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The Forgotten Gold Series Hidden in Plain Sight

The 1/4-ounce U.S. gold Eagles have some excellent collecting potential.
2021 1/4-ounce gold American Eagle. (Images courtesy usacoinbook.com.)

2021 1/4-ounce gold American Eagle. (Images courtesy usacoinbook.com.)

The idea of gold bullion coins that come in neat weights of one ounce, or of fractions of an ounce, is one that is now well over three decades old. There are a host of different bullion coins out there, some issued from the mints of big nations, others issued from lands so hard to find that we’d need a magnifying glass to locate them on a world map. The U.S. gold Eagles have certainly become a major player in this arena, even though they are not the oldest series of gold bullion pieces. Plenty of folks are happy to pick up one-ounce Eagles whenever they have the cash. Others with less moolah to pony up might still be keen on getting hold of some of the smaller, attractive 1/10-ounce Eagles. Yet too often lost in the middle are two other gold bullion Eagles. Let’s look at just one and see just what the cost might be to ante up and form a collection – let’s see what the 1/4-ounce Eagles might have to offer.

Regular Issues

Perhaps obviously, the easiest and most direct way to go about building a collection of 1/4-ounce gold Eagles will be to pick up those that we call the regular issues – since calling them “circulating issues” might be a bit of a stretch. But we can see that these 1/4-ounce pieces stretch all the way back to 1986, and so some of them have undoubtedly changed hands a few times.

When looking into buying gold, be it bullion coins or any other form, it’s always a bit dangerous to think back and look back, as it were. What we mean is that right now, as this is being written, gold has been floating between $1,800 and $1,900 per ounce, at least as 2021 has turned into 2022. That means that a single 1/4-ounce gold Eagle, sporting its nominal value of $10, will actually be worth about $450 to $475 for the precious metal. But back in 1986, gold was trading at about $400 per ounce. It doesn’t take the proverbial rocket scientist, or even a dollar-store calculator, to realize that this means one of these smaller Eagles cost about $100 back then. But alas, we’re buying now; so we get to deal with today’s prices.

Speaking of prices, before we go any farther, we should mention two aspects of pricing for any sort of gold bullion coin. The first is that most of the monthly price listings give values for these jewels in grades such as MS-69, or even MS-70 – this one being a technically perfect coin. Grades this high will always carry some premium. The second is that no matter how a 1/4-ounce Eagle looks, there has to be a dealer premium put on it, usually of 10-15 percent. So, if a piece is less than that MS-69 and has a few marks on it, the price tag will still be about $546, which is $475 plus 15 percent. Let’s keep in mind here that since the dealer had to pay for the piece, he or she is only making a profit off the premium from the sale. To quote some dealer from the past, “These aren’t sausages. We don’t get to eat what we don’t sell.”

Keeping these prices in mind, it’s worth knowing that just about any of the 1/4-ounce gold Eagles will currently cost about $525. This means we can probably assemble a good date run, but based on the cost, it might take a while.

Proof Issues

The fine folks working at the United States Mint realized right at the get-go that there was collector potential in these new coins. Thus, that very first year there were proof issues made, or at least there were for the one-ounce gold Eagles. The three smaller versions, including our quarter-ouncers, didn’t see any proof issues until 1988. But that year became the starting point for four different sized proofs per year, a trend that continues up to the present. Without a doubt, these are going to be some amazing looking 1/4-ounce Eagles.

Since we have mentioned prices for the regular issues, it’s only fair to make a few comments about price tags here. The first and most obvious one is that these prices are no longer tied to the price of any weight of precious metal. Proofs are made with special care, and are sold as collector items. That means they will generally cost more than some regular, run-of-the-mill issue. The second comment we can make is a counter-intuitive one: the cost for PF-70 specimens is not going to be all that much higher than something like a PF-69 – and might actually be lower than an MS-70 specimen. The reason for this is ironically what we just mentioned: the proofs are all made with special care. That in turn means there are more that will end up being encapsulated by some reputable third-party grading firm at the PF-70 grade. This can be good news for the patient collector who is willing to do some hunting for bargains.

Beyond Proof: Burnished

For the collector who simply wants to have one of every possible type for a coin, well, there is something called the “burnished” version of the 1/4-ounce Eagles as well. Minted from 2006 through 2008, this version is all about the finish, the surface, of each piece. Are they worth more than regular issues, or less than proof issues? There was certainly more care taken in their production than for the regular issues. But are they a must-have trio for anyone collecting this gold bullion series? We’ll leave that up to each collector to decide.

All Things Considered?

All in all, the 1/4-ounce gold Eagles are a fairly common set of United States gold coins. But since so much of the hype around this series has centered on either the big, glamorous one-ounce pieces, or the little, twinkling 1/10-ounce pieces, this in-between denomination ends up being pretty far beyond the mainstream. Yet that might just mean this is a series with some excellent collecting potential.