In 1986, one of the most popular new bullion coin programs in the world was launched by the United States Treasury.
The American Eagle program, which fell under the Bullion Coin Act of 1985, would join other world mints, such as Canada and South Africa, as fine bullion coins that would be recognized by international investors.
1986 American Silver Eagles
1986 American silver eagles, or ASEs, are coins that contain 1 ounce of .9999 fine silver. This is the only silver coin in the American Eagle series. The other coins in the series are all gold coins that have respective weights of 1/10 ounce, 1/4 ounce, 1/2 ounce, and 1 ounce.
Although the American Eagle series started out primarily as a bullion investor’s coin, the program started catching on with numismatists, too. Many of these coin collectors have now decided to collect each edition of the coin on an annual basis, so their collections are often full of silver dollars.
Part of the reason the ASE is so popular is that it features the famous Walking Liberty design that was first seen on half dollar coins in 1916. The ASE has on its obverse the Walking Liberty design by Adolph A. Weinman, the design that was first used on United States half dollars that were struck from 1916 through 1947.
The obverse side of the coin features a design by John Mercanti of a modern, stylized heraldic eagle. For most of the history of the American silver eagle program, both uncirculated and proof versions have been struck.
In 1986, there were 5,393,005 uncirculated American silver eagles produced at the Philadelphia mint and 1,446,778 produced at the San Francisco mint. The first American silver eagles that were available were released to the public on November 24, 1986.
Types of American Silver Eagles
The first decade of production featured fairly standard coins, with conventional bullion quality coins and proof coins struck each year. By 1995, the West Point Mint struck a limited number of proof coins that were intended for inclusion in the 10th-anniversary gold eagle set.
The 1995-W silver eagle was included as a free bonus coin with the anniversary set, and there were only 30,125 of them made. As a result, these coins quickly became quite popular with coin collectors, and they are regarded to this day as the rare regular-issue key date for the entire series.
Since the turn of the century, ASEs have been struck in several other numismatic varieties, such as reverse proof and burnished finish. Originally the coins were made at the Philadelphia Mint and some early proofs came from San Francisco.
But the minting assignments have changed over the years, with Philadelphia striking proofs for a short period in the 1990s and the West Point Mint taking over ASE production by 2000.
The bullion ASEs represent the base-level coins struck for investors. Like all American Eagle bullion coinage, they boast high-quality surfaces. However, they have been struck in very large numbers and they are distributed by the United States Mint through a network of authorized dealers.
This means there is less regard for finish preservation than might be desired. These types of coins can be bought for small premiums over their spot price. However, older ASEs can be worth significantly more, as they are scarcer than the more recent issues.
Some of the most valuable of the bullion-quality strikes are the 1986, 1994, and 1995 versions. The 1996 version is the key date for all regular-issue bullion strikes.
Proof American Silver Eagles
American Eagle Silver Proof Coins are collector versions of the official United States bullion coins. They are only available in the one-ounce size. The first proof American Silver Eagles were released in 1986 at the start of the series and they have been struck in all years except 2009 when a planchet shortage affected production of all non-bullion silver eagle coinage.
Regular proofs are quite common, but some of the earlier pieces can be rare in grades of PR69 or above. American Eagle Silver Proof Coins are minted at the U.S. Mint at West Point and show the “W” mint mark. The obverse of these coins is based on Adolph A. Weinman’s 1916 Walking Liberty half dollar.
In 2021, the U.S. Mint celebrated the 35th anniversary of the American Eagle Coin Program with a new design. This new design now includes some of Weinman’s original details that were not visible before. For example, the reverse now shows an eagle coming in for a landing, carrying an oak branch to add it to a nest.
To give all of these new coins an added level of security, they have also been updated with several new and enhanced security features, including a reeded edge variation that you can now find on each of the coins.
Reverse Proof American Silver Eagles
The first reverse proof variety of the American Silver Eagle was the Philadelphia-mint strike in 2006, which was produced in small numbers. This proof variety proved to be a great success with coin collectors, and now the 2006-P reverse proof is still quite scarce due to the sustained level of demand.
Several other reverse proof varieties were also made in 2011, 2012, and 2013, and these pieces have also become very popular with collectors. The 2011-P reverse proof had a low mintage of just under 100,000, which is the lowest mintage among all of the four issues.
This makes it the most valuable of all the reverse proof issues. A standard reverse proof coin features an inverted proof finish. The background is frosted, and the design elements are polished to a mirror-like finish. An enhanced reverse proof coin has the same frosted background as a reverse proof coin, but multiple polished and frosted finishes are applied to different isolated design elements.
This dramatically enhances the visual impact of the design. The obverse features Adolph A. Weinman’s full-length figure of Liberty in full stride, enveloped in folds of the flag, with her right hand extended and branches of oak and laurel in her left.
The reverse features a heraldic eagle with a shield, as well as an olive branch in the right talon and arrows in the left. Every coin in this series has the “S” mint mark, which reflects the fact that it was struck at the San Francisco Mint.
