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Opportunity knocks in gold Eagles

 

Many times collectors over the years have looked back at chances they had and wished they had acted differently. Had you hand-selected a 1953-S Franklin half dollar with full bell lines back in 1953 and had that coin been preserved well since then you just might be looking at a coin worth $16,000 today, or with a little bit of luck even more.

The list of possibilities is a long one. At the top of that list would have to be the 1927-D Saint-Gaudens double eagle.
Realistically, the average collector would have had no chance to acquire the great rarities of the past century. The 1933 Saint-Gaudens double eagle was a coin only a few with connections could have acquired, and in the end all they acquired was a pack of troubles.

The 1913 Liberty Head nickel was much the same, although it was possible to buy one back in the early 1940s potentially for the lofty sum of $750. In the case of the 1927-D Saint-Gaudens double eagle, however, the government was cheerfully willing to sell you an example for their face value plus a small charge for shipping. Nor was the offer limited to 1927 as it was being made for a few years in the 1930s. Had you, well, let’s say your grandfather, jumped on that opportunity you would have a coin worth hundreds of thousands of dollar today. In fact, had you received a nice one and most were nice the coin might be worth $1.95 million as that is the Coin Market listing for an example in MS-65.

The fact that few, if any, took the government up on their offer is seen in the fact that there are fewer than 20 examples of the 1927-D known to exist today. In fact, there is no evidence that anyone ordered a single coin. It all suggests that collectors in the 1920s and 1930s had a lot of opportunity, but they missed out on a truly golden opportunity.

How could they have known? To the average observer of the time, $20 represented a week’s wages. Would you be willing to bet a week’s wages on a coin that may or may not be rare in the distant future?

We all regret having not had such chances and tend to bemoan the fact that there are no similar opportunities today. Of course, at the time the opportunity is available they never look as golden as they do now. In fact, back in 1927 the 1927-D double eagle probably looked pretty average with only a slightly lower than average mintage. There are not likely to be any 1927-D double eagles available for their face value today, but there just might be opportunities, but these are hiding in unexpected places.

Certainly there was ample opportunity for collectors to buy the BU $5 Jackie Robinson commemorative gold $5 from the government in 1997. They would have been happy to sell you an example for roughly $250, but under 5,000 people took advantage of that opportunity, much to the astonishment of collectors who were also baseball fans.

Those buyers who did buck the trend and order are now the owners of a coin that has climbed toward $3,000. That missed opportunity took place in the late 1990s and there are probably others.

Recent opportunities that are consistently overlooked are the American Eagle gold coins, which were first offered back in 1986. Of course, there are reasons why they are overlooked. The first is that they are modern and still in production as a series and it is simply natural for many to overlook current issues as a collectible.

It is especially natural to overlook American Eagle bullion coins as they are promoted as bullion coins, which is another way of saying, “Collectors, keep away.” And if you didn’t get the message, the Mint won’t sell them to you. It sells them only to Authorized Purchasers. Besides, collectors can buy the proofs each year.

Whether a gold bullion coin in question is the Canadian Maple Leaf or South Africa Krugerrand or the United States Eagle, the assumption with them is that they are readily available and are intended to have little or no numismatic value.

The assumption might be correct in some cases, or even many cases, but what it overlooks is that the dates on U.S. coins change every year and mintages are not the same. In a very real sense, the 1927-D Saint-Gaudens double eagle was just one date from the bullion coin series of its day. Though the “official” value of the gold in the U.S. $20 was stable where the price of an ounce was fixed from 1834 to 1933 at $20.67, the coin traded for a high premium during the Civil War inflation and new gold coin mintages were stopped completely during World War I to conserve government bullion supplies. People tended to hoard gold during wartime.

If there is any doubt that American gold coins of the past were bullion coins, it is eliminated when you realize that gold coins were being exported and melted in the 1820s. They were too valuable but when the amount of gold was reduced slightly in 1834, gold coins returned to circulation. They were simply bullion coins that worked a different way during that period as the face value remained constant but the amount of gold did not. In the case of the American Eagle gold bullion coins today the amount of gold remains constant but the value does not.

