincoln Wheat Cent

– Designer: Victor David Brenner
– Composition: 95% copper, 5% tin and zinc
– Diameter: 19 mm
– Weight: 3.11 grams

The 1936 proof Lincoln cent features Brenner‘s classic portrait of the 16th president on the obverse, with the iconic "wheat ears" reverse design.

Indian Head (Buffalo) Nickel

– Designer: James Earle Fraser
– Composition: 75% copper, 25% nickel
– Diameter: 21.2 mm
– Weight: 5 grams

Fraser‘s beloved design depicts a noble Native American profile on the obverse and a powerful bison on the reverse. The 1936 proof nickel would be this design‘s swan song, as the new Jefferson nickel debuted in 1938.

Mercury Dime

– Designer: Adolph A. Weinman
– Composition: 90% silver, 10% copper
– Diameter: 17.9 mm
– Weight: 2.5 grams

Weinman‘s stunning depiction of Liberty in a winged cap graces the obverse, with a fasces and olive branch on the reverse. The 1936 proof "Merc" is a silver miniature masterpiece.

Washington Quarter

– Designer: John Flanagan
– Composition: 90% silver, 10% copper
– Diameter: 24.3 mm
– Weight: 6.25 grams

The 1936 proof quarter showcases Flanagan‘s stately portrait of George Washington on the obverse, with an eagle perched on a bundle of arrows on the reverse.

Walking Liberty Half Dollar

– Designer: Adolph A. Weinman
– Composition: 90% silver, 10% copper
– Diameter: 30.6 mm
– Weight: 12.5 grams

Widely considered one of the most beautiful U.S. coin designs ever created, Weinman‘s Walking Liberty half dollar features a full-length figure of Liberty striding confidently toward a rising sun, with a majestic eagle in flight on the reverse. The 1936 proof "Walker" is a crown jewel of the set.

"The [1936] proof Walking Liberty half dollar and Mercury dime, designed by Adolph Weinman, are among the most beautiful and coveted U.S. coins…In pristine proof condition, they are marvels of numismatic art."
– Scott Travers, The Coin Collector‘s Survival Manual (2015 edition)

1936 Proof Set Value: A Prized Rarity

Over the decades since their issue, the coins of the 1936 proof set have steadily grown in desirability and value as numismatists have come to appreciate their rarity and historical importance. With a total of just 3,837 sets originally issued, and far fewer surviving intact today, the 1936 proof set has become a key rarity in the field of modern U.S. coins.

In the early 1940s, a complete 1936 proof set could be purchased for around $15-20. As numismatic interest grew in the postwar years, so too did the set‘s value. By the 1970s, typical market prices had reached several hundred dollars. The past few decades have seen the 1936 proof set‘s value soar to new heights, with auction records now well into five figures for top-quality sets.

The primary determinant of a 1936 proof set‘s value is the overall condition and eye appeal of its five coins. Proof coins are graded on a 70-point numeric scale, with 70 representing a flawless coin exactly as it left the Mint. Here is a chart showing the approximate current market value for 1936 proof sets in various grades, based on recent auction data and dealer price guides:

Proof Set Grade Approximate Market Value
PR60 $700 – $1,000
PR63 $1,500 – $2,500
PR65 $3,000 – $5,000
PR67 $7,500 – $10,000+

As evident from the chart, the value escalation for 1936 proof sets in higher grades is substantial, reflecting their extreme rarity. PCGS CoinFacts, an online coin encyclopedia and valuation resource, estimates that only 100-150 complete 1936 proof sets remain in existence across all grades, with just 10-15 sets that grade PR65 or higher by PCGS and NGC standards.

The all-time auction record for a 1936 proof set was achieved in a 2015 Heritage Auctions sale, where a set boasting a PR68 Lincoln cent and Buffalo nickel, along with PR67 Mercury dime, Washington quarter, and Walking Liberty half dollar realized an astonishing $13,225. At the time, this figure represented a new benchmark for five-coin proof sets of any year.

