Knowing the two varieties of 1956 Proof half dollars can lead to some big scores in online auctions.
As Ron Guth writes in PCGS CoinFacts, the U.S. Mint used two different reverses to strike this coin. The Type I reverse was used on Proofs and Circulation strikes. The Type II was used only on Proofs of that year.
Defining the difference is easy; identifying the difference in online photos is trickier.
The Type I reverse features the small eagle with four feathers to the left of the perch; the Type II, features three feathers. The Type II is about 10 times more populous than the Type I of the modest 669,384 mintage.
Here’s an illustration:
You can make another identification by the weakly struck area immediately above the four feathers of Type I. The white circle below is the area of the coin where the variety occurs. The bottom yellow arrow shows the four feathers. The upper-yellow area shows the weakly struck feathers, another key.
Practice identifying the half dollar below, offered by LA Rare Coins. Is it Type I or II?
This sharp photo shows three feathers to the left of the perch with well-struck feathers above. So this is Type I.
I routinely look for Type I in online auctions. I won this coin with a bid of $153.52 on eBay:
When I got the coin in hand, it looked like MS-68, which would retail at $575, as opposed to $130 for Type II. I sent it to PCGS, and the returned grade was graded PR-67, worth $285 as opposed to $85 in Type II:
The real difficulty in identifying the Type I variety is the seller’s photograph. Here’s a good photo of Type I from a recent eBay auction:
Here’s a poor photo of a 1956 Proof half. There’s just no way to tell because the small eagle is awash in glare.
Likewise, it is difficult to identify the variety in Proof sets because the seller is focused on the set rather than the specific coin, with the added barrier of plastic wrap, as in this example:
Nevertheless, one of the joys of collecting is knowing numismatics to such an extent that you can cherrypick rarer varieties. The hunt for the elusive Type I keeps me interested as I scan hundreds of coins each week for this column.
Hope you can also score a Type I in your numismatic travels!