An instant “rarity” sets the market aflutter, but perfection has its price
By Jim Bisognani – NGC Weekly Market Report ……
In the early 1980s, many investors and coin collectors were keen on acquiring silver in coin or bar form for investment and speculation. The metals market was a mega business and millions of dollars were spent annually to purchase silver–but mostly foreign silver.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the US government, which had gone off the silver standard in 1964, was anxious to liquidate and enable the sale of as much as 75% of the existing government stockpile of silver reserves.
To compete with numerous foreign silver bullion coins and secure a piece of the sizable pie, the United States decided to take steps to produce a viable competitor, one that would allow a good portion of our silver stockpile to remain domestically. It was decided that a legal tender $1 silver coin backed by the US government would be able to compete rather nicely.
The Fledgling Silver Eagle
Under the Liberty Coin Act, the $1 “Silver Eagle”, a new legal tender, non-circulating, one ounce .999 fine silver coin, was authorized by Congress in 1985. Considered by many numismatic aficionados as one of the most beautiful coins ever minted, the Silver Eagle’s obverse design is based on Adolph A. Weinman’s allegorical “Walking Liberty”, which was first introduced to the public on the 1916 half dollar. The reverse presents a proud heraldic eagle and shield designed by sculptor John Mercanti.
The Silver Eagle bullion coins were first officially released by the U.S. Mint on November 24, 1986, essentially 33 years ago as this article posts.
Unlike today, the first Silver Eagle bullion coins were not directly available to the public via the US Mint. Instead, it was indirectly available through a network of “authorized purchasers” consisting of banks, brokerage companies, coin dealers and precious metals firms.
It would be an understatement to say that the inaugural 1986 issue of the Silver Eagle was anything but a rousing success. Nearly 5.4 million business strikes were minted with the investor or metals speculator in mind. Another 1.4 million were produced specifically for coin collectors in the Proof format.
Demand was so powerful for the inaugural issue that, in 1987, double the number of business strikes were minted to satisfy the growing demand. Amazingly–to some dealers at the time–the Silver Eagle emerged as an actual “collectible”, bringing substantial premiums above the bullion value on the secondary market.
In subsequent years, Silver Eagles remained a favorite for metal investors, and millions have been bought and stored in “Monster Boxes” for investment and a hedge against inflation or housed in IRA accounts.
Yet the numismatic collectible component has outpaced the pure metal “investment” moniker. Secondary market demand for the US Silver Eagle remains phenomenal as eager collectors anxiously await the arrival of each new Mint State or Proof installment to be third-party-graded for inclusion in collections or registry sets.
It was inconceivable 33 years ago, but today the Silver Eagle is, by a huge margin, the most popularly collected US coin! According to the NGC Census, nearly 10.2 million Silver Eagles have been graded. This figure represents over 35% of all US coins graded by NGC. The next closest series rival, another silver dollar, is the immensely popular Morgan dollar, which accounts for just over 12% of US coins graded.
Birds of a Feather
Although most raw business strike or Mint State Silver Eagles are presently available for a modest premium over the current market or spot price of silver, there are exceptions. Sets and special editions within the series have truly caused a frenzy. I have lived through all the excitement!
In 2006, it was the three-piece 20th Anniversary Silver Eagle set that caused quite a stir. The US Mint authorized 250,000 sets to be produced. The sets were limited to 10 sets per household at $100 per set. The entire run of 20th Anniversary Silver Eagle sets sold out in two weeks. Shortly after the sets hit the secondary market, prices began to rise as collectors realized the importance of the unique Reverse Proof.
In 2011, the US Mint announced the 25th Anniversary Silver Eagle set. This time, it was a five-piece offering, which included a Reverse Proof in addition to a San Francisco issue, featuring the “S” mintmark on a business strike coin for the first time. The other coins included were a 2011-W Proof Silver Eagle, 2011-W (with ‘W’ mintmark) and a 2011 Mint State Silver Eagle (with no mintmark).
