In 1986, the United States minted the first in its modern series of silver
bullion coins, called the Silver Eagle. According to the US Mint, the Silver
Eagle is the best selling silver bullion coin in the world, selling more than
130 million pieces since its introduction.
Based on coincidence, I suppose it is probably the case that the decision was made to
begin minting silver bullion coins at the same time that the American Eagle
program was begun, which consists of various sizes of gold coins and was authorized
by the Gold Bullion Coin Act of 1985. It is somewhat interesting that 31 USC 5112,
in the first paragraph enumerating the coins made by the United States, includes the
four gold coins but not the silver coin. After specifying various attributes of
the coinage, the code later includes a paragraph that explicitly specifies the
properties of the Silver Eagle.
The design on the obverse of both the gold and silver Eagles is required to be
"symbolic of Liberty". While they both feature Lady Liberty walking, they are not
the same. The Silver Eagle's obverse presents the same design as the historic
Walking Liberty half dollar, designed by Adolph A. Weinman and minted from 1916
through 1947. The reverse is new, however; it contains an eagle with shield under
Though the United States Code specifies the exact size and weight of a Silver Eagle,
and the fineness of the silver (.999), section 5112 doesn't actually itself state how
much silver must be included. Unless you trust the government to abide by their laws,
because that section does require the coin to be inscribed with 1 OZ. FINE SILVER,
and 15 USC 296 forbids the marking of silver articles with greater than actual fineness.
Interestingly, the US Mint makes a point of saying that each Silver Eagle contains
a minimum of one troy ounce of silver. In fact, according to the law's requirement
that the coin weigh 31.103 grams, it cannot contain more than a troy ounce.
Also required is that the face value of the Silver Eagle be One Dollar. (Not to be
confused with the Dollar defined by the Coinage Act of 1792, which was approximately
0.77 troy ounces of silver. The government doesn't want to talk about that.) As with
the gold Eagles and Platinum Eagles, the face value is of course a fiction. Brand new
2005 Silver Eagles can be easily purchased for ten or eleven dollars each, with previous
years' models going up from there. They cost somewhat more than generic pure silver rounds,
which can be had for about eight dollars in quantity. Some attribute that premium to the
fact that Silver Eagles are legal tender coins in the US. True, but at face value! I've
never understood that reasoning.
One might wonder why the face value is so absurd. (And the same goes for the other bullion
coins made by the government. The gold Eagle one ounce coin is $50, the smaller ones
proportionate to that, and the Platinum Eagle is marked at $100.) The mint makes a small
profit on the sale of their bullion coins, but I don't think so much that that's the motive.
Could be an ego thing, because
the other countries do it. What is clear is that they assign
face value in such a way as to assure that the coins are only collected, and not used in
commerce. If they did that, the dormant memories of people who remember having
in the United States might be awakened, and who knows where that might lead.