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American Gold Eagle Coins
The American Gold Eagle is the flagship gold coin of the U.S. Mint. It was part of the series of American Eagle bullion coins authorized into law by the United States Congress in 1985 and was first issued in 1986. Unlike many other gold bullion coins minted around the world, the Gold Eagle is struck from 91.67% pure (.917 fine) gold, also known as 22-karat gold. The rest of the alloy is made up by silver (3%) and copper (5.33%), which not only gives these coins a slightly darker hue than most of their .999 fine gold counterparts around the world, but also renders them firmer and more durable as coins. The thickness is roughly comparable to high relief rounds, like those produced privately by the Sunshine Mint.
Though they are struck from 22-karat gold, each Gold Eagle still contains 1 troy ounce of pure gold content, for a gross weight of 1.09 troy oz. They are designated as legal tender currency in order for the coins to be backed by the full faith and credit of the U.S. government for the weight and purity of their fine gold content. Their .917 fine gold purity also harkens to history, as 22-karat gold is sometimes called “Crown gold,” because this was the same fineness standard used for the British Gold Sovereign coin. However, the alloy composition for American Eagle gold coins is slightly different from Sovereigns and Krugerrands, using an additional 3% silver with a balance of copper.
This is also a different alloy than the U.S. Gold American Buffalo coin, which uses .9999 fine (24-karat) gold. In terms of diameter, the Gold Eagle measures 32.7 mm.
Gold Eagle Design
The obverse design of the American Gold Eagle was adapted from the legendary Saint-Gaudens double eagle, a $20 U.S. gold coin that circulated during the early 20th century. Created by the world renown sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens just before his death in 1907, and personally commissioned by President Theodore Roosevelt, the design shows Lady Liberty marching forward to the top of a hill that overlooks images of the nation's capital, namely the U.S. Capitol building. Liberty holds a torch high in her right arm, with an olive branch in her left hand. Rays of light emit from over the horizon while the year-date appears to the right. Fifty stars fill the outer rim. The original 1907 design used 46 stars because Arizona, Alaska, Hawaii, and New Mexico had not yet been admitted to the Union as states. Early versions also used Roman numerals for the date, but that has been adjusted to the more common Arabic numerals. It is fitting that this $20 Gold Double Eagle design was chosen for the modern Gold American Eagle, as they were the first non-commemorative legal tender gold coins issued for circulation by the United States Mint since the nation faced the Great Depression.
The reverse design is of more contemporary vintage: created by artist Miley Busiek, the scene shows a representation of a bald eagle returning to his nest with an olive branch clenched between his talons. His young eaglets reside in the nest, protected by their mother’s wing. Rim inscriptions include "1 OZ. FINE GOLD~50 DOLLARS" while the mottoes "E PLURIBUS UNUM" and "IN GOD WE TRUST" are found near the middle of the image, all in capital letters. The design communicates the importance of family values in American culture, as well as freedom and democracy, and is an interesting departure from most other U.S. coin reverse designs that feature just one eagle. Legislation requires that at least one eagle (or a symbol or emblem thereof) appears on all U.S. coinage made of gold or silver. The edge is reeded.
Gold Eagle Sizes
In the interest of cost-conscious coin collectors and investors on a small budget, the U.S. Mint offers several versions the American Gold Eagle in a variety of fractional sizes. Each of these different sizes bears the exact same obverse and reverse design (to scale), but is designated with a different legal tender denomination. The following sizes of the Gold Eagle are minted annually:
- 1-ounce (1 oz), with a face value of $50;
- Half-ounce (½ oz), with a face value of $25;
- Quarter-ounce (¼ oz), with a face value of $10;
- Tenth-ounce (1/10 oz), with a face value of $5
The denominations of these coins are purely symbolic, done for the reasons stated above, considering that the intrinsic value of the underlying gold content in the coins far exceeds the stated face value. The market value is based on the current spot price in the gold market.
