By Louis Golino for CoinWeek …..
The American Silver Eagle, authorized by the 1985 Liberty Coin Act and issued since October 1986, is a coin best described with superlatives. It is the world’s best-selling silver bullion coin; the U.S. Mint’s most important bullion coin program; the most widely collected modern silver coin of all time; and a coin that has played a key role in modern American numismatics.
Sales of these coins have been so strong in recent years that the U.S. Mint has struggled to produce enough of them and has had to frequently ration them to its network of authorized purchasers. 2015 will mark a new record, exceeding the 2014 total of 44 million coins.
And with around 400 million coins minted so far, within a couple years there will be more of these coins in existence than all other U.S. silver dollars ever minted.
The Silver Eagle’s popularity and success is rooted in several factors such as the coin’s status as the official sovereign bullion coin of the U.S.; its government-backed guarantee of silver purity and weight; its affordability and accessibility; and of course its celebrated obverse design, which features the iconic image of a confident, striding Lady Liberty from the Walking Liberty half dollar designed by Adolph Weinman. This design cleverly taps into the nostalgia that most collectors of modern U.S. coins have for the classic designs of our country’s past.
Former Chief Engraver for the U.S. Mint John Mercanti (View Designer’s Profile) designed the heraldic eagle that adorns the reverse of the coin, and he also made some modifications to the Weinman design a few years into the program because of production problems with the level of detail that appeared on the coins from the first few years. He essentially added definition to the key elements of the design.
Modern Morgan Dollar
American Silver Eagles also bridge the classic and modern periods. They are the U.S. silver dollars of our era and the modern-day equivalent of the Morgan silver dollar according to several numismatic writers, including Eric Jordan, Ron Drzewucki, and myself. The comparison is apt for many reasons.
Like Morgan dollars, Silver Eagles began as bullion coins issued at the behest of the mining industry to dispose of excess silver reserves in a profitable manner, but over time they became wildly popular numismatic collectibles. Silver Eagles have been issued in brilliant uncirculated and proof since 1986, and in other finishes since 2006.
Another similarity between the two coins is the way both have fueled the rise of third-party grading. In fact, 30 years ago coin grading services were in many ways created mainly to bring some order to the grading of Morgan dollars, which at the time were frequently over-graded with terms like gem brilliant uncirculated that were not used consistently.
American Silver Eagles are by far the most frequently submitted and graded coins today at the grading companies, and interest in the series has been driven in considerable part by the quest for MS- and PR/PF-70 examples and registry sets. This year has seen a decrease in the number of coins submitted for grading, probably because top-graded examples of recent issues are so numerous and inexpensive that they have saturated the market.
30th Anniversary in 2016
The 30th anniversary of this remarkable coin will be celebrated in 2016, which makes this a good time to review the most important highlights of the program so far. Chief among them are the introduction of new finishes (such as reverse proofs and burnished uncirculated coins), which in most cases was done in connection with the release of special sets to mark anniversaries of the series.
During the first decade, the Silver Eagle was purchased mainly as a bullion coin, though the proofs also became popular. The first couple years saw strong bullion sales due to pent-up demand.
But demand for the bullion coins declined in the mid-1990s as silver prices plummeted. Production hit a low of 3.6 million coins in 1996–the key date of the bullion series and a coin that’s hard to fine in high quality, plagued by milk spots as it is.
By the time the coin celebrated its 10th anniversary, the Mint began introducing special sets to help sustain demand for the coins beyond silver investors.
Five special sets have been released over the years and include:
- The 1995 10th Anniversary five-coin set*, which included the four American Gold Eagles issued that year plus the 1995-W Silver Eagle proof coin, which is the lowest mintage coin in the series as it was originally only available in this set;
- The 2006 20th Anniversary three-coin set, which included the first reverse proof and burnished uncirculated Silver Eagles;
- The 2011 25th Anniversary five-coin set, which included 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 Silver Eagle struck at the San Francisco Mint; and
- The 2013 75th Anniversary of the West Point Mint two-coin set, which included the first enhanced uncirculated Silver Eagle that uses laser frosting to highlight different parts of the coin’s design.
