How the American Silver Eagle Set the Standard for Bullion

Posted by M. Barr on 25th Mar 2022

How the American Silver Eagle Set the Standard for Bullion

We're back this month with the history of arguably the most influential silver bullion coin, the American Silver Eagle. It may not have been the first, but it set the standard for how other countries produce their bullion coinage.

Humans have been making coins out of silver since the times of the ancient Persians and Greeks, if not earlier. There’s good reason for that, silver is durable, easy to measure, easy to transport, and has always had a high trade value - though not as high as gold - making it safer and more pragmatic for more everyday use. We’ve always been drawn to silver, so it is no surprise that silver coinage is so highly sought after by both investors and collectors - and none more so than the American Silver Eagle. First released on November 24, 1986 - these bullion coins are 1 Oz. 99.9% fine silver and come in a variety of different finishes. While technically legal tender, their face value is only one dollar - far less than their silver value alone.

As a bullion coin, American Silver Eagles are meant for investing - however they seem to have taken on a life of their own, becoming some of the most highly sought after collector’s items for both seasoned numismatists and hobbyists alike. While they were preceded by the Mexican Silver Libertads (introduced in 1982) and China’s Silver Pandas (introduced in 1983) - our American version has proven to be unique, and in many ways have set the standard for the way other countries’ approach their bullion coinage. So what are they, a collectible or a bullion? Can they be both?
1986 American Silver Eagle

The National Defense Stockpile was created after WWII to, as the name suggests, stockpile materials for national emergencies and/or war. By the 1970s though, money was needed for growing defense programs and legislators looked to the surplus silver stockpile for funding. There was a great deal of push back from U.S. mining companies & silver producing states, who saw this as potentially devastating to the industry. However by the early 1980s, official requests were being made by the Reagan administration to tap into this stockpile to help balance the federal budget. After much opposition and a few amendments, the Liberty Coin Act was signed, authorizing the US mint to use the purchased stockpile silver to mint bullion coins with guaranteed weight, size, fineness, and finish specifications.

Title II of the Liberty Coin Act

The first Silver Eagles were struck in San Francisco in October of 1986. When they went on sale in November of that year, they sold out almost immediately. The obverse features a revised version of the early 20th century walking liberty design by Adolph A. Weinman. The original reverse used from 1986 until 2021 was designed by Chief Engraver John Mercanti and is reminiscent of the United States Great Seal. In 2021, this design was replaced with a new one by illustrator Emily Damstra and features an eagle landing on a branch - similar to the one on the reverse of the 1971 Eisenhower Dollar.

While the design itself has not changed much, American Silver Eagles come in a variety of finishes and fineness. Bullion Eagles do not have special finishes or mint marks, and are not sold directly to the public but to a network of authorized dealers. Brilliant uncirculated (BU) coins also do not have mint marks, but do have a satin or matte finish. Both of these are intended for investing. Proof Eagles, however, are made for the collector - these feature a shiny, mirrored finish and frosted details, highlighting the fineness of the artwork and design.

Though American Silver Eagles are in some ways intended specifically for financiers and investors, the rarity and quality standards of these coins makes them popular collectibles. They are often given as holiday, birthday, anniversary and graduation presents. For many people, American Silver Eagles are an introduction to the world of coin collecting. The variety of finishes and year specific mint marks make it fun to try and compile “the whole set” - especially true when you consider the assortment of anniversary releases and third party grading companies’ special labels. It is for these reasons that American Silver Eagles are uniquely both bullion and collectibles, and appeal to all levels of coin enthusiasts.

ASE Type 1 1986 - 2021
ASE Type 2 2021 - Present