A Coin Collector’s Question: Is it Time to Flock to U.S. Silver Eagles?

Here is the coin that started it all: the 1986 U.S. Silver Eagle, a multifaceted silver-Bullion coin, good as a collectible or for IRA deposit.

In the early 1980s, a multitude of investors and collectors were keen on acquiring silver in coin or bar format for investment and speculation. The metals market was a huge business and millions of dollars were spent annually to purchase silver, especially foreign silver.

At the same time, the U.S. government—which had gone off the silver standard in 1964—was looking to liquidate and allow the sale of as much as 75 percent of the government’s stockpile silver reserve. In order to compete with the numerous foreign silver bullion coins and secure a piece of the sizable bullion business income domestically, the U.S. government decided to take steps to produce a viable option, which would actually allow a good portion of our silver stockpile to trade on our native shores. It was thought that a legal tender silver coin backed by the U.S. government would be able to compete rather nicely. The production of the “Silver Eagle,” a new legal tender, non-circulating, one ounce silver coin was authorized by Congress in 1985.

The American Silver Eagle bullion coins were first officially released by the U.S. Mint on Nov. 24, 1986, under the Liberty Coin Act, which was passed several years before. Initial inventories sold out immediately due to the frenzied demand. Each Silver Eagle is .999 fine silver, weighs one troy ounce and has a $1 face value.

Silver Eagle bullion coins were not directly available to the public via the United States Mint. It was thought that a network of “authorized purchasers,” consisting of banks, brokerage companies, coin dealers and precious metals firms would streamline the process. These purchasers, which need to meet numerous stringent requirements, bought in volume would enabled a more uniform distribution that maximized the availability of the coins in retail markets, as well as major investment markets. Distribution to the public was fast and collectors and investors were enamored with the new coin.

Often considered by many numismatic aficionados as one of the most beautiful coins ever minted, the Silver Eagle’s obverse design is based on A.A. Weinman’s allegorical “Walking Liberty,” which was first introduced to the public on the 1916-1947 half-dollar. The reverse presents a proud heraldic eagle and shield designed by sculptor John Mercanti.

It’s not surprising that the inaugural 1986 issue was very popular with both collectors and investors. Nearly 5.4 million business strikes were minted with the investor or metals speculator in mind. Another 1.4 million were produced specifically for collectors in the Proof format. Demand was so intense for the inaugural issue that in 1987, twice the number of business strikes were minted to satisfy the growing demand. Amazingly to some dealers at the time, the Silver Eagle emerged as an actual “collectible,” bringing substantial premiums on the secondary market. In subsequent years, numismatic demand has been intense, as collectors await the arrival of each new installment. Seemingly every year, new enthusiasts emerge eager to assemble a complete date set of every business strike and proof.

This breathtaking PCGS PR 70 Deep Cameo 1995-W U.S. Silver Eagle sets the bar capturing an astounding $86,655 at Great Collections auction March 31, 2013.

PCGS has graded just 17 coins as Proof 70 Deep Cameo, while 1,722 appear in the population report as Proof 69 Deep Cameo. That one grading point is worth tens of thousands of dollars.

Secondary market demand for the Silver Eagle has been so intense that the major grading services PCGS and NGC both started to grade and encapsulate coins. Each year, when the new Silver Eagle was released, those delivered within the first month or two were eligible to be designated as either “first strike” or “early release,” indicating that those encapsulated coins were amongst the first issued and as such are highly prized by collectors and often bring substantial premiums over their bullion content.

It is worth mentioning that, although not a regular circulating issue, it is still legal tender and backed by the government for the sum of one dollar. So, in the unlikely event that silver could one day be conjured up out of thin air, owners of the Silver Eagle would still be able to redeem them at face value. Some have apparently taken advantage of that; I’ve seen several end up in local credit union tellers’ cash drawers—perhaps an unknowing youth mistakenly took the Silver Eagle for a regular dollar coin and did some shopping. Nowadays, that would be quite a hit for the owner, with silver trading in the $20-an-ounce range. So keep on the lookout.

A sealed “green monster box” of 500 Silver Eagle coins direct from the West Point mint.

With that said, demand for the U.S. Silver Eagle as an investment medium continues to flourish. Certainly, silver prices having escalated in the last several years have championed their position. Further bolstering their demand is that, because of their purity (.999) and legal tender status, Silver Eagles, both proof and business strikes are allowed for deposit into IRA accounts. For investors, Silver Eagles are usually purchased in quantity and are delivered in a green plastic box referred to as the “monster box” containing 25 plastic tubes each holding 20 coins, a total of 500 coins.