Proof American Gold Eagles
In addition to standard issue bullion Gold Eagles that use a Brilliant Uncirculated (BU) finish, the mint also produces proof quality versions of its 1 ounce coin as well as the sizes listed above that are a fraction of an ounce (using the troy weight system). Each American Eagle one ounce proof coin will come with a mint mark, usually "W" to indicate its mintage origin was the West Point Mint.
Proof Gold Eagles hold special appeal for the collector thanks to their generally lower mintage figures. The blanks, or planchets, of proofs undergo a more intricate coining process where the surface is polished for mirror-like characteristics and striking occurs multiple times in the coining press for extra sharp details and markings. A slightly different process is used to impart the mint luster on the Burnished American Gold Eagle variety.
In many cases, Gold Eagles proof coins will receive a grade or certification from one of the two leading third-party grading services, Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS) or Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC). Their respected numismatists assign each coin a grade based on its condition, such as PF69 or PF70, which are comparable to the mint state (MS) grades that non-proof coins are given. They follow the same Sheldon scale from 1 to 70, used throughout numismatics since its invention by William Sheldon.
Occasionally, certain special editions like Reverse Proofs are considered specimens and receive an SP prefix. They should not be confused with a specimen coin, which is literally one-of-a-kind and often a vintage gold coin. A coin graded PF70 has virtually no flaws whatsoever. They may have a special designation such Deep-Cameo (DCAM) or Ultra-Cameo (UCAM) describing the contrast between the luster of its relief devices and the reflective of the field. Each graded coin comes in a protective holder made of hard plastic material. Certified Gold Eagles make a great addition to any collection or investment portfolio!
American Eagle Bullion Coinage Program
The U.S. Congress has also authorized coin production of other precious metal coins made from silver (Ag), platinum (Pt), and palladium (Pd). In addition to the Gold Eagle series, investment demand remains strong for its silver counter part, the American Silver Eagle. Now, the other precious metals are represented by the American Platinum Eagle and Palladium Eagle, as well, but they are produced in far lower numbers due to the scarcity of these metals. With much higher mintage levels since the Great Recession, the Silver Eagle is a popular investing option, especially for a self-directed IRA (individual retirement account). These coins trade all over the world and are often sold in rolls of 20 coins. In order to take advantage of this portfolio opportunity with your IRA, however, the coins must be stored at an authorized depository (i.e. vault). This eliminates the risks associated with home storage.
These same IRA restrictions apply to silver bars, platinum bars, and palladium bars in addition to world mint coins.
U.S. bullion coins have built upon the example set by South Africa and Canada, the first two countries to issue their own legal tender bullion post-World War II: the South African Krugerrand and the Canadian Gold Maple Leaf. There were very few gold coin options for investing when these coins made their debut in 1967 and 1979, respectively. Both countries rely on their abundance of raw commodities, which has included precious metals throughout their history.
In addition, Canada is also known for its Silver Maple Leafs, which compete with the Silver Eagle and Perth Mint silver coins on the world silver market. Another new option in this regard are the five-ounce America the Beautiful silver bullion coins.
Purchasing American Gold Eagles
For the bullion version of the Gold Eagle (and Silver Eagle), you cannot order coins directly from the mint. These coins are sold only to Authorized Distributors, who purchase them at a price that includes the melt value plus production costs plus a small premium. This is why selling prices for government-issued bullion are slightly higher than generic products.
In terms of delivery options, you can choose to have your metals shipped via UPS or the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). There are several shipping options depending on how quickly you want your package to arrive. Your package will be discretely labeled so that it's not obvious to would-be thieves that precious metals are inside.
Gold coins were once used as everyday money, to settle debts and pay taxes. This was true not only in the U.S. but all over the world, from Switzerland to South America. Today, such coins are generally only used for investment purposes. Nonetheless, for generations, no asset has offered better value retention and wealth preservation than gold. Help protect your investment portfolio better than the secret service detail protects the president!