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Banking on bullion coins
By Mark Benvenuto
May 18, 2018

The year 2017 was a big one for major league coin auctions, and it looks like this year will follow along with more of the same. There are silver dollars and gold pieces crossing the block that command prices which are the same as a good house – or a very high-end sports car. So where does that sort of hype leave us, the collectors who don’t sleep on a bed made of money? Why, looking for good bargains and handsome but inexpensive collections, of course!


United States Silver Eagles

One-ounce bullion coins from one nation or another have been a part of both the hobby and the metals market for nearly four decades. The United States jumped into these waters in 1986, with the first of the one-ounce silver Eagles. Those that were made for trade on the world’s markets have always been pegged to the price of the precious metal and thus do not cost much more than whatever the market quotes are. Usually a 10 – 15% mark-up is found on these coins, since the dealer selling them has to make a bit of profit for him- or herself. 

The biggest challenge to collecting the regular-issue one-ounce silver Eagles is not the price, then, but probably finding good-looking examples from the early years, those from the late 1980s. Since the regular issues were made to a high standard, but not necessarily handled with any extra care over the years, chances are that many of them have suffered some mild neglect over decades of time. Still, paying something like the price of silver plus 15% is an excellent way to assemble a full collection of United States silver Eagles.

Of course, for those of us who are willing to gather together an entire set of one-ounce silver Eagles, it’s not too much of a leap to realize that we could also explore the possibility of doing the same but with the proof Eagles. Every year since the beginning of the program, the Mint made it a point to produce the silver Eagle in a proof, collector version. The coins have always been beautiful, and those that have been removed from their original Mint packaging and submitted for third party grading have routinely come back with grades such as PF-68 or PF-69, occasionally even the technically perfect PF-70. The only rare date in the series is the 1995-W, which was only sold in sets along with the four gold Eagles that year. In short, though, these are extremely sharp-looking coins.

When it comes to prices, well, we’re trying to keep our costs low enough that building such a collecting isn’t too draining for our wallets. And that brings up an interesting point: just how good does a coin have to be to want to add it to a collection? A person can give one answer when dealing with classic coins from the nineteenth century and earlier, but when dealing with a modern series like the silver Eagles, a rather different one. Sure, a PF-70 coin is going to be fantastic. But is it really worth the extra we pay for it when we compare it to a PF-69 or even a PF-68 coin? It’s not as if either of the lower two grades are ugly or worn. No, they are both still excellent coins a heartbeat from perfection. This is the sort of idea we should probably keep in mind if we choose to step up from a collection of regular one-ounce silver Eagles to one composed of proofs.

There are more than these two ways to go at assembling a set of the one-ounce silver Eagles. As the serious lovers of this series know, the Mint released what are called “burnished” uncirculated pieces starting in 2006, as well as reverse proofs. Now, since these are relatively recent additions to a popular series, there is no way a person can string together 32 years of them. Indeed, each of these special versions has not even been produced annually since 2006 – although there are now plenty of years of them. That means there are enough of them that we could insert them, as it were, into any collection of regular or proof silver Eagles. This, in turn, means we can jazz up a collection of regular Eagles or even of proof Eagles.

As with the proofs, a worthwhile question to ask about any burnished one-ounce silver Eagles or reverse proofs is how much we wish to pay. The baseline price for the regular coins may look pretty low when we make the comparisons. It becomes then something of a test of both patience and skill to find examples of these two collector versions of our big, silver Eagles. But it can be done.  


The 1/10th ounce Gold Eagles

The entire date run of one-ounce silver Eagles is met, step by step, with the four different gold Eagles that have been issued by the Mint since back in 1986. Since we are thinking here about building a worthwhile collection and at the same time keeping the prices in some affordable range, the logical choice in moving up is to move up to something small, weird though that sounds. Yes, let’s look at the little 1/10th ounce gold Eagles.

Like the other bullion coins in the Eagle series, the 1/10th ounce gold Eagles are made to be a convenient weight in gold, easy to measure and thus easy to compute in terms of value on the market. Unlike the other gold bullion Eagles, the 1/10th ounce gold pieces are downright tiny. Each weighs in at 3.393 grams of 22 carat gold, or 91.67% gold, which comes out neatly to 1/10th ounce per coin. To put that into some context, the now-classic Liberty Head $2.50 gold pieces issued from 1840 – 1907 each weighed in at 4.18 grams of what would be 21.6 carat gold, or (more commonly) 90% gold, for 12.094% of an ounce of the metal per coin. It does look like our little 1/10th ounce gold Eagles are a bit easier to work with, at least in figuring out value.

When it comes to assembling the most basic set of 1/10th ounce gold Eagles, the date run, a person will find quickly that it’s not too tough, since each year saw a pretty hefty mintage, or at least one that is big enough to meet collector demand. The prices connected to gold, though, are going to seem a bit high for some folks. The premium we spoke about for the silver Eagles, that extra which one always pays when buying for our own collection and not in bulk for the metal, is a bit bigger for the smallest of the gold Eagles and always has been. Right now, a regular version of any of the 1/10th ounce gold Eagles will have $130 worth of gold in it – at a time when gold is hovering near $1,300 per ounce. Yet the price for one of these little Eagles is going to be around $170. That’s not a crippling price increase, but it is worth noting.

As with the one-ounce silver Eagles, we can also look at assembling a set of the 1/10th ounce gold Eagles as proof coins. The set will be a bit shorter, as there were no proof pieces made for the first couple of years of the series. The only proof gold Eagles that were issued during that time were the big guns, the one-ounce pieces. But in 1988, the first of the proofs were issued, 143,881 of them, and the proverbial flood gates opened. And thrown into the mix there are even a few years of burnished pieces.

It doesn’t take that proverbial rocket scientist to realize the same question arises when looking into these little gold Eagles in proof as opposed to regular issue. Do we want to spend the extra for the proof version? Doing so means jumping to at least $225 per coin, which might seem like a bit much. Once again, it’s an individual’s choice.


Expanding to other series

Whether you are thinking seriously about the regular version one-ounce silver Eagles or their bigger value, lower-weight 1/10th ounce gold Eagles, or their proof siblings, someone new to the series (or the weight) doesn’t have to stop with a completed set. It’s easy to move into one-ounce silver pieces, or 1/10th ounce gold pieces, from any of the other nations that have been in the bullion coin business for as long as – or for longer than – the United States. There are Canadian Maples Leaves that we might add to our collection, even if it’s only a single one; Chinese Pandas; or pieces from lands as far flung as Australia, Great Britain, or Austria, to name just a few in what has become a very large, diverse set of offerings.

In addition to foreign possibilities, there are a couple of domestic ones we could consider adding. The American Buffalo one-ounce bullion coin got its start in 2006, and a 1/10th ounce piece was issued in 2008. Much more recently, in February of this year, the American Liberty 1/10th ounce piece became the Mint’s newest offering. One could easily see either of these becoming neat additions to a more established set of small gold Eagles.

Whether it’s big silver or small gold, there are undoubtedly a couple of great possibilities out there for the collector on a budget. Where a person chooses to go with such collections is up to them, but it certainly looks like there might be some fun to be had here.

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