HomeUS Coins1988 American Silver Eagle : A Collector's Guide

1988 American Silver Eagle : A Collector’s Guide

1988 American Silver Eagle. Image: CoinWeek.
1988 American Silver Eagle. Image: CoinWeek.

With nearly 40 years of continued production, the American Silver Eagle is the undisputed king of modern bullion and collector coins. In 1988, however, this dominant market position was not yet assured. The Silver Eagle program was authorized on July 9, 1985 by the Liberty Coin Act (Public Law 99-61), and was seen as a means to dispose of the federal government’s massive silver stockpile, which at the time exceeded 139 million ounces[1]. The first American Silver Eagles were minted at the end of 1986. 1987 was the first full calendar year of production for the program, and sales reached 11,442,335 bullion coins. In 1987, demand was sufficiently high that bullion strike monthly mintages surpassed one million coins seven times.

Sales for the 1988 American Silver Eagle bullion coins in the first quarter of 1988 were roughly on par with the program’s strong start in 1987. Through March 1988, the United States Mint had produced 2,790,000 Silver Eagles. The year before, to that point, the Mint had produced 2,845,000 coins. In 1987, strong continued demand saw the Mint producing over a million coins per month in April and May. The pace of sales fell off by more than 25% in April 1988, and by nearly 50% in May.

1988 American Silver Eagle Sales by Month

Jan: 790,000 Feb: 700,000 Mar: 1,300,000 Apr: 780,000
May: 650,000 Jun: 50,000   Jul: 100,000 Aug: 226,000
Sep: 353,000 Oct: 305,000 Nov: 400,000 Dec: 215,000

 

June through September sales in 1987 were soft, and 1988 sales through the same period were slightly ahead. But ’88’s fourth quarter sales were off by more than 50% from the year before. With this soft demand, the total mintage for the year was 5,004,646 coins – a number that would remain the bullion-strike series’ lowest until 1994.

CoinWeek IQ Analysis of the 1988 American Silver Eagle

Despite its modest mintage, as a collectible coin, the 1988 bullion strike is treated as a generic issue in grades MS-69 and below. In MS-69, coins from all three grading services are bringing between $50 and $60 on eBay. Retail prices may be higher.

In MS-70, the coin continues to exert a significant market premium (34.61 x 69 price for PCGS; 23.40 x 69 price for NGC). The NGC numbers are significantly down from where they were in 2014, and we note an annualized rate of return of -5.3% for the issue (keep in mind, this doesn’t even take inflation into account).

The PCGS MS-70 situation is completely different and should be discussed separately. On February 4, 2011, Heritage Auctions sold what was at the time the sole top pop 1988 Silver Eagle (Cert #3337729) for a then-record price of $9,775 USD. Two years later, GreatCollections sold the same coin (still the only PCGS MS-70) for $27,500. What occurred between the two auctions was the release of the popular book American Silver Eagles (4th Edition, 2022), which is credited to artist and Silver Eagle reverse designer John Mercanti and former PCGS Vice President Miles Standish.

Standish created PCGS’s signature label program and Mercanti was a big draw. The book was the first such reference on the market and had a big impact in the promotion of the series. Prices for low-population PCGS top pop coins soared between 2011 and 2013. It didn’t take long, however, for populations to follow suit. It all happened in plain sight, but outside of some collector threads, little to no attention was paid to the issue. By 2022, the PCGS MS-70 certified population approached 200 coins. It eclipsed that number in past year and as of February 2024, sits at 219 pieces.

Today, untoned 1988 PCGS MS-70 silver eagles routinely trade on GreatCollections and occasionally on eBay. A typical example will sell for between $1,500 and $1,700. The original Top Pop coin having now lost 95% of its “value” and shed about $200 since the end of 2022.

CAC opened up its full-service grading business in the summer of 2023. This marked the first time in the company’s history that it accepted American Silver Eagles. To this point, we are told that the lion’s share of early date Silver Eagles that have been submitted were previously graded by PCGS or NGC. To date, CAC reports a population of 20 coins in 69 and 20 coins in 70. These will likely trade at a premium over PCGS, but we would advise against paying a premium based on these low population numbers. This is a fluid situation.

Predicting Future Certified Population Growth

Demand for the date continues, and we expect this and all other “early date” Type 1 Silver Eagles to experience even more over time. This demand will create an incentive for the continued submission of bulk quantities of 1988 American Silver Eagles. Collectors should be clear, the majority of the coins from this issue were sold not to collectors but to bullion investors. How much of this material has reentered the market in terms of loose coins is anybody’s guess. We assume a steady diet of monster boxes will cycle into the market for the foreseeable future, as baby boomer’s liquidate their holdings late in life.

Typical certified coins will likely hold their present value or gently appreciate. Mint State 70 coins will likely continue their price decline as additional coins come out of fresh “monster boxes”.

Some of these monster boxes will have the requisite characteristics to qualify for PCGS’ “First Strike” program. In 2014, a total of 93 First Strike coins were noted, all graded MS-69. Today, PCGS reports 950 First Strike MS-69s and five in MS-70. In February 2022, a buyer paid $7,650 for one of these examples in a GreatCollections sale. That individual really should have done their homework.

Design

Obverse:

Adolph A. Weinman’s Lady Liberty is depicted mid-stride. She is seen as a full-body figure, dressed in a flowing gown, and draped with a large billowing American flag. She holds laurel and oak branches in her left hand that symbolize the civil and military glories of America, respectively. As Liberty strides confidently towards the rising sun, she also reaches out and presents a welcoming and open hand. So large is Lady Liberty that she is superimposed over the obverse legend LIBERTY ringing the obverse – in fact, she obscures half of the “BE” and almost the entire “R”. Above Liberty’s outstretched rear foot is IN GOD WE TRUST, and below her is the date (1986).

The design bears a notable resemblance to sculptor Oscar Roty’s The Sower, a common image on French coins. Numismatist Roger Burdette posited in his book Renaissance of American Coinage (2007) that this was not a coincidence and while Adolph Weinman did not directly copy, he did derive significant inspiration from Roty’s work. Weinman’s Liberty Walking design quickly became one of America’s most iconic numismatic images and would be used with minor modifications on the American Silver Eagle bullion coin starting in 1988.

Reverse:

John Mercanti’s Heraldic Eagle is positioned at the center of the reverse. Clutched in its beak is a ribbon that bears the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM. Above its head, is a constellation of 13 stars configured in an upside-down pyramid formation. Wrapping around the design is the legend (top) UNITED STATES OF AMERICA and the fineness and denomination (bottom) 1 OZ. FINE SILVER. ONE DOLLAR.

Edge:

The edge of the 1986 American Silver Eagle bullion coin is reeded.

Coin Specifications

American Silver Eagle Bullion Coin
Year Of Issue: 1988
Mintage: 5,004,646
Alloy: 99.9% silver
Weight: 31.1 g
Diameter: 40.6 mm
Edge: Reeded
OBV Designer Adolph A. Weinman
REV Designer John M. Mercanti

Sources

[1] http://www.gao.gov/products/LCD-79-410. Accessed 1/31/15.

Mercanti, John. American Silver Eagles: A Guide to the U.S. Bullion Coin Program. Whitman Publishing, LLC. Atlanta, Georgia. 2012. 24, 29-31.

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CoinWeek Notes
CoinWeek Notes
CoinWeek Notes presents expert analysis and insights from Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker, the award-winning editors of CoinWeek.com.

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