The Coin Analyst: American Silver and Gold Eagles - A Collector’s Guide for Beginners

By Louis Golino, special to CoinWeek …..
 

Even if you are new to collecting coins, you most likely have already heard about and seen American Silver Eagles and perhaps also know they have gold counterparts, American Gold Eagles. Those coins are at the very heart of the modern coin market today and of modern American numismatics, not to mention the most successful programs in the United States Mint’s history. They are the most popular, widely traded, most collected, and most liquid modern precious metal coins in the U.S.

Every coin is legal tender and made of either .999 silver or 22-karat gold, and their weight and purity are guaranteed by the U.S. government.

Since 1986 both American Silver Eagles and American Gold Eagles have been issued annually in at least two versions – bullion and Proof. Today almost 600 million of the silver coins exist plus tens of millions of the gold coins!

This guide is designed to familiarize newer collectors with the key attributes of these coins, including the various finishes in which they are issued, special issues and key date coins and suggest some different collecting strategies.

Bullion Coins

Silver bullion coins receive no special handling during production, but thanks to modern minting technologies that involve robots and other machines, most of the bullion examples produced in recent years of these coins are of extremely high quality. Once minted, the bullion coins are placed in tubes of 20 coins each and then 25 of those tubes or rolls are placed in a large green monster box and sent to the Mint’s network of Authorized Purchasers who sell the coins to retail dealers.

The gold coins are sent from the Mint to dealers the same way as the silver coins except that the sealed monster boxes are red instead of green.

Retail prices for bullion examples of both coins vary depending on the prevailing premiums over their metal value at the time of purchase (see below for current premiums). Typically, when silver and gold prices are declining and supplies are plentiful, premiums drop, and when spot values are rising and supplies are tighter, retail premiums are higher, as they have been for most of 2020 when there has also been very strong demand for precious metal coins.

Proofs

Proof coins are struck multiple times on highly polished planchets, handled very carefully during production, placed in their own hard plastic protective capsules, and then housed in small, blue velvet display cases that go inside blue boxes along with a certificate of authenticity from the U.S. Mint signed by its Director. The gold Proof boxes were changed to burgundy a couple of years ago.

Proof Gold Eagles, like their gold bullion counterparts, are issued in four sizes: $5, 1/10th-ounce; $10, ¼-ounce; $25, ½-ounce; and $50, 1-ounce coins, while Silver Eagles — whether bullion or Proof — are only issued in one-ounce versions. No Proof coins of either type were issued in 2009 due to a lack of planchets and only bullion coins were made that year.

Burnished Uncirculated

In addition to these core coins, there are also the burnished uncirculated versions of both eagles issued since 2006, which are struck on specially burnished planchets that receive a treatment that gives them a satin finish.

Burnished Silver Eagles each include a ‘W” mintmark for the West Point Mint where they are produced and have been issued every year since then except 2009. The Gold Eagles were issued in all four sizes only from 2006-2008, and since 2011 they have only been issued in the 1-ounce version with no coins issued in 2009 and 2010. Both silver and gold burnished coins are sold in packaging similar to the Proofs except the boxes are not as plush and include a certificate of authenticity.

The Proof and burnished examples of both coins are sold directly by the U.S. Mint on its website (www.usmint.gov) and are sold at substantially higher premiums than the bullion coins due to higher production and other costs.

Designs

Since 1986 Silver Eagles have carried the enormously popular and iconic image of Lady Liberty draped in the American flag designed by Adolph Weinman on their obverse that originally appeared on silver half dollars issued from 1916 to 1947, while the reverse has featured a heraldic eagle by John Mercanti, former Chief Engraver at the Mint.

The Gold Eagles have since the beginning featured what is widely considered the most beautiful design ever to appear on a U.S. coin – one of Lady Liberty striding toward the dawn of a new day created by renowned sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens that appeared on the $20 gold coin issued from 1907 to 1933, while the reverse has carried a design of a mother and father eagle and their eaglets in a nest by Miley Frances Busiek.

Beginning around the middle of 2021, new designs will grace the reverse of both coins while their obverses will remain the same. Bullion and collector eagles will from then feature on the Silver Eagles a design of an eagle coming in for a landing carrying an oak branch in its talons designed by Emily Damstra, while the Gold Eagles will feature a close-up profile of the head of an eagle by Jennie Norris.

Special Issues

More than any other modern U.S. coin, Silver and Gold Eagle collector coins have also been issued in special versions usually only available in sets issued to mark a certain milestone in these coin programs or at the U.S. Mint.