"The 1936 proof set, the scarcest non-gold proof set from the 1930s, is a wonderful cornerstone for a high-quality modern set collection…The stunning [Walking Liberty] half dollar alone can be worth nearly as much as the entire set in lower grades."
– Jeff Ambio, Collecting Modern U.S. Proof Coin Sets (2009)

Of the set‘s five coins, the 1936 proof Walking Liberty half dollar routinely commands the highest individual price, sometimes exceeding $5,000 in superb grades of PR67 and above. The proof Mercury dime and Washington quarter are also coveted key dates, often selling for well over $1,000 each in top condition. The 1936 proof Lincoln cent and Buffalo nickel, while still scarce and valuable, are somewhat more affordable due to lower collector demand for these series in gem proof grades.

Looking ahead, the value trajectory for the 1936 proof set appears positive, given its secure status as a rare key date in the popular modern U.S. proof set series. With a fixed mintage, high attrition rate, and growing collector base, the set seems well-positioned for continued price appreciation in the coming years and decades.

Collecting Tips and Considerations

For numismatists aspiring to own a 1936 proof set, here are some expert tips and recommendations:

1. Buy certified coins from reputable dealers. The extreme rarity and value of 1936 proof coins has sadly incentivized counterfeiters over the years. To avoid fakes, purchase only sets authenticated and graded by leading third-party services like PCGS or NGC. Deal with established, trusted coin dealers who specialize in high-end proof sets and offer a return policy.

2. Prioritize eye appeal. Even among proof coins with the same numerical grade, visual attractiveness can vary widely. Whenever possible, examine high-resolution images of a set before purchase to select coins that have full striking details, minimal haziness or spotting, and deeply reflective fields. Some toning is normal and desirable on 87-year-old silver coins.

3. Collect the set gradually. With its five-figure price tag, a complete high-grade 1936 proof set is a major investment. For collectors with limited budgets, assembling the set one coin at a time can be a rewarding journey. Consider starting with the Lincoln cent or Buffalo nickel and upgrading to the silver denominations as your numismatic budget allows.

4. Safeguard your collection. If you‘re fortunate enough to acquire a 1936 proof set, take utmost care in storing and handling these delicate coins. Keep the coins inside their sonically-sealed grading capsules, and store the set in a cool, dry place out of direct sunlight. When examining your coins, always hold the capsules by their edges, never touching the coin surfaces.

5. Insure your investment. Given the substantial value of a 1936 proof set, it‘s wise to insure your coins once they enter your collection. Consider adding a rider to your homeowner‘s or renter‘s insurance policy specifically covering your numismatic holdings. Photograph your set and keep copies of any purchase receipts or grading certificates. Some collectors prefer to store their high-value holdings in a bank safe deposit box.

"Owning a complete 1936 proof set is the ultimate goal for many series specialists…But even having one or two coins from this historic set can be immensely rewarding and meaningful for a collector at any level."
– Ron Guth, President of PCGS CoinFacts

A Testament to Numismatic History

The 1936 U.S. Mint Proof Set will always hold a revered place in numismatic lore as the first modern proof set and a miraculous Great Depression-era relic. Uniting five of America‘s most beloved and artistically significant coin designs, and struck in minute quantities with unrivaled skill and care, the 1936 proof set encapsulates a pivotal moment in the history of American coinage.

Whether you are a seasoned numismatist, a casual collector, or simply someone who appreciates American history and art, the 1936 proof set has a timeless allure. To hold one of these sets in your hands is to feel a tangible connection to a bygone era – a time of national struggle and renewal, a time when the U.S. Mint rekindled its passion for numismatic excellence.

The next time you have the privilege to view a 1936 proof set, take a moment to contemplate the improbable story of its creation and survival across 87 years. Imagine the pride of the Mint workers who crafted these coins with such devotion, knowing they were creating enduring national treasures. Reflect on the set‘s journey across generations of collectors who have cherished and preserved it. And know that as long as numismatics endures, the 1936 proof set will remain a shining example of the very best of American coinage.

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