No New Reverse
The heraldic eagle reverse of the Silver Eagle, though admired by many people, has often been described as not well-paired with the classic obverse design because it is a modern motif.
Since 2011, the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee (CCAC) led by Gary Marks, whose term as chairman ended this year, has pushed for a re-design of the coin in line with the enacting legislation, which simply calls for a Liberty design on the obverse and an eagle on the reverse. As that effort failed to gain momentum year after year, the focus shifted to changing only the reverse.
In 2014, a flying eagle design reminiscent of the eagle on the Gobrecht dollar that was prepared as a possible design for the U.S. Marshal Service 225th anniversary $5 gold coin was recommended by the CCAC as the new reverse for the Silver Eagle. Most collectors embraced the beautiful, classic eagle design.
However, the U.S. Mint decided against changing the reverse, and instead decided to use the recommended design as the reverse of the 2015-W American Liberty high-relief gold coin and accompanying silver medal that may be issued in 2016.
While some people believe it is advisable not to change a coin whose design is so universally recognized, there is still considerable support for a new reverse. Some collectors have suggested the 30th anniversary would be a good time to make that change to demarcate the first 30 years of the program, but that is not likely given the Mint’s apparent preference for no design change.
30th Anniversary Plans
Legislation (H.R. 1698, which passed the House in June) regarding the silver purity of U.S. Mint numismatic coins was introduced this year that includes a provision calling for the addition of incused edge inscriptions on both the bullion and proof coins noting the 30th anniversary of the program.
That would likely be welcomed by collectors, but most are expecting something more substantial in the form of a special 30th Anniversary set and possibly the issuance of a new variety to mark this special occasion.
Collectors have been speculating for years about what coins or sets might be issued for this event, and the Mint has also asked them about their preferences in several surveys. The most popular option by far would be the striking of the first high-relief or ultra high-relief version of the coin, a minting technique our Mint has yet not fully perfected because it has only been used a couple of times, and in most instances production issues were encountered.
Interest in changing the reverse isn’t going away. Former CCAC Chairman Marks told CoinWeek he still supports using the recommended bald eagle design as a the new reverse starting in 2016, or issuing “new annual silver medal series of Liberty-themed proof medals struck on Silver Eagle planchets that would be sold as paired sets with the proof American Eagle Silver Coin.”
Demand for the bullion coins will probably remain high going forward even if there are no design changes, though it remains to be seen how demand would be impacted by a sustained spike in silver prices, especially since premiums on other bullion coins are lower.
But to sustain interest in the numismatic side of the program, the Mint will need to continue periodically making innovations while at the same time not overdoing the use of such approaches. The trick will be to strike a balance that satisfies the majority of buyers.
Those buyers tend to be rather conservative in their preferences regarding modern minting techniques (especially compared to world coin collectors), but that may change as more young collectors enter the hobby.
At some point a change to either the obverse or reverse may be necessary to sustain long-term interest in the series. One possible option would be to retain the same design for bullion coins and change the reverse designs for the proofs with a new eagle design each year.
*The 1995 set was issued to mark the 10th Anniversary of the American Eagle bullion coinage program, which is why both Gold and Silver Eagles were included. By the time the 20th anniversary approached, the Mint decided to use the alternative method for computing anniversaries, in which the first year is not counted, which is why the 20th anniversary set was issued in 2006 rather than 2005.
Louis Golino is an award-winning numismatic journalist and writer specializing on modern coins. He has been writing a weekly column for CoinWeek since May 2011 called “The Coin Analyst,” which focuses primarily on modern U.S. and world coins and developments at major world mints. In August 2015 he received the Numismatic Literary Guild (NLG) award for Best Website Column for “The Coin Analyst.”
He is also a contributor to several magazines, including Coin World, American Hard Assets and The Numismatist, the American Numismatic Association’s monthly publication, where he writes a monthly column on modern world coins. He is a founding member of the Modern Coin Forum.
He has collected classic and modern U.S. and world coins since he was about 10 and first joined the ANA in the 1970’s. He has also worked as a congressional relations specialist and analyst at the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress and has been a syndicated columnist and news analyst on international affairs for a wide variety of publications. He has been writing professionally since the early 1980s.