Although most business strike Silver Eagles are presently available for a modest premium over the current market or spot price of silver, there are exceptions; most proof or collector version Silver Eagles currently trade in the $55-plus neighborhood.

However, those coins graded and encapsulated by either PCGS or NGC and assessed either MS (Mint State) 70 or PR (Proof) 70 grade have sold for phenomenal prices as collectors vying to complete registry sets of the finest known examples raise the ante. A registry set you ask? This is a forum adopted by the major grading services (PCGS & NGC) in order to rank and showcase a specific type or series of coins. Those completing a set, in this case the Silver Eagle, receive points for completion as well as on the average numeric grade within that series.

This perfect NGC MS 70 1991 U.S. Silver Eagle captured $34,500 at a Heritage Auctions Signature auction in the fall of 2009.

Only 165 examples have been graded as MS 70 according to the NGC census, while 79,815 report in as MS 69, which could be purchased for about $50.

This is why there can be such rabid competition for certain high-grade coins which may only exist certified by either PCGS or NGC by a handful or less.

There are several prime examples throughout the Silver Eagle series. One such key is the 1995-W Proof Silver Eagle; only 30,125 were minted and are currently valued around $3,000 or more for a nice original coin in mint packaging. For one which is just on the cusp of grading scale perfection, a Proof 69 Deep Cameo—designated as such by either PCGS or NGC—will fetch in the $3,500-plus category. Interestingly, as Proof 69 examples go, there are little more than 5,000 graded and designated as such by NGC & PCGS combined. However, at the Proof 70 Deep Cameo designation, the combined population is only several hundred and the price and quest for a “perfect” coin often finds collectors paying $15,000 to $20,000 for a specimen.

This 1999 U.S. Silver Eagle graded NGC MS 70 sold for $27,600 at the Heritage Long Beach signature sale Sept. 13, 2009.

Only 90 coins appear as NGC MS 70, yet 73,849 coins grade NGC MS 69, according to the NGC census. Amazingly, uncertified, uncirculated example is worth under $30!

It is important to note that with the Silver Eagles, an occasional spotting or light film—which is referred to as “milk spots”—will develop and appear on a coin after they have been encapsulated. This malady and mild surface degradation often plagues both mint state business strike or proof examples. So, even though a coin may be designated a Proof 69 or, indeed, a “perfect” Proof 70, post-encapsulation spotting or other mild deterioration has to be taken into consideration by the perspective collector or dealer before purchasing. The decision must be made: is it indeed a quality mint state or proof 69 or MS 70 coin? For many, trying to determine the difference between a MS 69 or a Proof 69 versus a MS 70 or Proof 70 is only a gnat’s eye’s variation. Yet that infinitesimal distinction can be worth tens of thousands of dollars. With this factoid of grading in mind, quite amazingly, Great Collections auction house in Irvine California offered a “perfect” PCGS PR 70 Deep Cameo 1995W Silver Eagle to their patrons March 31 of this year. After some 104 aggressive bids, the final selling price: $86,655—a record for any U.S. Silver Eagle to date.

A 1991 Silver Eagle graded by NGC as MS 70 realized $34,500 in September 2009 at a Heritage Auctions Signature auction. A 1999 Silver Eagle, also graded by NGC as MS 70, captured $27,600 at the same Heritage sale. Yet for the average collector or accumulator, either the 1991 or the 1999 can be purchased for around $50 in a graded MS 69 holder! What a difference a grading point can make! Many more superb examples have also brought well over five figures; ostensibly for inclusion and bragging rights in those top tier registry sets.

The three-piece 20th Anniversary Silver Eagle Set was limited to 250,000 sets. It was issued for $100 in 2006. The market value today is $375.

Anniversary sets are also popular staples in the Silver Eagle series. The three-piece 2006 20th Anniversary set, which included a Reverse Proof format coin (the devices were mirrored and the fields were frosted), as well as a regular proof striking and business strike, saw a Mint-authorized 250,000 sets produced. The sets were limited to 10 sets per household at $100 per set. The entire run of 20th Anniversary Silver Eagle sets sold out in two weeks. Shortly after the sets hit the secondary market, prices began to rise as collectors realized the importance of the unique reverse proof. Currently, the three-piece version goes for around $375 in original mint packaging. 