There was another factor that probably discouraged some and that is that even in 1986 the idea of owning and collecting gold coins was still a somewhat foreign idea to many. The long prohibition on gold ownership, which stretched back to 1933 had discouraged many collectors. While gold coins could be owned, the fact that the price of gold was fixed at $35 an ounce 1934-1971 did not help. Numismatic rarities might go up and down in price, but coins whose value was related to the price of gold moved very little.

By 1986 things were changing but it takes a while to change a viewpoint held for over 50 years to actually start to collect gold coins. In fact, gold coins have had relatively few collectors over the years for the simple reason that they are expensive with both high face values and high bullion values.

By 1986, however, some wanted the chance and they had been frustrated in previous years by gold coin restrictions and the fact that the United States had produced no gold coins to collect. The discontent was fanned by the 1967 Canadian $20, which was included in a proof set that some Americans wanted, but the only version of the proof set they could legally own was one without the new 1967 $20. That made those wanting the set feel truly like second-class residents of the world as there was no possible way that a $20 Canadian coin could be seen as a threat by anyone to anything except the restrictions that prevented Americans from owning one.

The ownership restrictions were lifted at the end of 1974, but it was still a long step to actually producing gold coins in the United States. That step was made a lot shorter when the Los Angeles Olympic commemorative program was proposed. The U.S. modern commemoratives were just beginning and the Los Angeles Olympic program as proposed was way too large. Olympic Games are expensive and Los Angeles needed money to sponsor them. That was most easily accomplished by large coins and the compromise that was worked out would include a $10 gold coin. That was an enormous first step as it ended roughly 50 years of the United States producing no gold coins. While it was a commemorative the fact that it was gold was what was more important to buyers.

The Los Angeles Olympic $10 was followed quickly by the enormously successful Statue of Liberty gold $5 dated 1986 but sold to collectors in late 1985 and suddenly officials were not only comfortable with gold coins, but looking for more as gold coins produced profits.

Even though officials were interested the American Eagle gold bullion coin program, the eventual details struck some as surprising. There was to be a one-ounce coin with a $50 denomination. The denomination was assigned to make the piece a legal-tender coin and not simply a medal. Coins are usually more popular than medals and also legal tender is treated differently when it comes to taxation and importation internationally.

The new American Eagle program was also to include a $25 face value one-half ounce, a $10 one-quarter ounce and a $5 one-tenth ounce as well as a $1 silver ounce. Few had expected so many options. Collectors being collectors also noted that a $10 quarter ounce did not exactly fit as $40 in quarter ounce pieces equaled the $50 in weight but not face value.

There was also a proof 1-ounce at a naturally higher price, but that proof was clearly aimed at collectors as bullion coin buyers will not generally pay a premium to acquire a proof. In fact, the popularity of the proof 1-ounce quickly produced proofs of other denominations. The popularity of the idea was helped by the fact that the gold American Eagle had as an obverse design the popular Saint-Gaudens double eagle obverse, giving collectors a rare chance to acquire a popular design in proof.

As the American Eagle gold bullion coins were produced they followed what would seem like a very logical trend. Collectors would order the proofs while the business strikes were simply treated like pieces of gold. That is critical as it has produced a wide range of grades for all denominations. There are certainly no VF-20 gold American Eagles floating around, but in fact the years of being handled without any particular care and being carted around and dumped in windows and display cases have taken a toll in terms of light wear and marks. Finding an MS-69 gold American Eagle from some years is not as easy as might be expected.

There is another factor as well as the logical assumption was that every date is available in basically unlimited numbers. That was simply based on the old notion that gold bullion coins are simply available in unlimited numbers. In fact as year after year of sales totals were recorded, it was very obvious that gold American Eagles could have very different mintage totals and may not be available on demand.

