By Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez for CoinWeek.com …..
Since their debut in 1986, American Silver Eagles (ASEs) have been one of the most popular bullion coin series in the world, but their appeal extends well beyond the arena of precious metals investing.
The American Silver Eagle, authorized by the passage of the Liberty Coin Act of 1985, features many patriotic symbols. The obverse carries a modern update of the Adolph Weinman’s Walking Liberty design; the visage first appeared on the half dollar in 1916 and was retired in 1947 before the motif was resurrected on the American Silver Eagle 39 years later. The reverse carries a sleek, modernistic heraldic eagle design by former Chief Engraver John Mercanti.
While the majority of 2010s American Silver Eagles are bullion-quality specimens selling for nominal premiums above their melt value, hundreds of thousands have also been certified for numismatic purposes. Most of these are proof and uncirculated (or “burnished”) examples, and the majority of those are certified within the top two points of the 1-70 grading scale. Most major coin dealers have deep supplies of these coins on hand.
Collector interest in the American Silver Eagle program has been strong since the United States bullion coin program began, but the market base has increased dramatically over the past few years. Much of this is due to volatility in precious metals prices, which has attracted a wave of new buyers – mainly bullion investors – to the series. But for the numismatic collector specifically, there has perhaps never been a more exciting period in the Silver Eagle series than the 2010s.
Following a bleak 2009, when a shortage of silver planchets at the Mint triggered a one-year hiatus in the production of proof and other numismatic-quality ASEs, the bullion series saw impressive new numbers beginning the following year. Standard proofs returned in 2010, a multi-year run of Burnished silver eagles kicked off in 2011, and reverse proofs appeared from 2011 through 2013.
Record-setting numbers of American Silver Eagles were produced throughout the first half of the 2010s, as illustrated in the following table.
Strong demand, caused by soaring bullion prices in 2010 and ’11 and followed by slumping values from ’13 through ’15 (which some investors interpret as an excellent buying opportunity) pushed mintages upward for bullion-quality ASEs. Mintage figures for numismatic products during the 2010s have been relatively more stable, perhaps representative of a collector base that is less concerned with bullion prices or resale potential.
Evaluating Market Performance of ASES, 2010-Present
Analyzing the price performance of American Silver Eagles minted since 2010 requires a general consideration of how the metals markets have performed. Wild bullion value fluctuations have greater influence on the prices of bullion-quality ASEs than on the higher-priced numismatic specimens, such as proof and burnished Silver Eagles.
Nevertheless, the spike in silver prices around 2011, when silver reached nearly $50 per ounce, did have an impact on the average value of bullion and numismatic silver eagles. Thus, any negative price data for Silver Eagles over the last few years, a period when silver bullion prices have settled below $20 per ounce, must be looked at in the context of the precious metals market when evaluating overall performance for the series.
In terms of historic market activity for ASEs made since the start of the present decade, the 2010, ’11, and ’12 Silver Eagles have experienced the most volatile price trends. This is due mainly to the sharp spike in silver bullion prices during the era when they were produced and the softening metals prices that ensued in the years since. There have also been some downward pricing variances for so-called “supergrade” (Mint State and Proof 69 and 70) issues based on their ever-booming certified populations.
Consider, for example, the 2010-W (West Point) American Silver Eagle. As of late June 2017, Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS) reports a population of 18,967 examples in Proof-70, an increasing figure that rivals the number of counterpart Proof-69 specimens (21,493) and eclipses by miles the count of conditionally “inferior” Proof-68 issues (their population is currently reported at just 209).
According to Heritage Auctions sales records, 2010-W ASEs grading Proof-70 were selling for much more than the issue’s original $45.95 U.S. Mint issue price soon after they were first released on November 19, 2010. One February 2011 Heritage listing for a 2010-W Proof-70 American Silver Eagle, which bills the coin with a then-population of just 7,768 pieces, reveals a final auction bid of $138 (or $117.30, less the 15 percent buyer’s fee); it should be noted that in February 2011, silver was trading for about $31 an ounce.
Nearly six years later, 2010-W Proof-70 ASEs were selling for significantly less.
In December 2016, Heritage sold them for as low as $41 apiece, including the 15 percent buyer’s premium (meaning the coin sold for a base price of $34.85). While bullion prices had fallen since 2011, with an ounce of silver trading for around $16.40 in December 2016, the issue’s population had ballooned during the previous six years, up to a reported 15,454 specimens according to PCGS figures from the time of the sale.
