Just Looking At Silver Eagles
— Mark Benvenuto
Some coins grow on you with time. For those of us in the collecting community who were in the thick of things in the 1980’s, the unveiling of the United States Eagles program was cause for both celebration and criticism. For many years, the only gold bullion coin a person had been able to own was the South African Krugerrand. As far as silver bullion coins, there really were none with any history to them. So it seemed like the United States Mint was launching something fresh. Yet at the same time, critics wanted to know why the newest designs were simply older designs. Sure, they were beautiful, but those critical of the program wanted to know why no new designs and current artists were given some space on the new bullion coins. Yet now, almost thirty years later, the Eagles program has weathered some storms, and has matured into an interesting part of what the United States Mints produce. And the silver Eagles remain the most affordable of all of these bullion coins.
1986 – 1994
These first years of the series are all dates with high mintages, which means they are all pretty inexpensive. Many of the standard reference books and lists catalogue them in grades up to MS-70 or PF-70, which is usually the only grade that ever can be costly. And that brings up an important point when collecting silver Eagles: what do you want to collect?
What we mean with this question is, do you want to collect good looking coins, or do you want that specific grade, which means you will have to purchase coins encapsulated by some third party grading service (slabbed, as it were)? For most of us, the extra cost associated with the slabbed coin at MS-70, or even MS-69, versus the lower price tags associated with coins you can actually hold in your hand, is probably not worth it. But for some of us, that best of the best coin is the prize worth fighting for. In the end, buy what you can afford.
Some loud cries of “Foul!” were heard when the United States Mint, as a way to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Eagles program, made a special set of all four of the gold Eagles marked with the ‘W’ of the West Point Mint – and included a silver Eagle as a bonus, also ‘W’ marked. The Mint had manufactured a rarity, and knew it. The only way a dedicated silver Eagle collector could own one of these was to buy the whole set. In the aftermarket, one can buy a 1995-W that has been broken out of a set, but it still costs close to $4,000 for one. If you were to try for a deep cameo specimen with that just-mentioned technical grade of PF-70, you’d have to part with over $15,000 – the cost of a pretty good used car! For most of us, this coin remains firmly on the wish list.
1996 – 2006
After that first rarity, the fine folks at the Mint got back to making plenty of uncirculated and proof silver Eagles, which means that collectors today can keep assembling a good looking date run. Plenty of each type has been encapsulated, and there are still lots that are raw coins. So a collector can choose to collect by date, or to collect by date and point value, meaning the MS number on the slab. The least expensive proposition remains just collecting the uncirculated coins that have not been slabbed.
2006 burnished uncirculated, and onward
In this year, the optimists among the coin collector fraternity thought that here was a new, beautiful way to collect these big, silver coins. The pessimists on the other hand thought that this was simply one more way for the Mint to sell one more version of the same coins. Wherever you fall in regards to these two opinions, in 2006 a new version of the silver Eagle was unveiled – and has been with us almost each and every year since. The burnished uncirculated specimens do cost more – reinforcing the pessimists and their view. But they also do look very good – reinforcing the optimists and their view. If you think they are too expensive to add side by side with any other Eagles, a compromise might be to purchase just one, to stand out in your growing collection.
2006, 2011 reverse proofs, and onward
As if all these collecting options for the silver Eagles were not enough, in 2006 – the 20th year of the program – the Mint unveiled what gets called the reverse proof. While there is no strict definition of what the surfaces of a proof coin must look like (several countries simply make them shiny, mirror-like, or lustrous throughout), in the US proof coins tend to have frosted devices and a mirror shiny field. In 2006, the situation was flipped, and presto! A new type of proof was born.
Much like the burnished uncirculated pieces, these reverse proofs are a bit more costly. They are also collector coins, pure and simple, since none of these are actually made to trade on the metals market. Are they beautiful, or just odd? Well, the answer to that depends on your point of view.
The United States $1 silver Eagles seem to be a coin that has carved out a spot in the metals market, and in the hearts of some collectors. If you’ve never considered collecting them, well, take another look. There’s a lot of fun to be had in these big, silver coins – and the fun can be very affordable.
Editor’s Note: For more information you may want to check out:
Mercanti, John M. American Silver Eagles: A Guide to the U.S. Bullion Coin Program. Whitman Publishing, 2012.