Based on what we have seen since the first 1986 gold American Eagles the 1-ounce coin is the most heavily produced. The 1-ounce is followed by the small tenth ounce, which has become popular for use in jewelry. The $25 and $10 coins tend to lag far behind in sales and their low mintage totals have already been discovered by some. Of course, if no one was collecting gold American Eagles of any denomination, low mintage totals do not really matter, but as time goes by some have correctly sensed that the gold American Eagle is an opportunity to collect gold coins at very reasonable prices.

A good example of the situation is seen in the case of the $25 from 1990. The 1990 $25 had sales of just 31,000 pieces as opposed to the highest sales total of the $25, which was over 600,000. Today an available date $25 is roughly $957 but the 1990 is up to $1,700 in MS-65. The 1991 had an even lower mintage of 24,100 and it too has posted unusual price gains rising to $2,400. Bullion coin buyers are not paying more than double metal value for the 1991 as the premium price is paid by collectors who recognize it is a very low mintage date that will not get any more available but which may get significantly more expensive.

There is a similar situation with the $10, which had sales of 726,031 back in 1986, but which posted sales of just 41,000 in 1990 with that total dropping even further to just 36,100 in 1991. Those low mintage dates are beginning to show a trend to higher prices with the 1990 being $17 or more above an available date while the 1991 is price similarly. Why have these prices not gone higher? If you are going to be buying some gold anyway, perhaps looking for some scarce coins at modestly higher prices might be the way to go as a collector.

The trend is less clear in the $5 denomination as mintages are generally much higher than for the $10 and $25. There were some early indications that it too might someday feature premium priced dates. If collectors continue to collect, this would be natural as the mintages have varied significantly with the earliest years showing signs of consistent premium prices as might be expected as they have lower mintages and were perhaps not saved as collector coins when they were first released.

The only denomination not currently showing signs of premium priced dates is the 1-ounce $50. That may be in part because its very high price tends to discourage collecting and in part because of the high mintages.

When you have relatively few collectors, even the lowest mintage $50 still has enough coins available to meet demand. Over time, however, that could change as the $50 has seen vastly different mintages with 1,362,650 a high level starting point in 1986. Low mintages are 189,148 in 1996, 143,605 in 2001 and 140,016 in 2007. You multiply the figures by the price of an ounce of gold and you can see how very expensive these coins are even without a numismatic premium attached.

In the case of the proofs. There are premiums attached over the value of the bullion issues, but the price differentials between dates you would think would be far larger if mintage variations played any kind of role.

Over the long term, the proofs should follow very closely their mintages in terms of price although things can get lively if there is a sellout in any given year. Such a sellout can quickly produce speculation and high prices just as it does with commemoratives or any other issue, so when you look at these don’t rule out future surprises.

The collector looking for real hidden values, however, may find that the business strikes are the biggest potential surprise coins in the American Eagle program. It is not a case where mintage figures will always determine premium dates as another factor will be the grade you are seeking. Historically even high mintage dates can be extremely rare if you happen to be seeking them in the highest possible grade. The grading services have also added First Strikes and Early issues to the mix.

Currently the services probably have not graded enough of all dates to reach firm conclusions, but the fact is that there are almost certain to be some dates that will be available in higher grades while others may be unusually tough to find in certain grades. To that fact can be added the mintages, which should be a good basic guide to potentially premium priced dates and then the great unknown of how any dates survived indifferent care in top grades can be added into the equation.

If those factors sound similar to the factors you might consider in the case of a quarter or dime it should not be all that surprising. We can call the gold American Eagles bullion coins or anything else we might desire, but the fact remains they are coins and they can be collected like coins. Some are doing exactly that and as those numbers grow we might find there are some very surprising values to be found in the gold American Eagles. While it would probably be stretching the point way too far to suggest that there might be another 1927-D waiting in the gold American Eagle program, it is definitely not a stretch at all to suggest some dates can command premium prices. If you act now to start your collection, you might well be in for a pleasant surprise in that some day you might very well learn that some dates that you paid common date prices to obtain turn out to be surprisingly good and potentially more expensive than anyone would have ever imagined.

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