by Louis Golino for CoinWeek ………
In May or June the U.S. Mint (www.usmint.gov) will begin taking orders for a special two-coin West Point American silver eagle set that will mark the 75th anniversary of the Mint’s facility at West Point.
The set will include two coins that will only be sold in the special set. One will be a reverse proof silver eagle, and this will be the fourth time that finish has been used. The fields are frosted and the devices are mirrored instead of the other way around as is the case with proof coins.
The second coin will be what the Mint refers to as an enhanced uncirculated silver eagle, and this will be the first time such a coin is issued and the fifth type of finish used on a silver eagle. The others are uncirculated as used on the bullion coins, proof, reverse proof, and burnished uncirculated. The Mint has not yet decided whether the new finish will be used on future silver eagle coins.
The enhanced uncirculated coin will include three different types of finishes for the fields and devices of the coin, including heavy frost, light frost, and brilliant polish, which will be combined to give the coins a unique look.
On the coin’s obverse the mountains, the stripes on the flag that would be red, if it were in color, the flag’s blue field, the year, and the sandals of Liberty will all have a brilliant polish field. The other design elements of the obverse and the coin’s lettering will be done with the heavy frosted finish, and the remaining fields will have the light frosted finish.
As for the reverse, the ribbon, arrows, and olive branch will use the brilliant polished finish, and similar to the obverse, the remaining design elements will have a heavy frosted finish, and the empty fields will be lightly frosted.
In order to put all these different finishes on the same coin, the Mint auto-polishes the coin dies using a horsehair brush for the uncirculated finish, and then it uses a laser for the heavy and light frosting.
In addition, the dies are given a physical vapor deposition coating to increase the life-span of the die. And the coins are struck three times on special burnished planchets.
Because the coin appears to be closer in appearance to a reverse proof than an uncirculated or burnished uncirculated coin, some people have questioned why the coin is classified as an uncirculated, rather than proof coin by the Mint.
Like a proof coin it has been struck multiple times, but according to the Mint that is not what distinguishes a proof from an uncirculated coin, especially since most of the proof and uncirculated coins the Mint makes for collectors are struck multiple times using specially-prepared dies.
According to a statement from the Mint, these are the unique features that make the coin enhanced uncirculated rather than proof rather than the number of times the coin has been struck: “The horsehair brush automated process creates a reflective surface of artwork elements, but cannot achieve a smoothness of the felt pad. The felt pad cannot polish relief and is generally used to polish the field of a proof die, resulting in a mirror like finish. The auto polishing with a horsehair brush results in a brilliant uncirculated finish. The dies then go through a laser frosting process to achieve a heavy laser frost or a light laser frost in areas as described above.
According to some comments from the Mint’s spokesman Michael White that appear in the April 8 issue of Coin World (www.coinworld.com), this is not the first time the Mint has used more than one finish on the same coin. He mentioned the examples of the 2012 September 11 medals and the 2012 Hawaii Volcanoes five-ounce silver America the Beautiful coin, which both use multiple finishes.
The enhanced uncirculated silver eagle was first reported by James Bucki, who writes about coins for About.com (http://coins.about.com). During a visit to the West Point Mint he saw the coins being struck, and wrote about them for his column and posted the first images of the coin. Mr. Bucki wrote that in his view the coins are really proofs rather than uncirculated coins, based on the ANA’s official definition of proof coins (http://coins.about.com/b/2013/03/19/is-enhanced-american-silver-eagle-uncirculated-or-proof.htm)
Since then other numismatic publications have picked up on the story, the Mint has released some statements and images of the coin (including the ones that appear here), and there has been quite a lot of discussion about the new finish in coin forums.
I would need to see the coins in person to be able to properly evaluate the new finish, but my initial impression is positive, and these coins are already generating a lot of excitement among silver eagle collectors.
Because the reverse proof finish has been used already three times prior to the release of the new sets, many collectors felt that the reverse proof approach was in danger of being overused and were eager for something different.
The enhanced uncirculated silver eagle appears to satisfy that desire for a coin that retains the same design, but presents it in a new and innovative way. As long as the new finish is not overused, it should be successful.
The inclusion of a new type of silver eagle could end up driving sales of the West Point sets higher than those of the San Francisco silver eagle sets released last year, as collectors will be eager to see the new finish. The San Francisco sets currently rank second lowest in mintage of the anniversary silver eagle sets after those issued in 2011 for the 20th anniversary.
At this time the Mint could not confirm whether the new sets will be released in the same way last year’s sets were, and whether they will be minted to demand. Last year buyers had one month to place their orders, and were able to buy as many as they wanted during that period.
With the 30th anniversary of the silver eagle approaching in 2016, a lot of collectors have expressed interest in a new design for the coin, either to be used only on the 2016 anniversary set, or to be used from that date forward. That is something the Mint should give serious consideration.
The silver eagle has already surpassed every other American silver dollar in terms of the number of years it has been minted with the exception of the Seated Liberty dollar.
Louis Golino is a coin collector and numismatic writer, whose articles on coins have appeared in Coin World, Numismatic News, and a number of different coin web sites. His column for CoinWeek, “The Coin Analyst,” covers U.S. and world coins and precious metals. He collects U.S. and European coins and is a member of the ANA, PCGS, NGC, and CAC. He has also worked for the U.S. Library of Congress and has been a syndicated columnist and news analyst on international affairs for a wide variety of newspapers and web sites.