Coin History – The Silver American Eagle

One of the coins that many collectors look forward to each year is the Silver American Eagle. Available in bullion, Proof and Uncirculated condition – as well as some special one-off finishes – the Silver American Eagle is a relatively inexpensive way to add silver bullion to your portfolio or coin collecting. In fact, it can actually be used to fund your Individual Retirement Account (IRA).

But like many coins throughout the coinage history of the United States, the American Eagle we know and love today has a fraught beginning tied to the selling of silver out of the United States Defense National Stockpile and political intrigue all the way around. Indeed, if it had not been for one persistent Senator for Idaho who introduced no less than two bills and one amendment around this silver stockpile, the American Eagle may never have existed.

The United States Mint released the Silver American Eagle on November 24, 1986 as part of the Liberty Coin Act that had been approved on July 9, 1985. The Act called for the bullion coin to be struck only in one-ounce 99.9% pure silver with a face value of One Dollar. The bullion coins were originally struck in the San Francisco Mint facility but is now is also produced at the Philadelphia and West Point facilities.

The roots of the Silver American Eagle can be traced back to the 1970s and 1980s. The United States had over 131 million troy ounces of silver in the Defense National Stockpile and multiple administrations throughout those decades had long desired to sell off that silver. Simply put, it was felt that the production of silver in the United States and the amount of silver already stockpiled far exceeded the strategic needs of the country. While the desire to sell the silver was in the Executive branch of the government, in Congress it was met with opposition, particularly from states that produced much of the silver for the country. The Executive branch wanted to sell off the silver to help with the national debt, however, the silver-producing states wanted the proceeds to be used to buy other strategically important materials.

Throughout the 70s and 80s, there were some sell-offs of silver but they dramatically impacted the value of silver. Essentially, future commodity traders would be told of a planned sell off, they would get rid of futures contracts in speculation that the price would be depressed.

It was messy.

The biggest push on sales however happened in 1981. In June of that year, the House Armed Services Committee approved a request from the Ronald Reagan administration for a request to sell off the silver to in 1982 to help balance the federal budget. The House and Senate agreed to this, but only for the sell of 75% of the stockpile, roughly 105 million troy ounces, over a three year period. That approval happened in July 1981 and by the time sales started in September, silver prices fell over 10%. In December 1981, Senator James McClure, a Republican from Idaho, put forth legislation to stop the sale of the silver, indicating that it would have detrimental impact on the silver mining industry in the United States. As you can probably guess, Idaho is a big silver producing state in the United States. Senator McClure was watching out for his state but he would play a major role in the founding of the American Eagle.

Senator McClure introduced an amendment to a bill (H.R. 4995) that effectively end the silver sales by requiring that the President to redetermine that the silver sale was excess to the requirements of the stockpile. It was signed into law (Public Law 97-114) with the amendment, effectively killing all future sales of silver.

Although sales were stopped, it did not change the underlying fact that the United States was sitting on millions of unneeded troy ounces of silver that the administration maintained a strong desire to sell in some way. Knowing this and wanting to protect his Idahoan constituents, Senator McClure intruded a bill in the Senate in May 1982 that would provide a way for the silver to be sold “through the issuance of silver coins” so as to take the silver from the national stockpile but do so in a way that minimized the impact the price of silver, which was already depressed. The Bill, S.2598, along with its companion bill in the House of Representatives (H.R. 6649) were referred to committees. Both died in committee.

Not deterred, Senator McClure introduced S. 269 in January 1983. Its language was nearly identical to that of S. 2598 introduced seven months prior. That bill actually made it as far as the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Development and was part of a hearing by that committee on April 15, 1983. However, like its predecessor, the legislation was never enacted.

It took nearly two years later before Senator McClure was able to propose another silver coin act and this time, in 1985, the Idaho Senator went down the path of an amendment to an existing bill rather than introducing all-together new legislation. The existing legislation was H.R. 47, or the “Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Commemorative Coin Act”. This particular Act was receiving wide spread support and McClure saw a chance. He introduced S.AMDT.418 to the bill named “The Liberty Coin Act” which added a new section to the Bill. The amendment called out many of the things that we see in coin legislation today such as the diameter, weight, metal composition, legal tender, Numismatic considerations and so forth. Interestingly, it specifically called out that the silver for the coins would be purchased from the stockpile and that no coins could be sold prior to September 1, 1986.

