Introduced simultaneously in 1986, the American Silver Eagle and American Gold Eagle -were both intended to create an American bullion coin that would compete with similar coins from other world mints. However, they soon became much more than that.
Introduced simultaneously in 1986, the American Silver Eagle and American Gold Eagle – the two most important coin programs of the modern U.S. Mint – were both intended to create an American bullion coin that would compete with similar coins from other world mints. However, they soon became much more than that.
In 2012, numismatist and coin dealer Jay Rudo said that "The classic example of bullion coins becoming numismatic is the American Silver Eagles program started by the U.S. mint in 1986," adding that the Mint never even intended the mint state coins to be anything other than bullion pieces.
The bullion versions of both coins remain some of the most widely traded coins in the U.S. market and are a recognizable staple in the global coin market.
Today there are over 600 million Silver Eagles – which is more than all the Morgan silver dollars before the massive melting of those coins under the 1918 Pitman Act – and tens of millions of Gold Eagles.
The Silver Eagle was created under the Liberty Coin Act of 1985, implemented by the Reagan administration to dispose of excess silver reserves the U.S. had built up through the National Defense Stockpile. Sales of those coins were very robust from the beginning. That silver was eventually depleted, so the legislation was amended in 2002 to allow the Mint to procure the silver from U.S.-based mines.
The American Gold Eagle -- authorized under the Gold Bullion Coin Act of 1985 -- grew from an original proposal from Rep. Ron Paul. The law stipulated that the gold used to make those coins should come from U.S. mines unless that was not possible, in which case it would be purchased on the open market.
Treasury Secretary James Baker selected Adolph Weinman's design from the obverse of the Walking Liberty half dollar for the obverse of the Silver Eagle and Augustus Saint-Gaudens' design from the obverse of his $20 gold Double Eagle for the obverse of the Gold Eagle.
As for the reverses, John Mercanti of the engraving and designing staff of the U.S. Mint was selected to prepare a design with an eagle for the reverse of the Silver Eagle. Having reviewed prior eagles that appeared on U.S. coins since 1792, he decided he wanted to create something more formal and heraldic instead of more eagles that were flying, sitting, etc., since those had been done many times before.
The law that created the Gold Eagle was written in a way that essentially described the design that was desired for the reverse, which depicted a family of eagles that had been created previously by Miley Busiek (who now goes by Miley Tucker Frost). The Gold Eagle reverse design was inspired by Ronald Reagan's acceptance speech when he became the GOP presidential nominee in 1980 that encouraged Americans to help each other. Busiek created the family of eagles design to convey the idea that America is a caring family. Her design was selected for the new gold coins that began in 1986. Although it initially was only chosen for the $50, 1 oz. coin, it was later also selected for the three fractional gold coins.
New reverse designs for both coins will begin appearing soon with an image of a flying eagle about to land on the Silver Eagle and a close-up of the head of an eagle on the Gold Eagle.
The Silver Eagles proved immensely popular from the beginning because they were a coin that was accessible to almost any collector. With silver around $5 an ounce in 1986, the bullion coins were initially about $10 each, and the Proofs were $21.
Silver stayed in the $5 range for the next decade, reaching as low as $4 an ounce in the early 1990s. Sometimes the Proofs were available for less in the secondary market than the $23 Mint price at the time.
The increasingly active trade in Silver Eagle bullion and Proof coins was a massive boost to the ranks of Silver Eagle collectors and the hobby as a whole. Many people who initially wanted a way to purchase silver that was legal tender and backed by the government turned to Silver Eagle bullion coins and later to Proofs in some cases. And many of those people would later get interested in other U.S. coins because of that experience.
By the early 2000s, it was estimated that there were two million active, serious coin collectors and even more casual collectors who saved the 50 State quarters – and that had a lot to do with the success of the Silver Eagle program.
In 2008 with the nation in a significant economic crisis, demand for silver bullion exploded, and sales of Silver Eagles reached 20 million per year, 30 million the following year, and 40 million in 2011. As silver began declining in value in subsequent years, sales were softer until getting stronger again, thanks to the pandemic that started in 2020.
