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Silver Eagle info in plain sight

How much information do you need to make a smart purchase?

I am sure you are familiar with the radio ads that feature fast talking announcers reading legal boilerplate at the end.

Do we need something like that in numismatics?

I received a handwritten letter yesterday complaining about the information provided by a third-party slab information sticker.

The sticker revealed all, but the letter writer simply didn’t know how to read it.

The critical factor is what does the mintmark (S) in parentheses mean when it is used on graded silver American Eagles?

This is a question that collectors of just two or more years ago would never have encountered. However, from the time the U.S. Mint began striking bullion silver American Eagles in two places simultaneously at San Francisco as well as at West Point, but chose not to put a mintmark on them, the door was opened to the use of a mintmark in parentheses.

Because bullion coin buyers can obtian coins struck at the San Francisco Mint, they know where they were struck even without a real mintmark on the coins.

Grading services can slab unmintmarked San Francisco coins because of the chain-of-custody proof of origin and buyers can collect them as they have been doing for the past two years.

The (S) indicates this.

Using the S without parentheses indicates that there is a mintmark on the coin.

This is a simple thing, but apparently the letter writer did not read the news when the situation originally developed.

He only became aware of it when he purchased a coin that he thought was the $300 uncirculated 2011-S coin when it fact he had paid $60 for a slabbed (S) coin.

I am sure the letter writer is not alone. I wrote a column recommending that the Mint put an S on the bullion American Eagles struck in San Francisco, which would have avoided this kind of confusion, but I did not expect the Mint would embrace my thinking.

The Mint started down this road with the passage of the Coinage Act of 1965 when mintmarks were removed from all coins and after mintmarks returned to coins in 1968 the Mint did things like striking cents without mintmarks at West Point so they would be indistinguishable from those struck at Philadelphia. That's the rationale for the unmintmarked (S) coins.

I do not expect the Mint to change anytime soon, so perhaps this blog will help get the word out, which I hope is more fun to read than listening to a fast talker on a radio ad.

Buzz blogger Dave Harper is editor of the weekly newspaper "Numismatic News."