by Q. David Bowers
For many years in modern times silver was taken for granted on the American scene. Until the mid-1960s, silver "Mercury" dimes, Roosevelt dimes, Washington quarters, Liberty Walking half dollars, and Franklin half dollars were used in everyday change. Beginning in the early 1960s, silver began a run-up in price on international markets. By the declining years of the decade, earlier-minted silver coins were worth more than face value as bullion. Silver (and also gold) came into the spotlight. The public became interested. The public wanted to invest.
Before long, silver was a popular investment medium. Many were the everyday citizens who bought silver ingots, bags of pre-1965 silver coins, stock in silver mining companies, or silver commodity futures. An entire new collecting specialty arose: one-ounce (usual weight, although some were heavier or lighter) silver bars and discs (the latter called "rounds"). Many rare coin dealers had their own bars made with distinctive designs, often of a commemorative or historical nature. The Franklin Mint, which in the late 1970s and much of the decade of the 1980s was a darling of the stock market (as the stock multiplied in value) popularized bars by creating them in different series, including a group with Christmas motifs. The states of California, South Dakota, and Texas have issued their own silver bullion pieces.
A one-ounce silver bar or disc was a convenient way to invest in silver and to collect something interesting at the same time. While some bars sold at a sharp premium, many bars were sold from a small amount over the silver value. When silver was worth $10 per ounce, a typical bar might sell for $12 or so.
While all of this public interest and enthusiasm in investing in silver and gold was going on, the government sought to reduce its stockpile of precious metal. Periodically, auctions were held, and silver and gold were sold, usually in large lots that appealed primarily to industrial users or large-scale investors, not to private citizens.
The government's first step to appeal to small investors was through Public Law 95-630, November 10, 1978, which provided for the creation of half-ounce and one-ounce "American Arts gold medallions" struck at the West Point Bullion Depository (later known as the West Point Mint) beginning in 1980. Depicted on each medal were famous Americans, among whom were Robert Frost, Louis Armstrong, Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens), and John Steinbeck. Several marketing strategies were tried-including one whereby would-be purchasers could telephone a special number to learn the price, which changed daily-but none was particularly successful. The numismatic community generally ignored the gold medals, as they bore no denominations. As interesting as medals may be, collectors prefer coins. After the 1984 issue, the American Arts gold medallion program was phased out.
Silver "American Eagles" Created
Alternative ways of selling silver and gold to the general public were bandied about in the press and in Congress. As far as silver is concerned, the break-through came when Sen. James McClure (R-Idaho), from a silver producing state, tacked a rider to theStatue of Liberty-Ellis Island Commemorative Coin Act, providing for a one-ounce silver bullion coin to be struck from the National Strategic Stockpile. As it was desired not to interfere with the Statue of Liberty commemoratives, the American Eagle silver coins were not to be marketed until after the commemorative program ended. President Ronald Reagan signed the act into law on July 9, 1985, and a new "silver dollar" was created.
The legislation specified that the new coin have a face value of one dollar, and contain one troy ounce of .999 fine silver (virtually pure silver), instead of the traditional .900 silver and .100 copper alloy used for standard silver dollar varieties. 'Thus, the new coin was heavier than a silver dollar and contained pure silver. By making the American Eagle 999/ 1000th of an ounce of pure silver, its value could be checked instantly on a daily basis, simply by consulting silver commodity quotations, which are expressed in the price per ounce. The law intended the obverse design to have a representation of Liberty, and the reverse to depict an eagle.
By 1986, Mint Director Donna Pope had been to numerous coin conventions, was a steady reader Of numismatic publications, and had the best rapport with the collecting community of any Mint director up to that time. She knew that various surveys over the yearsnamed the Liberty Walking half dollar as the most beautiful silver coin from a numismatic viewpoint. What better way to make a new silver coin popular with collectors than to use an already popular design, she reasoned. The move was brilliant.
For the obverse, Adolph A. Weinman's Liberty Walking design, used for half dollar coinage from 1916 to 1947, was resurrected. Slight modifications were. made, including the removal of the artist's initials from the reverse field, as on the half dollar,to an inconspicuous place on the hem of Miss Liberty's gown. Weinman was a well-known sculptor in his era, and his statuary and other works were widely acclaimed. In addition to the 1916 half dollar, he also designed the 1916 Liberty Head ten-cent, popularly known as the "Mercury" dime, although Mercury was a man with wings on his feet, and on the dime, Liberty was a woman with wings on her head.
The reverse was a new design by John Mercanti featuring an eagle with especially large wings, holding an olive branch and cluster of arrows, inspired by the Great Seal of the United States. The inscription around the periphery read thus: UNITED STATES OF AMERICA/ 1 OZ. FINE SILVERONE DOLLAR. As it bore the weight and fineness on the reverse, the new coin was closer in nature to the old trade dollar (1873-1885), also minted as a bullion coin, thanto the traditional silver dollar.
During the 1980s and continuing to the present time John Mercanti has been well known to the-collecting community; His art appears on many modern commemoratives,
The American Eagle made its debut in 1986, afterwhich the design was continued without change.
Mintage and Marketing
American Eagle silver coins were made in two finishes: Uncirculated,' for widespread distributionfor the intended purpose as a bullion coin, and Proof, for sale at a strong premium to collectors. Uncirculated coins,without mintmarks, were struck at the Philadelphia Mint, while Proofs,' with S mintmarks, were made at San Francisco.
A first-strike ceremony-for the silver American Eagle was held on October 29, 1986. Sales of Proofs were accomplished through the Mint mailing list, and Uncirculated pieces through dealers who ordered them in bulk. The program is ongoing.