Of course, the pricing saga of the 2010-W Proof-70 American Silver Eagle is just one small case study, though its market fluctuations represent a trend for the series – ASEs grading 70 generally come down in price as time marches on and populations go up.
Consider the case of the 2011 25th Anniversary ASE, which was offered by the U.S. Mint individually for $50.95 or in a five-piece 25th anniversary set for $299.95. In late February 2011, Heritage sold MS-70 examples for $109.25 (including 15 percent buyer’s fee) and advertised a PCGS population of 12,086 pieces.
Fast-forward just nine months, and the 2011-W 25th Anniversary Silver Eagle in MS-70 – then reported to have a PCGS pop of 38,796 – was crossing the block at Heritage for a mere $69, with 15 percent buyer’s fee included. Five years on, PCGS listed the coin for about the same price, or around $75, for similar specimens; the population stands in June 2017 at 39,177 pieces.
Top Headline-Grabbing 2010s Silver Eagles
While the ever-growing field of 2010s American Silver Eagles has kept collectors on their toes, the present decade’s run of ASEs has admittedly not (yet) provided collectors with any new key dates or major rarities. This is unlike the 1990s, when the low-mintage 1995-W proof and relatively scarce 1996 bullion (then known as “Uncirculated”) ASEs provided some real numismatic intrigue for the series, which at the time was still only about a decade old.
Since 2010, collectors have had a decent array of numismatic options to choose from among the ASEs, including the burnished coins issued from 2011 through 2015, reverse proof Silver Eagles made from 2011 through 2013, and regular proofs that have been struck every year since 2010. These coins have been available as individual offerings that collectors could buy directly from the United States Mint and have also been included in special sets, such as the aforementioned 2011 25th Anniversary Five-Coin Set, the 2011-W Uncirculated and Proof specimens, 2011-P Reverse Proof, 2011-S Uncirculated, and 2011 Bullion issues.
The 2016-W 30th Anniversary Silver Eagle features a special edge inscription with the phrase “30th ANNIVERSARY” in an italicized, sans-serif font on a smooth edge, marking the first time in the series that an ASE has been issued with anything other than a reeded edge. The 2016-W American Silver Eagle Proof and Uncirculated coins were individually offered by the U.S. Mint for $53.95 and $44.95, respectively. Today, proof and uncirculated examples sell on eBay at levels similar to their original issue prices.
Perhaps one of the more intriguing developments in the ASE series over the past few years has been the discovery that bullion-quality Silver Eagles are being struck not just at the West Point Mint (their long-accepted sole origin), but also the Philadelphia and San Francisco facilities. This finding, which came to light early in 2017, unveils a strategy Mint officials used to meet overwhelming demand for Silver Eagles beginning round 2011 by supplementing mintage of the coin with production at the San Francisco Mint and, beginning in 2015, at the Philadelphia Mint.
Suspicions of this arose based on identifying marks (barcode numerical sequences and strap markings) found on the 500-coin green cartons, known as “monster boxes” the Mint uses to ship large quantities of bullion-grade Silver Eagles to precious metals distributors. According to the Treasury Department, the Philadelphia and San Francisco Mints have been striking relatively small batches of Silver Eagles generally ranging in volume from about one million to seven million pieces.
It’s likely the news would have served merely as an anecdote in coin price guides if not for the fact that some secondary markets have found an opportunity to monetize the situation.
Though popular in some circles, these individual Silver Eagles, certified as “Philadelphia”- and “San Francisco”-minted issues, are only distinguishable (apart from typical West Point coins) within their slabs. Cracked out, the origins of these coins are untraceable. Thus any additional value these coins may have as “low-mintage” issues is essentially only by virtue of what is described on their slab labels. Whether these bullion-grade Philadelphia and San Francisco Silver Eagles, which are reportedly still in production today, continue to hold their present market values for the long haul–let alone the attention of collectors–is yet to be seen.
Before rumblings of Philly and ‘Cisco Silver Eagles came to the fore, there was another matter inspiring debate among ASE collectors: milk spots. The appearance of these patchy areas of white discoloration on all finish-based varieties of Silver Eagles has left some collectors angry and frustrated. The spots, which appear randomly, are said to arise due to a chemical wash used on blank planchets before the annealing, or heating, process that prepares the one-ounce silver blanks for striking.