At this point, things got going fast. McClure proposed his amendment and it was approved by voice vote the same day it was introduced, June 21, 1985. That added it to H.R. 47. The House then approved the Bill itself three days later on July 24, 1985 and it was signed into law on July 9, 1985 by President Ronald Reagan.

The stoppage of selling the excess silver in the national stockpile now had an end date, even if a design of the coin had not been fully thought through yet. It was a victory for Senator McClure who’s persistence had paid off but it was also a win for Idaho’s silver production and for Numismatics.

With the legislation authorizing the bullion coin now settled, design considerations had to be debated quickly. All indications in my research are that the Walking Liberty design by Adolph A Weinman was the forerunner early on in design discussions. The design, which was on the United States Half Dollar from 1916 to 1947, is one of the most universally loved designs both by the public and coin collectors. It was essentially left untouched from the original Weinman design for the Obverse of the Silver American Eagle, with the year of minting, the word LIBERTY arching around the upper edge of the Obverse, and the phrase IN GOD WE TRUST in the same location as the Half Dollar – just behind Liberty’s back leg as she walks.

2019 American Eagle Silver Enhanced Reverse Proof
2019 American Eagle Silver Enhanced Reverse Proof

The Reverse of the American Eagle was designed by John Mercanti, the twelfth Chief Engraver for the United States Mint. Mr. Mercanti’s design is one of a heraldic eagle behind a shield with the eagle grasping an olive branch in its right talon and arrows in its left. This draws strong similarities to the Great Seal of the United States. Above the eagle are thirteen five-pointed starts to represent the original Thirteen Colonies of the United States. Finally, the phrases United States of America, 1 Oz. Fine Silver ~ One Dollar and E Pluribus Unum are all inscribed on the Reverse as well as the mintmark, if applicable.

Silver American Eagle Reverse
Silver American Eagle Reverse (Courtesy of The United States Mint)

The design of the coin was finalized in late 1986 with the first coin struck on October 29, 1986. Then Secretary of the Treasury James Baker presided over the string ceremony, which was held at the San Francisco Assay Office. Production then went into full swing for sales of the bullion coin which started on November 24, 1986.

Throughout its history, it is important to remember that the Silver American Eagle was first and foremost a bullion coin. Its purpose was to get rid of the national stockpile with Numismatic considerations being secondary to that effort. By 2002 it became clear that the stockpile was going to be depleted and thus, if the bullion coin was to continue, new legislation would have to be introduced to authorize it. Sales of the bullion coin and the Proof coin to that point had been strong so there was little reason for lawmakers to not consider continuing the program. Legislation for that came in June of 2002 through Senate Bill 2594, introduced by Senator Harry Reid, a Democrat from Nevada. That bill, the “Support of American Eagle Silver Bullion Program Act”, authorized the Secretary of the Treasury to purchase silver on the open market when the silver stockpile was depleted. The bill passed and became law in July 23, 2002 when signed by President George Bush. It could be argued that, at this point, the coin flipped from being a primarily bullion product to a Numismatic product. The original intent of depleting the national stockpile had been completed. This was also at a time where the Mint itself was bringing more Numismatic focus to its product line so the changes seemingly went hand-in-hand, if not intended to do so.

However, bullion coins were and continue to be produced. Effectively, the United States Mint produces three varieties of the Silver American Eagle each year.

  • Bullion Coins: They have no mint mark. From 1986 to 1998 these were produced in San Francisco. Since 1999 they have been produced in Philadelphia and since 2000, West Point
  • Proof: From 1986 to 1992, Proof coins were produced in San Francisco and bore the “S” mintmark. From 1993 to 2000, they were produced in Philadelphia with the “P” mintmark and from 2001 to today, they are produced in West Point with the “W” mintmark. The only exception to this is in 2009 when no proof versions of the coin were produced.
  • Uncirculated: From 2006 to 2008 and then again starting in 2011, uncirculated coins were produced at West Point bearing the “W” mintmark. These coins have a burnished finish which along with the fact it bears a mintmark, separates it from the look of the bullion variety of the coin.

Throughout its history, there have been a handful of special issues of the Silver American Eagle. This started in 1993 with the “Philadelphia Set” and has continued up until last year’s Enhanced Reverse Proof silver Eagle. Here are just a few of the special issues over the course of the life the coin.

