BY MICHAEL “MILES” STANDISH, GUEST CONTRIBUTOR
Right now, the U.S. Mint is celebrating the thirtieth year of the American Eagle bullion coinage program. To do so, they are offering two special issue Silver Eagles. Instead of having their standard reeded edges, both the Proof and Uncirculated versions of the 2016 American Eagle one-ounce silver dollars sold to collectors have a lettered edge. Inscribed, fittingly and simply, are the words, “30th Anniversary.” Lest one think this is in any way self-congratulatory or puffery, consider this: the Silver Eagle, at 30 years of age, is the single most important coin being produced in the world today. That cannot be disputed.
In its first two months of issue in 1986, over five million one-ounce Silver Eagle coins were sold. It was a mind-numbing, dizzying pace. The Treasury Department knew there was demand for a silver bullion coin. Mexico had been selling over one million one-ounce Libertad coins since 1982, and reached a then record of two million units in 1985. The American Silver Eagle along with the companion American Gold Eagle program were designed as way for American investors to buy an American bullion products. It turned out that collector demand was just as extreme as investor demand. Over 1.4 million proof Silver Eagles were sold to collectors in the first year of issue.
Aspects of the programs were carefully mandated by Congress. There was interest in selling off silver from the Defense National Stockpile, which far surpassed strategic needs. Many feared releasing the metal would cause the price of silver to plummet. The Silver Eagle program was designed to be struck on demand. Rather than being purchased from the Mint, dealers and investor could buy coins only from a very small number of Authorized Purchasers who acquired the coins from the Mint for a predetermined premium to their metal value and then redistributed them. This was a unique distribution model that immediately created a sales infrastructure to support the bullion Silver Eagle marketplace.
From blockbuster beginnings, the Silver Eagle has never looked back. It is the darling of the silver bullion industry. Current demand frequently reaches one-million coins per week-week after week. It is a global demand and the highest production silver bullion coin in the world. Silver in the Defense National Stockpile was exhausted in 2002, and Congress modified legislation to allow explicitly for the purchase of silver to ensure the continuance of the program. Periodic sales stoppages and rationing of Silver Eagles are implemented when the Mint cannot secure enough planchets. Today, five percent of the total annual supply of silver worldwide goes towards the production of Silver Eagles.
Extreme demand and record-shattering production are proof of the Silver Eagle’s importance. This comes at a time when coinage more generally performs a declining role in daily commerce around the world. But this coin has played another part. It has been the standard bearer for innovation at the U.S. Mint, contributing to its role as an investor and collector staple. Even its composition of .999 fine silver was a novelty; the Silver is the first pure precious metal coin produced by the U.S. Mint.
The most visible innovations are seen in the numismatic, collector-oriented versions of the Silver Eagle. In 2006, to mark the twentieth anniversary of the series, a first-ever reverse proof Silver Eagle was sold as part of the three-coin set. It was a complete sellout. There was precedent for the reverse proof, which had a matte-like field and mirrored design elements, especially among NCLT issued by foreign mints, but the U.S. Mint had previously eschewed faddish or non-substantive design elements.
Reverse proofs have been re-issued on three additional occasions: in 2011 for the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Silver Eagle, in 2012 to honor the 75th anniversary of the current San Francisco Mint building, and in 2013 for the 75th Anniversary of the West Point Mint. Included with the 2013 reverse proof was a Silver Eagle in enhanced uncirculated format. Used for the first time ever on a U.S. coin, it showed various parts of the coin in frosted, mirrored or satin finish.
It seemed to collectors that special edition Silver Eagles might be an annual event, but no offerings were forthcoming in 2014 and 2015. There is nuance and discontinuity among the collector-issue Silver Eagles, especially among coins released during the last few years. There are varying finishes, coins issued at with Mints marks. There are low mintage keys, including the “King” of the series, the proof 1995-W. There is even a fantastic hub variety, the uncirculated 2008-W Reverse of 2007. No proof Silver Eagles were issued in 2009.
By contrast, the rigid framework of the bullion issued has led to an attractive continuity. While hub modifications and technical aspects of production have changed, for 30 years the Silver Eagle has been released every year with only the date in obverse exergue marking the year of issue. To reduce variation among the coins, while giving the Mint complete flexibility over their production venue, the bullion coins were issued without Mint marks entirely. But it should come as no surprise, a goodly number of collectors appreciate this uniformity. Bullion Silver Eagles and Silver Eagles more generally are now the most widely collected coin type in the world.
Evidence for this can be garnered from certification figures. Of the special limited issues of Silver Eagles, such as the Reverse Proofs, NGC has certified one-quarter to one-third of their total mintages. This demonstrates that these coins are being bought by condition sensitive collectors active in the numismatic marketplace. For bullion issues, the sale of the figures jumps ten-fold. NGC has certified as many as one-million bullion Silver Eagles from a single year of issue!
The Silver Eagles have moved the certification companies and coin marketplace in new directions. A generation of collectors has come of age during the life of the Silver Eagle. In a faster-paced world, it’s important to distinguish when coins were released, spawning special designations for coins released into the market on their first day and first month of issue. Signature programs that pair autographed labels from former Mint directors and coin designers inject a different type of enthusiasm into what would appear to be a placid series.
While the Mint has some discretion over the versions of Silver Eagles they offer directly to collectors, they can’t, on their own, modify the coin’s edge. Legislation requires that Silver Eagles have a reeded edge. To celebrate the 30th Anniversary of the Silver Eagle with a lettered edge notation literally required an act of Congress. While the bullion issues was left unchanged-as in all previous years! -Congress mandated that all proof and uncirculated Silver Eagles issued “during calendar year 2016 shall have a smooth edge incused with a designation that notes the 30th anniversary of the first issue of coins under such subsection.” It’s haughty language saying that the Silver Eagle’s birthday is one worth celebrating. In fact, it’s now the law of the land.
Miles Standish is a Vice President at NGC. He can be reached via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.