While Mint officials reportedly work on ways to eliminate the cause of milk spots, collectors fret that their high-grade ASEs could eventually develop this apparently unpreventable discoloration. The splotchy, streaky white marks are not only ugly, but they also arguably affect the actual grade of blighted coins that develop the problem after they have been certified. This, understandably, has a direct impact on their individual market values.
Silver Eagle Varieties Stir Interest
While collectors may be crying over milk spots, they can at least smile about the discovery of a newsworthy ASE error – a rare occurrence for a series known for its stealthy run of flawlessly produced coins. NGC graders discovered a curved clip on one 2015 Silver Eagle from a monster box that was sealed by the U.S. Mint. While curved clips are ordinarily not very valuable, it is difficult to find any types of errors among American Silver Eagles.
A smattering of other ASEs with relatively minor errors appears on eBay. One unusual listing offers 20 Silver Eagles that were found in a single (reportedly mint-sealed) tube, and all of the coins bear similar strike-through errors on their reverses. This interesting lot is listed for $2,295 with the option for a lower offer; it has just one watcher.
Meanwhile, a weakly struck 2017 ASE graded MS-69 by NGC is listed on eBay for $199 with a chance to offer a different amount. Two potential bidders are watching the coin, labeled as a “Mint Error.”
Interestingly, one of the few 2010s Silver Eagle errors listed on eBay doesn’t involve a coin but rather a label inserted in a slab containing a 2016-W Silver Eagle. The ASE, encapsulated as part of a certified Ronald Reagan Chronicles Set (a 2016 US Mint offering that also contains a 2016-S Reverse Proof Reagan Presidential $1 coin and a bronze medal featuring Ronald and Nancy Reagan), is labeled with an insert that shows the 40th president’s last name misspelled as “Regan”. The error is billed as one of just 10 in existence.
Ironically, even in this label-driven market, the lot, listed with a Buy-It-Now price of $215 and the chance to make a lower offer, has nary a watcher – despite the glaring error on NGC’s part. One could argue that if there really is such a thing as a label-based “rarity”, this is the Real McCoy.
Summing Up The 2010s American Eagles
Nobody can predict future market conditions for American Silver Eagles, and no information contained in this article should be construed as patent investment advice. However, it’s safe to say that ASEs, while beautiful coins to collect, are not poised for huge gains in the future. That is, of course, unless silver bullion values climb to unforeseeable heights, pushing values even on numismatic-quality Silver Eagles to new levels.
One factor that seemingly prevents upward price trending for the series is the glut of high-grade, certified material. While few modern coins compare in beauty to a numismatically “perfect” (or nearly so) American Silver Eagle, virtually none of these issues is categorically rare and presently there are not enough new collectors coming into the hobby to put real pressure on existing populations.
It seems the only real chance for an investor to earn substantial returns through buying American Silver Eagles is for a repeat of the 1995-W issue. With a mintage of 30,125 pieces, it was included as a free bonus in a four-piece American Gold Eagle set that sold for $999 (when gold traded around $388 per ounce) and is now worth $4,400 in Proof-69. That set was likely out of the reach of most Silver Eagle purchasers at the time of its issue… and it remains so to this day.
While another ASE issue with market significance akin to the 1995-W has not materialized this point, a more realistic chance to strike gold (er, silver?) could be the reprisal of circumstances that led to the burnished 2008-W Reverse of 2007 error. PCGS lists this interesting variety at $600 in MS-69, and it enjoys substantial collector interest several years later.
No issue released in the 2010s has matched this price point on a consistent basis over the course of the last several years.
Unless a groundswell of collector interest sweeps the series and overwhelms existing populations, it is difficult to visualize a scenario where MS-69, MS-70, Proof-69, and Proof-70 Silver Eagles will see any substantial upward price movement. There are cases where ASEs with special label designations, such as First Strikes, signature labels, and the recent Philadelphia and San Francisco bullion strike specimens, are holding collectors’ attention. But how long will interest in any single limited-edition label last?
Not long, if eBay auction data is any indication. Yet certified Eagles in all their myriad forms and packaging remain the hobby’s Evergreen Tree, arriving each year like clockwork, and sold through all of the hobby’s various channels. They are the one constant Mint product that collectors can count on.
Only time will tell where the market is heading for these and all American Silver Eagles. But at least one thing is clear: Silver Eagles are fun collectibles, and they offer something for virtually any collector who appreciates modern United States coins. As illustrated here, pleasant surprises have already occurred among the 2010s Silver Eagles, and more may appear within this segment of the series before the decade is over.