The Coin Analyst: John Mercanti’s Silver Eagle Guidebook
by Louis Golino for CoinWeek ……
John Mercanti, who served as the U.S. Mint’s 12th Chief Engraver until his retirement in 2010, holds the distinction of having designed more U.S. coins and medals than any other employee of the Mint in its 220-year history. In his new book for Whitman Publishing, American Silver Eagles: A Guide to the U.S. Bullion Coin Program, that was released in November, Mercanti teams up with Michael “Miles” Standish, senior coin grader at PCGS and a leading expert on modern coins, who has graded over six million coins during his career, to produce a definitive guidebook on American silver eagles.
A reference book focusing on silver eagles is long overdue. The coin is one of the most widely traded silver bullion coin in the world, with more than 300 million examples in existence, and it is the most widely collected modern American coin. It is the modern American silver dollar, and in many ways, as I have argued before, the modern-day equivalent of the Morgan silver dollar. Moreover, in the view of Eric Jordan, the burnished uncirculated versions that have been issued since 2006 in much smaller numbers than the bullion and proof examples, are the modern equivalent of Carson City Morgan dollars, which were minted in smaller numbers than Morgan dollars minted at other branch mints.
The book provides an overview of the creation, minting, and evolution of the .999 fine silver eagle, America’s first pure silver coin with exactly one ounce of the metal, and detailed information and data on each coin in the series plus additional information on other modern bullion coins.
Reading the book one learns how the American silver eagle coin program came into existence. It was authorized in a provision that was part of the 1985 Liberty Coin Act, which created the three Statue of Liberty commemorative coins that were issued in 1986. The provisions in that legislation that authorized the American silver eagle program specified that the silver had to come from the nation’s silver stockpile, specified the fineness and other technical aspects of the coin, the pricing formula, and said no coins could be sold before September 1, 1986. The silver eagle legislation was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan on July 9, 1985, and President Reagan’s oldest son, Michael, wrote the foreword for this book.
A fascinating aspect of the creation of the coin, and one which in some ways reinforces the parallel with the Morgan dollar, is that the coin was created as a means of disposing of excess silver bullion from the stockpile that had been amassed as part of the National Defense Stockpile, which as the book explains, several presidential administrations believed were in excess of the likely strategic need for the metal.
One wonders how the individuals who made those arguments feel today now that it is widely known how rare silver actually is. In fact, if one combines the rate at which silver is being used up in numerous applications with the fact that most of the earth’s silver has already been discovered and mined, it is estimated that within a couple of decades all the world’s silver will be used up, and all that will remain is what investors and governments have stockpiled.
Morgan dollars were similarly issued in large numbers because of the influence of the private silver mining industry, which wanted a vehicle for selling the silver that was discovered in the Western part of the U.S. during the 19th century, the famous Comstock Lode. As a result, far more coins than were needed for commerce were minted, and millions were melted years later.
In the mid-1980’s, when silver prices were dropping, selling large amounts of silver in bar form to large investors would have depressed prices even more and reduced the amount of money the government received for its silver. So instead silver bullion coins were created, which could be sold for a higher premium than silver bars, and they had the added benefit that collectible versions could be minted for coin collectors and sold at even higher premiums to thousands of coin collectors and investors. In addition, it was time for the U.S. to join the ranks of countries such as Canada and China that were already minting silver bullion coins that could be easily traded because they were made of pure silver and contained exactly an ounce of silver.
This book is a real pleasure to read, especially because of the lavish illustrations and the coffee-table format. It includes an eight-page gallery that depicts the numerous coins and medals Mercanti designed during his almost forty year career at the Mint.
It also includes many informative sidebars that explain important aspects of the coin design and issuance process, the minting process, and the history of silver eagles. For example, there is a useful discussion of the Commission on Fine Arts and the Citizens Coinage Advisory Commission, which are the two commissions that review all coin and medal designs and make recommendations to the Mint and the Treasury Secretary about which designs should appear on our coinage.
It is well known that Mercanti created the heraldic eagle design for the silver eagle’s reverse, which he discusses in detail in the book. What is less well known is the more subtle modifications he made to the original Adolph Weinman design used for the coin’s obverse. The book includes side by side photos of the original and modernized images, which shows how they differ.
The book also provides the first date-by-date analysis of each coin in the series issued since 1986, including both bullion and the various numismatic versions in proof, burnished uncirculated, and reverse proof finishes. High resolution images of every coin in the series are also part of the date study. 2016 will be the coin’s 30th anniversary, and I expect the Mint will issue a special anniversary set for the occasion, perhaps including a high-relief version of the coin, or some other special coin.
Copyright © CoinWeek LLC. November, 2012
The date-by-date study also includes all kinds of information about things such as issue price, current values, mintage, rarity, certified populations, and so forth. One small quibble I have is that the book only provides data on PCGS-certified coins, probably because the book’s co-author, Michael Standish is a long-time PCGS grader. But given the large number of silver eagles that are certified by NGC, it would have been useful to also include information on those coins to provide a more complete set of data.
Because of publication lead times the book does not include certified population data and value information on the 2012 two-coin silver eagle proof set minted at the San Francisco Mint that was probably the most widely anticipated and collected U.S. Mint product of this year, although it does include descriptive information on those coins. Hopefully a second edition of the book will include updated data on the earlier coins as well as information on the 2012 sets. Certified coin populations and values change all the time.
Collectors are currently eagerly awaiting the updated final sales number for the 2012 sets. Sales ended on July 5, and all sets were shipped to buyers by the end of October, but the Mint has not yet provided an updated figure on the number of sets sold, taking into account cancellations, orders that were returned, etc. As of July 6, 251,302 sets were sold.
Louis Golino is a coin collector and numismatic writer, whose articles on coins have appeared in Coin World, Numismatic News, and a number of different coin web sites. His column for CoinWeek, “The Coin Analyst,” covers U.S. and world coins and precious metals. He collects U.S. and European coins and is a member of the ANA, PCGS, NGC, and CAC. He has also worked for the U.S. Library of Congress and has been a syndicated columnist and news analyst on international affairs for a wide variety of newspapers and web sites.