The coins are nicely presented and packaged in a blue velvet, satin-lined presentation case, within an outer blue box and accompanied by a numbered Certificate of Authenticity.
Burnished Silver Eagles
The first burnished silver eagle was made by the West Point Mint in the same year as the reverse proof, in 2006. The coins bear a finish similar to the bullion-quality releases but they also have a matte sheen and are therefore highly prized by coin collectors as distinct numismatic pieces.
Burnished ASEs have been released in most of the years since 2006, with the exceptions of the years 2009 and 2010, when there was rising inflation and a huge demand for the bullion-quality silver eagles, which led to a shortage in the amount of metal that could be used to produce the coins.
In 2013, the first enhanced finish American Silver Eagle was released, with a uniquely frosted, specimen-quality finish. In 2019, the United States Mint released its second enhanced finish silver eagle with the Pride of Two Nations 2-Coin Set: the 2019-W enhanced finish American Silver Eagle with a 2019 silver Canadian Maple Leaf coin.
The ASE series offers a few other varieties that are quite interesting. One of the most popular and valuable varieties is the 2008-W Burnished Reverse coin of 2007. An estimated 47,000 of these coins were struck and they are now worth huge premiums over regular-issue 2008-W Burnished Finish ASEs.
When the relatively few known error coins do hit the market, they are usually garden-variety off-center strikes and blank planchets. The level of quality control at the United States Mints has become quite high across all of its bullion coin programs, including that of the American Silver Eagle.
Collecting American Silver Eagles
It has become really clear that the American Silver Eagle program is among the most popular of all bullion coin programs in the world. It is one of the most popular but certainly not the oldest of the modern world bullion series.
The gold South African Krugerrand gold coins were released way back in 1967, the Canadian Maple Leaf debuted in 1979, Mexican Libertads were launched for the first year in 1981, and the Chinese Panda program started in 1982.
But American Silver Eagles, as well as American Gold Eagles (and even the platinum and palladium releases), are widely traded both in the United States and abroad. They are trusted by investors and coin collectors all over the world. They are among the most frequently found coins in the world of precious metals and numismatics.
A Comparison of Gold and Silver Eagles
While numismatic strikes are usually intended to be for coin collectors, plenty of investors also buy them to add some kind of variety to their stash of coins. The bullion-quality ASEs also have a kind of crossover appeal with coin collectors, who sometimes amass date sets from 1986 to the present day.
Many coin collectors pursue all types of ASEs, and the silver eagle registry set collecting objectives set forth by the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS) and Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC) often influence richer collectors to buy super-grade examples to build the highest-quality coin collection that they can.
Other Silver Dollars
Proof Eisenhower dollars, which are often uncirculated, can be interesting but they are not always very valuable. These are the Ike dollars with mirrored surfaces that were sold to coin collectors. Coins like these are mostly only worth a small premium, a little higher than their face value. But a set of Eisenhower Dollars can be easily built by many coin collectors, even for a small amount of money.
Some other dollar coins include the Morgan Silver Dollar (1878-1921), which was in circulation longer than any of the other silver dollar coins. The goal for coin collectors is always to find a group of coins that have been well-preserved.
With many Morgan Silver Dollars being more than 100 years old, they are not very common. While all of the Ike dollars originally intended for general circulation were struck with copper and nickel, a few S-mintmark coins (produced at the San Francisco mint) were also struck by the U.S. Mint for coin collectors in 40% silver (which means that they contained a third of an ounce of pure silver).
However, not all of these were silver, because the 1977-S and 1978-S Eisenhower dollars were both produced with copper and nickel. The actual silver coins can be identified by their lighter color.
Coins in Public Circulation
Keep in mind that all dollar coins produced for public circulation were originally produced on a copper-nickel planchet, the same device used for U.S. quarters, dimes and half dollars. A few special Eisenhower dollars were composed of a 40% silver alloy, and these were sold to coin collectors by the United States Mint for a small premium above the coin price.
In 1972, the United States Mint produced copper-nickel coins for circulation at Denver and Philadelphia. Denver mint coins can be identified by the small 'D' mintmark that is directly above the date on the coin.
These types of coins are common, and most of them are worth only one or two dollars in any condition. The price depends on a few external factors, like the rarity of the coin.
A Few Other Important Factors
Some coins are not as widely collected, so the coin values of those types will generally be a bit lower. This is especially true when expressed in USD currency. And even though the mintage numbers can often be important, they don’t tell the full story either.
So many types of coinage that were once minted simply do not even survive in circulation in the regular coinage of the United States of America, for many reasons. For example, coins that are damaged are sometimes only worth their face value to most of the reputable coin dealers, even if they are very old.
Also, the coin’s overall condition can be quite important in terms of its value. Well-preserved American Silver Eagle coins can have higher values in the numismatic world of coin collecting than similar coins with high levels of wear and tear or other general damage.
Finally, some mint years will always be more valuable than others, and the minting location may be a vital factor for you to consider when you are building your coin collection. This is especially true for all of the silver dollar varieties that we have described above.