By Ron Drzewucki – Modern Coin Wholesale …..
In the coin industry, “bullion” is a word with many connotations.
To the extent that older circulating coinage contains silver and gold, many collectible coins are bought and sold according to their intrinsic–or “bullion”–value. But when we say “bullion” in today’s marketplace, we usually mean ingots and bars and specially-made coins.
What is bullion, exactly?
Bullion is precious metal that’s been processed in ways that conform to a standardized purity and weight. Historically, this was a good way to store and preserve wealth (think Spanish Galleons or Fort Knox).
In more recent times, creating bullion makes it easier to trade on the commodities market.
However, most people never get to handle ingots and bars of precious metal. That’s where bullion coins come in. Several governments around the world have issued bullion coins since the early 19th century, with the latter half of the 20th century being especially productive. These coins vary in composition and purity (between .900 and .9999 fine).
So today, I wanted to talk about the various bullion products and bullion coins of the world, starting with the United States.
United States Bullion Coins
America’s most popular bullion coin programs–the American Gold Eagle and Silver Eagle–were first released in 1986.
Originally motivated by a long-standing political desire to sell off surplus silver from our country’s defense stockpile, the Silver Eagle has proven so popular that legislation eventually authorized the purchase of additional silver now that the surplus is gone.
The design of the coin doesn’t hurt, either. The obverse features an adaptation of Adolph Weinman’s classic Walking Liberty design for the half dollar (1916-1947), and the reverse features one of the better heraldic eagles on American coinage, as designed by former Chief Engraver of the U.S. Mint John Mercanti (View Designer’s Profile).
The Gold Eagle is the most popular gold coin in America. Besides the obvious fact that gold is a popular commodity, we again see a legendary design appropriated for use on a modern coin. In this case, it just happens to be what many consider the apex of American coin art: the Augustus Saint-Gaudens $20 gold double eagle obverse (1907-1933). The reverse hosts a family of eagles in a unique arrangement designed by Miley Busiek.
(By the way, the $20 double eagle itself–at .900 fineness, and starting in 1849–also meets the purity requirements to be a bullion coin.)
In addition to the Gold Eagle, the US also issues the Gold American Buffalo.
Another commemorative of a classic design, the Gold Buffalo adapts James Earle Fraser’s iconic Buffalo (or Indian Head) nickel for use on the obverse and reverse of the bullion coin. First issued in 2006 (with new denominations / weights first released in 2008), the Gold Buffalo is another popular product from the United States Mint.
Ah, but before you get the impression that the Mint is only about commemorating famous coin designs on its bullion, they also manufacture special versions of more recent series, such as the First Spouse and America the Beautiful programs.
First Spouse gold coins are issued alongside their respective presidential $1 coins. These $10 face value coins are made of .9999 fine gold.
The America the Beautiful silver bullion coins share the same designs as their quarter dollar counterparts (right down to a face value of 25 cents), though they’re larger and the edge says “.9999 FINE SILVER 5.0 OUNCE”.
The United States also issues a platinum bullion coin, the American Platinum Eagle. The obverse was designed by John Mercanti and features a face-on portrait of the Statue of Liberty. Unique among American bullion coins, the reverse changes every year, but usually involves an eagle.
The coin itself is .9995 fine platinum and comes in 1, 1/2, 1/4, and 1/10 oz. denominations. The face values of each variety are $100, $50, $25 and $10, respectively–though like all other bullion, the actual value of the coins depends on the spot price of the metal.
It might be time for a quick aside.
It’s easy to take certain things for granted in the rare coin business. For instance, that everyone knows what “bullion” is. Another phrase that gets bandied around in regards to bullion or precious metals like everyone knows what it means is spot price. I think I can settle this one.
All “spot price” means is the price of a commodity (like bullion) that you physically have in your possession within a very short time (technically two business days) from your purchase. Contrast it with a futures contract, where you’re paying for something based on what you think it will be worth in the future, which is when you will actually receive it.
In other words, the “spot price” is the price you pay to get something “on the spot”.
It’s a simple but vital concept in today’s sophisticated international market. If you’re interested in the real wealth protection that bullion can provide, then you’ll need to pay attention to the spot price.
World Bullion Coins
Speaking of the international market, the United States is far from the only player in the bullion game.
If it weren’t for the South African Krugerrand, you could argue that the American programs might have come along much later, if at all. There were other motives for the creation of a United States bullion coin program, but it’s certainly a fact that the success of the Krugerrand (and its decades-long lock on the market) made everyone stand up and take notice.
Kind of like when one state has a lottery but its neighbor doesn’t. How long can the neighbor state sit back and watch all that revenue escape?
But of all the other bullion programs in the world besides America’s, China deserves pride of place.
The Chinese Silver and Gold Pandas are immensely popular with collectors and investors alike. First issued in 1982, the Gold Panda comes in various sizes: 1, 1/2, 1/4, 1/10, and 1/20 oz. There are even some 5 oz. and 12 oz. coins. Silver Pandas, starting in 1983, come in similar weights, with an additional 1 kg(!) coin.
Most years feature new reverse designs.
Next up are our neighbors to the North and South. The Canadian Maple Leaf bullion coin comes in gold, silver and platinum varieties. The Gold Maple Leaf consists of 1 troy ounce of .9999 fine (24 karat) gold, and like the silver and platinum versions, features a maple leaf on the obverse and a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II on the reverse. The silver coin is 1 oz. of .9999 fine silver, and the platinum coin is .9995 fine. Intriguingly, Canada also issues a palladium bullion of .9995 fineness.
Mexico produces gold, silver, and platinum Libertads.
Gold Libertads were .900 fine until 1991, when the gold content was increased to .999. Silver Libertads are .999 fine. The Platinum Libertad is also .999 fine. Gold and Silver Libertads come in a variety of weights, similar to many other world bullion coins, but the platinum coin is available only in a 1/4 oz. version.
We’d be remiss not to mention Australia. Australia manufactures many coins with aboriginal fauna as the main motif, with the Kookaburra, the Kangaroo and, yes, the Koala featuring prominently. Much like other international programs, the silver bullion coins are .999 fine, and the Platinum Koala is .9995 fine.
There are, of course, many other bullion programs in the world. The Austrian Mint’s Vienna Philharmonic is another great example.
But did you know there are other kinds of bullion out there?
Yes, you read that correctly! Rhodium belongs to the platinum family of metals (as does palladium), and is especially resistant to corrosion. As such, it makes sense to use it to manufacture bullion bars or coins.
And while it may seem strange to call anything made out of bronze “bullion”, in recent years the industry has realized that bullion is a useful way to package all sorts of metal, including copper, aluminum and alloys such as bronze.
As you’ve seen, the world knows and respects the value of bullion, whether it’s in the form of a bar or a coin. Bullion makes a great addition to your financial portfolio, and is one of the more dependable ways to diversify your investments. When the economy hits a slump, and stocks and bonds take a dive, you’ll be glad you looked into bullion.
Diversity is the name of the game.
Besides, bullion coins aren’t just useful economic instruments; they’re attractive collectors’ items, too.