Meanwhile, the Gold Eagles also got off to a strong start with sales of almost 1.4 million of the $50 coins in 1986 and another 446,000 Proofs of the same size and solid sales of the fractional gold bullion coins. In 1988 fractional gold Proofs were offered for the first time and every year since then. Typically, the $50 and $5 coins sell the best.
By the middle of the 1990s, sales levels were a bit lower, but at the end of the decade, they spiked as the Y2K computer problem loomed, which led to much higher sales of Silver and Gold Eagles. After the new decade and millennium began, sales decreased again, likely because the gold spot had been reduced to about $300 an ounce.
Gold Eagles sales have ebbed and flowed since then and largely mirrored the trend in Silver Eagles sales. The pandemic has pushed demand up firmly for both coins and resulted in the Mint being unable to meet today's level of demand.
Another important factor that has helped support a growing market for American Eagles is that both coins (and the American Platinum Eagle that was introduced in 1997) can all be included in Precious Metal IRAs, including the Proof versions. Even though collector coins like proofs are generally not allowed in IRAs, the law creating the American Silver and Gold Eagle programs specifically enables proof eagles to be included.
The development of these two major coin programs has also been fueled by and helped shape the ongoing revolution in coin production from digital scanning to robots that help produce the coins and many other advancements.
These improvements in minting technology have led to an increase in the quality of the bullion and collector versions of these coins, with Mint State 70 and Proof 70 examples more common with recent issues than they were in the 1980s and 1990s.
In addition, the use of laser technology (such as laser frosting of specific design elements) has facilitated the introduction of special versions of the eagles with different finishes from Reverse Proof to Enhanced Uncirculated and Enhanced Reverse Proof – each of which has been included in special sets issued to mark anniversaries of the Mint or the eagle programs.
A final key factor that has shaped the eagle programs is the considerable increase in third-party grading, which began about the same time these coin programs did (1986 for PCGS and 1987 for NGC). The market for graded examples with a wide range of labels has continued to grow since then.
Today over 10 million Silver Eagles have been graded by NGC and over 4 million by PCGS. As for Gold Eagles, NGC gas graded about 1.5 million of them for all denominations, while PCGS has graded about 1.2 million. Those are big numbers in terms of how many coins of all types the two leading services have graded, but compared to the number of eagle coins struck, they are a small percentage. That means the number of graded eagles will continue to grow, not just in new releases but also with more grading of prior issues.
The future of both series looks bright, especially with the introduction of the new reverse designs likely to bring in more collectors than would be the case if the designs remained the same. And both coins will continue to shape the future of American numismatics as they have for 35 years.
John M. Mercanti, American Silver Eagles: A Guide to the U.S. Bullion Coin Program (Whitman, 2013)
Edmund C. Moy, American Gold and Platinum Eagles: A Guide to the U.S. Bullion Coin Programs (Whitman, 2014)
Louis Golino, “American Silver and Gold Eagles: A Collector’s Guide for Beginners,” www.coinweek.com, October 23, 2020
||Louis is an award-winning numismatic journalist and writer specializing on modern coins. He has been writing a weekly column for CoinWeek since May 2011 called “The Coin Analyst,” which focuses primarily on modern U.S. and world coins and developments at major world mints. In August 2015 he received the Numismatic Literary Guild’s award for Best Website Column for “The Coin Analyst.” He is also a contributor to several magazines, including Coin World, where he writes a bimonthly feature;The Numismatist, the American Numismatic Association’s monthly publication, where he writes a monthly column on modern world coins; and American Hard Assets. He began writing about coins in 2009. He is a founding member of the Modern Coin Forum hosted by ModernCoinMart and has written articles for MCM since 2014. He has collected classic and modern U.S. and world coins since he was about 10 and first joined the ANA in the 1970’s. He was previously a congressional relations specialist and policy analyst at the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress and a syndicated columnist and news analyst on international politics and national security for a wide variety of publications. He has been writing professionally since the early 1980s.|