Silver American Eagle Rare Dates (Part II)

In Part I, we took a brief look at the history of the one dollar Silver American Eagle, from its origin in 1986, up until the present. We also raised the question whether or not any Silver American Eagle dates possess upward price mobility due to rarity and numismatic demand. Proof examples were considered in Part I. The discussion is extended here in Part II to uncirculated dates.

First of all, we need to explain that there are actually two types of uncirculated Silver American Eagles. The most common is a result of ordinary striking procedures, much like any coin produced for regular circulation. Millions of these have been struck every year since 1986. For lack of a better term, it is the standard Silver American Eagle, and does not bear a mint mark. The vast majority remain uncirculated after they leave the Mint since they do not serve in everyday commerce.

The second type of uncirculated Silver American Eagle was introduced in 2006, in connection with the 20th anniversary of the program. Instead of a highly automated, mass production system, specially burnished (i.e. polished) blanks are manually loaded in the coining press and struck. Each piece is handled with a great deal of care. Plush packaging is employed to protect and display individual coins. The Mint marketed “Burnished uncirculated” Silver American Eagles directly to the public. Production occurred from 2006 to 2008 and annually numbered in the hundreds of thousands, not millions. They all are from the West Point Mint and carry the “W” mint mark. Burnished uncirculated examples were once again struck beginning in 2011.

It is difficult in a photograph to capture the difference between the standard uncirculated American Silver Eagle (above) and the burnished uncirculated Eagle (below). The most obvious indicator is the burnished version bears a “W” mint mark on reverse, just to the left of the eagle’s right talon.

Now that we understand both types of uncirculated Silver American Eagles, we’re ready to analyze their viability as numismatic objects of interest. Looking at a typical coin price guide, there certainly does not appear to be much enthusiasm amongst collectors for standard Silver American Eagles, at least not in grades MS-69 or lower. They are priced only a little above the silver bullion value plus the grading service cost.

In MS-70 (perfect) condition, prices escalate sharply, and in a few cases, quite dramatically. Many of the MS-70 prices are in the $100-$300 range, while some are valued at above $1000. The 1996 and 1999 go as high as $5500! What has happened here is that some buyers (speculators?) have correctly observed that a few MS-70 dates (e.g. 1996 and 1999) are indeed relatively scarce, and have fought fiercely amongst themselves to obtain examples. A small supply with strong demand means higher prices, which is exactly what we have seen.

There are two big red flags to be concerned about. First, be wary of Silver American Eagles designated as MS-70. There are a too many grading services around who will slap an MS-70 label on just about anything, whether it deserves the designation or not. Knowledgeable buyers shy away from such offerings, or expect discount prices barely above melt value. Don’t get suckered in by overgraded Silver American Eagles. The grading services that command the greatest respect (and highest prices) by coin collectors are PCGS and NGC, followed by ICG and ANACS.

The PCGS label above was attached to a 2011 American Silver Eagle graded at MS-70. The PCGS label is a good sign the coin is properly graded. Other respected grading companies are NGC, ICG, and ANACS. Beware: These days, counterfeiters are faking grading company labels, so be sure to investigate the seller’s reputation.

Secondly, even properly graded MS-70 Silver American Eagles are somewhat of a gamble. For many years, the 1999 was priced at around $600. In 2010, the price spiked suddenly to $4000, and continued to climb, cresting at over $7000 for much of 2011, before experiencing a big drop in the 3rd quarter. All other MS-70 Silver American Eagles, including those in the lowest price ranges, experienced similar patterns.

Are these price movements influenced by collectors in search of numismatic rarities? Probably not. In general, bedrock hobbyists are simply not attracted to Silver American Eagles. The most logical explanation is that promoters and speculators, not rank and file collectors, are behind the rising and falling demand. Buyers in search of coins destined to consistently rise in value over time due to sound numismatic fundamentals are advised to stick to tried and true key dates scattered throughout United States coinage (e.g. a 1793 Chain Cent). Investing big dollars in MS-70 uncirculated Silver American Eagles is somewhat risky and loaded with downside potential.

Now let’s move onto the Burnished uncirculated Silver American Eagles. As of this writing, there are only five dates to analyze. Of those, only one of them merits further study: the 2008-W with reverse of 2007. Of all the uncirculated Silver American Eagles, this is the only one that may cause an avid collector’s heart to beat faster. This variety occurred when the Mint unintentionally struck a small number of 2008-W Eagles with a reverse die from 2007.

There are two minor distinctions between the 2007 and 2008 reverse designs, but they’re easy to differentiate. On the 2007 reverse, the U in UNITED has a plain, rounded bottom, and the dash between the words SILVER and ONE has short angled segments added to both sides. In 2008, the Mint modified the U by adding a serif at the bottom right of the U, and retooled the dash to more closely resemble a tilde (~).

These comparison photos depict how to distinguish between a 2007 reverse and that from 2008. The U in UNITED STATES is rounded in the 2007 and the dash between the words SILVER and ONE has angled ends. In 2008, a serif was added to the U at bottom right and the dash was modified to more closely resemble a tilde (~).

The variety was first publicized in April 2008. The Mint investigated and estimated 47,000 of the 2008-W Silver Eagles with 2007 reverses may have been struck and escaped to the public. In all, 444,558 of the 2008-W Burnished uncirculated Eagles were produced, so about 10% of the total was of the 2007 reverse variety. Rarity arising from this type of circumstance occurring at the Mint is more appealing to numismatists, as contrasted to a standard uncirculated Eagle date in MS-70 grade available in comparably low quantities.

Since its discovery, the 2008-W with 2007 reverse Silver American Eagle has traded for $300 to $1300, depending on grade. There have been some up and down price fluctuations, but there seems to be some sustainability and upward impetus, perhaps due more to collector interest and less on speculator activity or temporary popularity.

Bottom Line: At this time, the 2008-W with 2007 reverse is the only uncirculated Silver American Eagle with potential as a numismatically important key date. The same advice given above regarding grading companies certainly applies here too.

In Part I, we analyzed the feasibility of proof Silver American Eagles someday becoming collector favorites. Part II did the same for the uncirculated versions of this bullion coin. The overriding takeaway point is that with a couple of possible exceptions, the purchase of a Silver American Eagle should not be viewed as an investment in a collectible coin. Its primary purpose is limited to that of a .999 pure silver bullion piece.