In 2011, there was quite a flurry in collector and dealer circles as the mint announced The 25th Anniversary Silver Eagle Set. This time, it was a five-piece offering which also included a Reverse proof but, also the first time, the San Francisco Mint’s “S” mint mark was featured on a business strike coin. The other coins included were a 2011-W Proof Silver Eagle, 2011-W (with ‘W’ Mintmark), 2011-S and a 2011 UNC American Silver Eagle (with No Mintmark). The keys to the set were that “The Reverse Proof” and the S-Mint Uncirculated were only found in this set.

The 2011 25th Anniversary Silver Eagle Set was limited to 100,000 units. The entire production was sold out on the Mint’s website within four and a half hours in October 2011 at the issue price of $299.95 per set. The current market value is $670 per set.

Similar to the Black Friday sales the day after Thanksgiving or that just-gotta-have special toy for Christmas, mainstream collectors—as well as dealers from throughout the country—were all vying for the 25th Anniversary Silver Eagle sets, which were being offered for sale on the U.S. Mint’s website Thursday, Oct. 27, beginning at noon at $299.95 per set. Limited to 100,000 sets (or units, as the Mint preferred to call it) a five-sets-per-household limit was imposed. All five coins were individually encapsulated and came housed in a highly polished lacquered hardwood presentation case with certificate of authenticity. Remarkably, the entire production was sold out in a little over four and half hours. 

As is the case with any highly touted U.S. coin collectible, market makers and speculators were already listing options for the sale of these sets (which they obviously had not owned yet) on various venues such as eBay and other public forums. The various dealer electronic networks were also flush with dealers offering immediate profits and, in some cases, seed money when purchasing sealed lots of five, asking only that the Mint-sealed carton be shipped directly to the dealer upon receipt. I remember this very well as I was online as the public ordering went into effect at noontime. I was able to purchase my five sets and took delivery on Nov 10. I had told my friends and family about this event well in advance and several took advantage of it. Dealers just couldn’t keep up with demand for the sets from their clients and were buying sealed individual sets or cases of five for $850 or more per sealed set. While the heated demand has subsided somewhat, a 25th anniversary five-piece set in original packaging still commands around $700 today.

The 2012 American Eagle San Francisco two-coin Silver Proof Set, of which 224,081 sets were produced.

Subsequently, in both 2012 and 2013, 75th Anniversary Sets were made available to the public. The 2012 set was a two-piece version featuring the regular Proof and the popular “reverse Proof” format of the San Francisco Silver Eagles, commemorating the 75th anniversary of the current San Francisco mints opening for operation. A total of 224,981 were produced at the $149.95 issue price per set. Presently, the market is at a status quo, with sets appearing for around $165. 

The 2013 version is also a two-piece Silver Eagle set which commemorate the 75th anniversary of the West Point depository and mint facility. This version, however, delivers a decidedly different Silver Eagle set bearing the “W” mint mark that includes the first ever Enhanced Finish Silver Eagle and one “Reverse” Proof Silver Eagle. Offered to the public at $139.95, a total of 281,310 sets were ordered as of June 7, 2013, the last day that orders were accepted at the U.S. mint’s website. The enhanced finish silver eagle features three finishes: light frosted, mirrored brilliant and heavy frosted. On the obverse, the lines on Lady Liberty’s dress, the red and blue parts of the American Flag, and the mountains in front of the sun have a brilliant mirrored finish while the rest of the obverses devices have the heavy frosted finish. On the reverse, oak branch, arrows and ribbon all have a brilliant mirrored finish, while the remaining devices have the heavy frosted finish. The fields (background) on both sides feature the new light frosted finish.

The 2013 American Eagle West Point two-coin Silver Set. A total of 281,210 sets were purchased by collectors by the June 7 ordering deadline imposed by the U.S. mint.

Here are both coins removed from the mint packaging and graded by PCGS as Proof 70 and MS 70 “enhanced mint state” with the first strike designation.

Whether a modest investment, a date collection, mint state or Proof, a top registry set or just a single coin, the American Silver Eagle should be welcome to nest in anyone’s home and metals portfolio.

Until next time, happy collecting!

Jim Bisognani has written extensively on U.S. coin market trends and values and was the market analyst and writer for a major pricing guide for many years. He currently resides in New England and frequently attends major coin shows and auctions.

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