U.S. Mint's American Eagle bullion coins: Precious metals basics

The program that began in 1986 has produced gold, silver and platinum bullion coins over the years
By , Coin World
Published : 05/20/15
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The United States gold and silver bullion coin program began with the release of the American Eagle gold bullion coins on Oct. 20, 1986.

The American Eagle gold coins are produced in sizes and denominations of 1-ounce, $50; half-ounce, $25; quarter-ounce, $10; and tenth-ounce, $5.

The gold bullion coins are composed of .917 fine gold. The 1-ounce pieces are produced with guaranteed weight planch­ets, each containing a full ounce of gold. The fractional pieces are produced with average weight planchets.

Designs on the gold bullion coins include a modified Saint-Gaudens Striding Liberty design on the obverse and the Family of Eagles design by Dallas sculptor Miley Busiek (now Miley Frost) on the reverse.

In addition to the Uncirculated gold bullion coins, a Proof 1-ounce version was issued starting in 1986. Proof versions of fractional American Eagle gold coins (half-ounce, quarter-ounce, tenth-ounce) were offered in subsequent years.

MORE: CoinWorld.com's precious metals basics

The American Eagle 1-ounce silver bullion coin, with a $1 face value, was issued during first-strike ceremonies Oct. 29, 1986. The silver coins contain 1 troy ounce of .999 fine silver. The design has Adolph A. Weinman’s Walking Liberty design on the obverse and the Heraldic Eagle design of John Mercanti on the reverse. A Proof version was also offered starting in 1986. 

Originally, the American Eagle silver bullion coins were minted exclusively from silver held by the Strategic and Critical Materials Stockpile formerly maintained by the Defense Logistics Agency under the direction of the Defense National Stockpile Center (termed the “National Strategic Stockpile,” for short). By the early 2000s, though, this supply of silver was running short. Congress enacted legislation in 2002 allowing the Secretary of the Treasury to purchase silver on the open market.

Authorizing legislation for the American Eagle gold coins specified that its gold must come from newly mined U.S. gold, unless it is not available. The Treasury Department used gold reserves for the program start-up and purchases gold on the open market when available in the United States and from countries that are signatories to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

Congress authorized a third American Eagle bullion coin program a decade after the silver and gold coins were introduced. On Sept. 30, 1996, President Clinton signed into the law the authorization for the U.S. Mint to begin striking platinum coins. The first American Eagle platinum coins were struck in 1997. At that time, countries including China, Russia, Australia, Isle of Man and Canada, among others, had already been striking platinum coins for many years.

The U.S. platinum coins went on sale June 6, 1997, in denominations of $10, $25, $50 and $100—the latter being the highest denomination coin ever struck by the U.S. Mint. All of the platinum coins to date have been struck at the U.S. Mint at West Point; Proof versions therefore bear the W Mint mark. Platinum coins, because of the hardness of the metal, must be struck several times in order for their designs to strike up properly.

All American Eagle silver, gold and platinum coins are sold by the U.S. Mint to a select number of authorized purchasers, who buy the bullion pieces from the Mint at the cost of the metal in each coin plus a premium, and then sell the coins to dealers and collectors at an additional premium. The Mint sells the collector versions of the coins directly to the public.

The Mint added a new type of collector American Eagle silver, gold and platinum coin to the mix when it struck Uncirculated versions bearing the W Mint mark in 2006 and sold the coins at premiums above their bullion value. The Mint termed these as “Uncirculated” coins and at the same time stopped using the word “Uncirculated” in reference to its bullion coins, which had previously always been marketed as “Uncirculated” (the bullion versions simply became “American Eagle bullion coins”).

Hobbyists frequently termed these new collector Uncirculated American Eagle coins as “Burnished Uncirculated” due to their method of manufacture and to differentiate them from the previously struck Uncirculated bullion coins. Burnished Uncirculated strikes were produced from 2006 to 2008.

The American Eagle bullion coin program underwent a number of changes in 2009, most of them unwelcomed by collectors. High demand for precious metals, deriving from fears over an economic downturn in the United States and elsewhere, led to record sales for the American Eagle silver bullion coin and recent highs for the gold coin.

Since the American Eagle silver and gold programs’ debut in 1986, the Mint had been required to meet the demand for the bullion versions of the coin. No such requirement existed for the collector versions.

In order to meet demand for the American Eagle gold and silver coins, the United States Mint focused its attention on the 1-ounce versions and diverted all planchets to the bullion program. This latter decision led the Mint to suspend Proof strikes in 2009 in favor of bullion-only strikes. The Mint also suspended the collector Uncirculated program. Late in 2009, the United States Mint did strike small numbers of the fractional gold bullion coins; they sold out quickly.

Many collectors of Proof American Eagle silver and gold coins were angered with the decision to suspend Proof production in 2009. Some vowed to stop collecting the Proof coins if and when the Mint resumed production. The Mint did resume when Proof strikes for the American Eagles silver and gold coins in 2010. When this book went to press, sales figures for the 2010 coins were incomplete, making it difficult to judge whether collectors had kept their vows against buying the Proof coins.

For American Eagle platinum coins, the situation in 2009 was reversed, with the Mint ceasing production of bullion and Uncirculated platinum pieces, but continuing with Proof platinum strikes. In fact, the Mint went further, discontinuing fractional platinum coins in both 2009 and 2010. As of early 2011, no American Eagle platinum bullion coins of any size had been sold since late 2008; Mint officials were noncommittal on whether the program would be resumed.

The above is an excerpt from the eighth edition of the  Coin World Almanac , published by Amos Media Company in 2011.

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