The first was the 1995-W 10th Anniversary set issued for the 10th anniversary of the debut of the eagle programs, which for those who purchased the set of one of each size of Proof Gold Eagle also included a bonus coin – the 1995-W Proof that was only sold in that set, and which today is worth a minimum of $3,000 by itself.

Then there is the 2006-W 20th Anniversary Silver Eagle and the American Gold Eagle three-coin set, which included the first Reverse Proof Silver Eagle and the only Reverse Proof Gold Eagle ever made (in which the fields are frosted while the design elements are polished) and burnished uncirculated coins as well as Proof coins for that year. There was also a two-coin set issued that year that included burnished uncirculated Silver and Gold Eagles from West Point; the 2011 25th Anniversary Silver Eagle five-coin set, which included the first and only uncirculated Silver Eagle struck at the San Francisco Mint;
the 2012 75th Anniversary of the San Francisco Mint two-coin set, which included the first Reverse Proof American Silver Eagle struck at the San Francisco Mint; the 2013 75th Anniversary American Silver Eagle two-coin set, which included the first enhanced uncirculated American Silver Eagle using laser frosting to highlight different parts of the coin’s design; the 2016 30th anniversary burnished uncirculated and Proof silver and gold coins with edge lettering noting the anniversary; the 2019 Pride of Two Nations set that includes a modified Proof Silver Maple Leaf from the Royal Canadian Mint and the 2019-W Enhanced Reverse Proof American Silver Eagle in which the field is frosted like a Reverse Proof, while the design is selectively frosted and polished at different levels to highlight various design elements; the 2019-S Enhanced Reverse Proof, which uses the same finish as the 2019-W Enhanced Reverse Proof but has the lowest mintage of the entire series at 29,910.

Finally, in November 2020 two more special issues were released – Proof Silver and Gold Eagles with a “V75” privy mark to honor the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II. Each has a limited mintage – 75,000 for the silver, and just 1,945 for the gold, which is the lowest mintage level ever set for a modern U.S. coin and the lowest mintage of any eagle ever struck.

Type and Key Coins

For the Silver Eagles a type coin, or common-date issue such as the most recently issued coin, currently sells for about $30 in raw uncirculated condition, while a burnished uncirculated coin currently costs $67 from the Mint and a Proof costs $73 unless it is a special issue.

The key Silver eagles are six issues with mintages below 100,000, which include the 2019-S Enhanced Reverse Proof with 29,910 sold; the 1995-W Proof with 30,125 sold; the 2008-W with Reverse of 2007 burnished coin with 46,318 made but not all of them have been discovered so far; the 2020-W V75 privy mark coin with a projected mintage of 75,000; and the 2011-S mint state coin and 2011-P Reverse Proof – both only sold in the 25th anniversary set with sales of 99,882 each.

Each of these coins sells for between several hundred and several thousand dollars each with the top two coins currently worth about $1,000 for the first and $3,000 for the second. Even though the more recent key has a slightly lower mintage, the prior coin is harder to locate today and has an established track record.

The semi-key coins are those with mintages below 200,000 and include: 2019-W Enhanced Proof with 109,748 sold; 2017-S Proof with 123,804 sold; 2019-W burnished coin with 138,140 sold; 2018-W burnished with 138,947 sold; and 2017-W burnished with 176,561 sold. These coins sell for a premium over common issues, but some of them are still available for under $100 each such as the burnished issues, which could be sleepers that are worth more down the road.

As for the Gold Eagles, type examples for the bullion coins based on spot gold at $1930 as of this writing run about $120 over spot for the 1-ounce piece; about $80 over spot for the ½-ounce piece; around $60 over spot for the ¼-ounce; and about $40 over spot for the 1/10th-ounce coin.

The latest lowest mintage gold coin for each denomination varies over time, but the overall lowest across all bullion gold coins is the 1991 $25, ½-ounce coin with a mintage of 24,100 worth about 2.5 times its melt value at around $2500 or more depending on condition.

Other keys include: the 1999 1/10th and ¼-ounce Gold Eagle coins struck with unfinished Proof dies that were mistakenly made during a period of intense demand for gold because of the impending year 2000 (Y2K) computer problem. The $5 coin is worth $650 raw and $3,000 in MS70, while the $10 piece is worth $1,100 raw and $11,500 in MS70.