Similar to the Black Friday sales or that just-gotta-get Christmas toy, mainstream collectors and dealers throughout the country were all vying for the 25th Anniversary Silver Eagle sets, which the US Mint offered for sale on its website on Thursday, October 27, 2011, beginning at noon, for $299.95 per set. Limited to 100,000 sets (or units, as the Mint called them), a five-sets-per-household limit was imposed. All five coins were individually encapsulated and came housed in a highly polished lacquered hardwood presentation case.
Amazingly, the entire production sold out in a little over four-and-a-half hours! As is the case with any highly touted US coin collectible, market makers and speculators were already listing options for the sale of these sets (which they obviously did not yet own) on venues such as eBay and other public forums. The various dealer electronic networks were also bursting with dealers offering immediate profits and, in some cases, seed money when purchasing sealed lots of five, asking only that the Mint-sealed carton be shipped directly to the dealer upon receipt.
I remember this day very well, as I was online and purchased my five sets when the public ordering went into effect at noontime. I had told my friends and family about this event well in advance and several took advantage of it. Dealers just couldn’t keep up with client demand for the sets and were buying sealed individual sets or cases of five for $850 or more per sealed set!
Yet the 2011 release pales in comparison to last Thursday, November 14, when the US Mint’s 2019-S Enhanced Reverse Proof Silver Eagle landed at high noon. The big excitement surrounding this installment was that this Enhanced Reverse Proof was struck at the San Francisco Mint. Mintage was limited to 30,000, which would make this issue an instant “rarity” and supplant the lowest mintage title from the 1995-W Proof that had held the record for lowest mintage at 30,125 coins.
There was a strict limit of one coin per household, and the coins, costing $65.95 each, sold out within 15 minutes, as the US Mint servers, phone lines, and carrier pigeons were taxed to the max! (No, I did not get one.) One well-known market maker sold out of NGC PF 70 “Early Releases” advance sales at $2,195!
Buyers on electronic trading networks are still making big noise as the top bid for a “sealed” box was $900 as of November 20. Sales on eBay for “opened” boxes have been consistently realizing in excess of $1,000.
Dealers that I have spoken to believe there is still plenty of upside, but they don’t think the 2019-S Enhanced Reverse Proof will be a threat to the 1995-W Proof price point. I agree, especially taking into consideration the US Mint’s production quality. This should ensure a much higher percentage of NGC PF 70 coins for the 2019-S Reverse Proof than the 1995-W Proof.
A quick check of the NGC Census reveals that of all the 1995-W Proof coins graded, only 609 coins have been designated NGC PF 70 Ultra Cameo—or about 11% of submissions. Thus far, the 2019-S Reverse Proof NGC PF 70 population should easily exceed 40-50% of submissions. So, I expect that the 1995-W will still reign as “king” of the series on a dollar basis.
Two in the Bush?
A word of advice for Silver Eagle collectors, especially those compiling an MS/PF 70 collection: Keep an eye on the NGC Census. I have a bit of data to share in that regard.
This perfect 1991 Silver Eagle graded NGC MS 70 captured $34,500 at the Heritage Long Beach Signature Auction in the fall of 2009. Six years ago, only 165 examples had been graded as NGC MS 70 according to the NGC Census (79,815 reported in as NGC MS 69). Today—November 19, 2019—607 coins have been designated NGC MS 70 (109,920 at NGC MS 69), and the current NGC Price Guide is at $4,500.
This 1999 Silver Eagle graded NGC MS 70 sold for $28,200 at the Heritage New York Signature Auction in November 2013. Six years ago, according to the NGC Census, only 91 coins appeared as NGC MS 70 (73,849 coins at NGC MS 69). Today–November 19, 2019–this coin still reveals a Mint State series low in NGC MS 70, yet there are now 248 coins occupying that top spot (95,894 coins at NGC MS 69). This Silver Eagle still carries the top price in Mint State; however, the NGC Price Guide valuation is $15,000.
For those not chasing numeric perfection and simply looking for the perfect holiday stocking stuffer, the majority of NGC MS 69 Silver Eagle coins are available for under $40.
Until next time, happy collecting!
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Jim Bisognani is an NGC Price Guide Analyst having previously served for many years as an analyst and writer for another major price guide. He has written extensively on US coin market trends and values.