  • 1993 Philadelphia Set to commemorate the bicentennial of the first coins of the United States struck at the Philadelphia Mint.
  • 1995-W Proof Silver Eagle sold as part of the “10th Anniversary American Eagle Five Coin Set”
  • 2004 “Legacies of Freedom United States and United Kingdom Silver Bullion Coin Set” which had a 2003 bullion silver Eagle and a 2002 Silver Britannia bullion coin from the United Kingdom.
  • 2006 Reverse Proof silver Eagle celebrating the 20th year of the program
  • 2002 “American Eagle 25th Anniversary Silver Coin Set”
  • 2012 “San Francisco American Silver Eagle Two Coin Proof Set”, “Making American History Coin and Currency Set”, and the “2012 United States Mint Limited Edition Silver Proof Set”
  • 2013 “2013 American Eagle West Point Two-Coin Set”
  • 2016 “30th Anniversary” editions to celebrate the programs 30th anniversary
  • 2019 “Pride of Two Nations” with a Reverse Cameo Proof Finish American Eagle and a modified Reverse design and Proof finish Canadian Silver Maple Leaf
  • 2019 Enhanced Reverse Proof

Of these special issues, the proof 1995-W carries one of the highest premiums of any coins in the series. Sold only as part of the 10th Anniversary American Eagle Five Coin Set, which only had just over 30,000 sets made, almost immediately commanded an exceptional premium. This single coin sells for an eye watering $3,000.

Along with these special issues, there have also been special circumstances that have impacted the production of the Silver American Eagle. The single biggest disruption occurred between 2008 and 2010 during the global recession. Wanting to hedge against inflation, investors flocked to precious metals, particularly silver as it was readily available. In February 2008, the Mint had to suspend sales to authorized dealers because of the high demand for the bullion coin. In March 2008, sales increased a whopping 827.5% over the prior month which forced the Mint in April of that year to develop an allocation program. By June of 2008, the Mint indicated that only bullion coins would be produced and the Proof and Uncirculated varieties would be abandoned for the year. That continued throughout 2009 with the Mint finally lifting the allocation program in June 2009. The allocation program returned in January 2010 and was in effect through that September.

As you can imagine, the backlash from the Numismatic community was strong with the lack of Proof and Uncirculated Silver American Eagles available in 2008 and 2009. That lead to legislation in 2010 that authorized the Treasury to mint the American Eagle, both gold and silver coins, in sufficient qualities and quantities. In other words, it effectively forced the Mint to produce the bullion, uncirculated, and proof versions of the coin. That law was signed by President Barack Obama in December 2010.

Supplies of the bullion coin were difficult once again in 2013 through to 2015 with continued high demand with, at one point the Mint putting its allocation program back in place for authorized buyers. In 2014 the Mint ran out of the 2014 dated coins in November of that year.

The most recent of these supply challenge events was in early 2020 when the Mint was forced to shift a small amount of production from West Point to Philadelphia due to a shutdown from an employee testing positive for COVID-19. This resulted in the Philadelphia Mint producing 240,000 of the bullion coins which were identical to those produced in West Point. The announcement stirred some controversy as it effectively created another special release that grading companies immediately picked up upon. These 2020(P) Emergency Eagles now carry a high premium compared to the 2020(W) bullion coin.

From 1986 to 2019, a total of 530,420,354 Silver American Eagles have been minted in their various varieties and special releases. Here is a complete table of all the mintage figures.

2006-P Rev. Pr.248,875248,875
2011-P Rev. Pr.99,88299,882
2012-S Rev. Pr.224,981224,981
2013-W Enh.281,310281,310
2013-W Rev. Pr.281,310281,310
2019-S Enh. Rev. Pr.29,80329,803
2019-W Enh. Rev. Pr.99,93399,933
Silver American Eagle Mintage Figures 1986-2019

Despite some fits-and-starts, the American Eagle has remained mostly available in large quantities. With the exception of the special releases, most of the coins from any year are readily available and almost all of them are priced at under $50. However, some of the special releases can be much more expensive. The 2019-W Enhanced Reverse Proof, for example, now carries a price well over $200.

The story of the Silver American Eagle is far from over however. In 2021, for the first time, the coin will get a makeover. An all-new Reverse will be introduced that will also include new anti-counterfeiting elements as well as a new look. The final design of that Reverse has yet to be announced but should happen in the Fall of 2020. The Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee (CCAC) has released the candidate images being considered for the 2010 silver American Eagle.


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