Among the burnished gold coins, the lowest mintage is the 2017-W $50 Gold Eagle coin with 5,800 sold that sells for $3,000 today in the highest certified grade of Mint State 70. The 2008-W $10 Gold Eagle coin with 8,883 made is also popular and currently brings $800 raw and $1,500 in MS70.

The unique 2006-W $50 Reverse Proof Gold Eagle coin with 9,996 minted has maintained a solid premium since it was released in the 20th-anniversary three-coin set originally issued for $2,600. The set today is worth over $7,000 with the Reverse Proof commanding $3,000 or more.

Among the gold Proofs, all command about the same price except for some dates graded Proof 70 in the current market, but sometimes certain dates are worth more than others. However, the 2020-W V75 $50, the one-ounce proof is the new king of eagles with a mintage of 1,945 coins.

Current prices for the regular 2020 Proof gold coins are available from the U.S. Mint. Keep in mind that in the current market you can often obtain backdates from coin dealers for less than the price of the current year’s coins from the Mint because there is a large market for these coins driven in part by the fact that they can be part of Individual Retirement Accounts.

Collecting Strategies

There are many ways to collect Silver and Gold Eagles. Your first decision is whether to focus on one or both series and then whether to purchase only ungraded coins or only graded ones (or to have raw coins graded).

And because there are different versions issued each year, you should decide whether you want to focus on only bullion coins, only the collector versions (Proof or burnished), perhaps only the special, limited mintage issues and other key coins, or the complete set, which will require a considerable expenditure even for the silver coins.

If you are a new collector, a set of the silver bullion coins is a good way to start and can be purchased as a set from dealers, already housed in an album.

It is important to think about how you plan to store and display your collection. Many options exist from albums and wooden boxes to plastic pages designed to hold certified coins that can be housed in large binders and others.

For the gold coins, relatively few collectors can afford a complete set of even just one denomination, so you may want to acquire at first just a type set of the gold coins – maybe one in Mint State and one set of the Proofs, which can be purchased in a four-coin Proof set housed in one display box. You may then decide to focus on building a set of your favorite Gold Eagle. Or you could focus on the special issues and the key coins and look for examples of those in the top grade of 70 if you can afford them.

Successful eagle collectors decided early on which coins they would focus on and stuck with their goals. For example, those who began collecting in the 1980s looked for choice examples of each year’s issue and later had them graded in some cases were lucky enough to get them graded at MS or PF70, or they may have purchased those coins already graded when they were still inexpensive.

It is important to understand that production methods were less advanced during the first decade these coins were made, making 70-graded coins from that time very hard to come by and very valuable today. Even dates that are very common in Mint State are worth many thousands of dollars in MS from the 1980s and hundreds each for PF70 coins from the ’80s and ’90s.

Another approach would be to look for coins you think are undervalued.

One expert who advertises regularly in coin magazines and on television believes the Proof silver coins from 2001 to 2005 are currently undervalued based on the number of coins graded to date. Others think the burnished silver coins are undervalued, especially those from 2017-2019.

In addition, collecting precious metal coins over a period of time allows the buyer to dollar cost average their cost basis for each coin based on prevailing metal prices and market premiums rather than buying a large number of issues at one point in time, which can easily cause you to go underwater for a period if metal prices decline sharply.

Now is a great time to start or continue an eagle collection with the coming introduction of the new reverses for both coins. In fact, while details are still forthcoming, the Mint plans in 2021 to offer Silver and Gold Eagles with both reverses (what will be known as Type 1 and Type 2), which will make 2021 – which is also the 35th anniversary of both flagship programs – an especially exciting year for collectors!

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Lou GolinoLouis Golino is an award-winning numismatic journalist and writer, specializing primarily in modern U.S. and world coins. His work has appeared in CoinWeek since 2011. He also currently writes regular features for Coin World, The Numismatist, and CoinUpdate.com, and has been published in Numismatic News, COINage, and FUNTopics, among other coin publications. He has also been widely published on international political, military, and economic issues.

In 2015, his CoinWeek.com columnThe Coin Analystreceived an award from the Numismatic Literary Guild (NLG) for Best Website Column. In 2017, he received an NLG award for Best Article in a Non-Numismatic Publication with his piece, “Liberty Centennial Designs”.

In October 2018, he received a literary award from the Pennsylvania Association of Numismatists (PAN) for his 2017 article, “Lady Liberty: America’s Enduring Numismatic Motif” that appeared in The Clarion.
 

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