Specimens and proofs
What are proofs?
Proofs certificates are NOT like proof coins. Proof coins are specially-produced mint products made for collectors. Proof certificates were special impressions made for printers and artists during the production of printing plates. In effect, they were draft copies of parts or sides of certificates being designed and engraved. They were private productions, never intended for the public.
Imagine an engraver working on a vignette that might take fifty or more hours to complete. The image might look acceptable when carved in steel or copper. However, until the image was printed, the artist would never know how it would look on paper.
Similarly, imagine how hard it would be for letter engravers to notice minor spelling mistakes when carving or etching forty or fifty lines of text. Obviously, the easiest way to find mistakes is to print the engraving on paper. Proof impressions may represent fully completed designs or they may represent partial impressions meant to check features before completion.
Engravers might have "pulled" proofs at any point in during the engraving/etching process. "Progress proofs" often represented successive impressions while artists and engravers made design improvements as they worked toward final designs. Proofs may also have represented quick tests to see if shading was too light or too dark or if designs would print well. Imagine the frustration if an engraver had worked for a week on a portrait only to find that lines should have been carved differently because the plate would not take or transfer ink correctly.
"Color proofs" are fairly common. They were meant to test the appearances of borders when printed in color. Lathework border designs and underprints were usually meant to be unique between varieties , but the intricate designs did not always reproduce well in all colors. "Trial color proofs" were often experimental efforts to find colors that either printed well or were most attractive to clients.
"Cancellation proofs" seem to represent file copies of final plate designs. When plates were no longer needed, notes were often recorded on the proofs testifying to final uses and and plates destruction.
Proofs were often printed on the type of paper handy at the time. Paper might range from thin India paper to thick, soft card stock. Proofs appear on so many different kinds of paper that it seems apparent that paper quality was usually unimportant.
Proofs were NOT serial numbered, but almost always show blank areas or ornaments meant to hold serial numbers.
Proofs were never meant to circulate. They were intended for prosaic purposes such as error checking and record keeping. Most proofs are marked with pen, pencil and crayon. Many were folded and torn. Missing pieces are common. Coffee stains, even coffee cup rings, are seen. Preservation seems to have been an afterthought at best.
As shown by the bond below right, a large percentage of proofs are marked in some manner. Plate numbers in pencil are very common. Dated company approvals frequently appear on proofs of finished plates. Red or black crayon marks are extremely common, usually indicating dates or notes testifying to the destruction of printing plates. Unless otherwise indicated, you should assume that all proofs are marked in one or more places. Proofs were interim items. Therefore there was rarely if ever a need for formal cancellation.
Proofs were often stored in engraving company files with letters, notes, and all sorts of peripheral material. Auction companies generally include whatever related documents may have been found with the related proofs.
Features of proofs
Although highly variable in appearance and purpose, proofs share certain commonalities.
- Proofs are essentially unique; rarely do two identical proofs exist.
- Partially-printed designs are common.
- Proofs are never serial numbered.
- Proofs are commonly printed on one side only.
- Proofs are rarely cancelled.
- Proofs are often notated with handwriting and other marks.
- Proofs are often found in distressed conditions
- Proofs are rarely signed by engravers.
- Proofs often show ink smears.
- Proofs printed on very thin paper are often found attached to thicker card stock.
- Proofs printed on thicker card stock often show foxing.
- Proofs do not show impressed or applied corporate seals.
With rare exception, proofs are unique collectibles. This makes proofs the quintessential example of how collector demand is dramatically more important than rarity.
In companies crowded with many different varieties of certificates, proofs often experience very little demand. Even though they are unique, some proofs may sell for under $30. Proofs from high-demand states where few companies are known (Texas, Washington, Alaska), proofs of any kind fetch high prices, even those in horrible conditions.
Origin of proofs
Most, if not all, proofs are in the collectors' market only because they were liberated from engraving company archives. Several large sales over the past quarter century have placed items from American Bank Note Company archives all over the globe. Proofs from smaller engraving companies, however, are very rare.
Fronts versus backs
When auction companies sold American Bank Note Company proofs, they often sold the fronts and backs of certificates together. Throughout this catalog, whenever you see proofs of the faces of certificates listed, you may assume that proofs of backs might exist, but I am lacking descriptions. Orphaned fronts, backs, and coupons, even single coupons, certainly exist, but my information about those items is meager.
What are specimens?
In the physical sciences, "specimens" are examples of rocks, plants, insects, and animals retained for future study or classification. Similarly, in our hobby, specimens are examples of fully finished, regular certificates retained for some future purpose.
Specimens were often preserved to help detect counterfeits. Many, however, were probably retained simply as file copies, as souvenirs and as promotional examples for future engraving business.
In the case of the largest North American engraving companies (American Bank Note Company, Franklin Bank Note Company, etc.), specimens were specially numbered with 000, 0000, 00000 or close variations. We don't know exact numbers, but it appears that engraving companies normally supplied several specimen copies to their clients. It appears that large engraving companies retained a few specimens for their own records.
Many Canadian certificates were printed in England by Bradbury Wilkinson which normally numbered its specimens with letters and number sin units of 1000 (e.g. B1000, V5000 etc).
Security-Columbian Bank Note Company was notorious for not numbering its specimens. Its specimens were normally blank and often indistinguishable from normal unissued certificates except for pairs of holes in the signature areas.
Like every other "rule" in this hobby, specimens are also known serial numbers. It appears that small printing companies often did not provide specimens to their customers. In those cases, companies often saved a few regularly-numbered certificates as specimens. Sometimes, they even saved issued and cancelled examples as specimens. In most cases, but certainly not all, companies stamped or hand-wrote the word "specimen" on certificates. These kinds of specimens often confuse new collectors because they don't look "official." Be aware that they were most emphatically official and they tend to be very scarce or unique.
The majority of specimens were neatly punch-cancelled with two 1/8" holes in the area meant for corporate signatures. Most were also stamped or overprinted with the word "specimen" in black, red or blue ink.
Bradbury-Wilkinson specimens were often pinhole cancelled with the word "Specimen" and a date. Beware that pinhole cancellations are often hard to identify in small on poor quality photos. Pinhole-cancelled American specimens (like this example from Hamilton Bank Note Co.) are somewhat uncommon.
Features of specimens
Like everything else in this hobby, specimens do not conform to any 100%-reliable rule. That can make some specimens hard to distinguish from ordinary, unissued certificates. Normally, though, specimens share several of these features.
- Cancellation with two 1/8" holes in typical signatures areas.
- Rubber-stamp impression of the word "specimen".
- Serial number 000, 0000, 00000 or close variations. Sheets of coupons show the same numbering.
- Pristine condition, although most are folded.
- Printed front and back, identical to regular certificates.
- No impressed or applied corporate seals.
- No indication of issuance or transference.
- Rubber-stamp impression, often on the front, with text similar to: "Last specimen; return to file room."
It is usually impossible to determine how many specimens may exist. Some specimens are unique, while as many as 10 or more examples may exist for others. For the most part, specimens are scarce to rare.
Specimens are priced by how much collectors want them. Simply put, prices are related to demand. It is very common for specimens from high-demand states like Texas to exceed $500, even $1500! At the same time, even in the same auction, equally rare specimens from more common Eastern railroads may sell for less than $50.
Many collectors buy only issued certificates and thereby avoid specimens. Beginners often avoid specimens because they do not know what they are all about. If specimens represent the only known examples of specific varieties, then collectors tend to pay high prices. Conversely, if certificates of the same variety are known in many different conditions, then pricing tends to be lower. If issued and unissued examples of the same variety are known, then specimens tend to be priced like issued certificates.