Ever since the United States Mint stopped producing 90% silver coins back in 1964, the market for privately-minted silver bullion has taken off.
Especially amid the crisis of high inflation that plagued the U.S. during the 1970s, demand for silver by Americans exploded. Investors clamored for silver bullion as a way to protect the purchasing power of their savings. Accordingly, silver prices steadily rose throughout the decade.
The Death of the U.S. Silver Coin
Over the latter half of the 1960s and through the end of the decade in 1979, the price of silver skyrocketed from roughly $4 per ounce to its all-time peak (from both a nominal and inflation-adjusted perspective) over $50 per ounce in late 1979 and early 1980.
The price of silver has not reached higher than this level per ounce in the time since. This next-highest peak occurred in 2011 after precious metal prices were progressively rising following the global financial crisis.
During such times of market stress or a financial crisis, Americans have felt more comfortable hedging against inflation with silver or gold.
Before 1965 there was actual silver in U.S. coins, meaning each dollar bill could -- roughly -- be represented by the amount of pure silver in ten dimes, or four silver quarters, or two half-dollar coins, or an old silver dollar. (All of these denomination corresponded proportionally by silver weight.)
Your paper money or your bank account could theoretically (and in practice, if you wanted to do so badly enough) be exchanged into silver.
This was no longer true after 1964.
The U.S. Mint likewise stopped redeeming silver certificates around this same time as the silver price climbed.
World Silver Market Almost Gets Monopolized
In an infamous story of speculation, a trio of oil barons known as the Hunt Brothers attempted to the corner the silver market in the 1970s.
Nelson Hunt, William Herbert Hunt, and Lamar Hunt -- the latter known for his role as the founder and owner of the professional football's Kansas City Chiefs -- were all sons of the billionaire H.L. Hunt, who made his money as an oil tycoon.
The Hunts appeared to grasp long before the rest of the markets that the removal of silver from American coins paired with waning confidence in the U.S. dollar would offer an opportunity for massive profits in the silver trade.
By stockpiling silver throughout the decade of the '70s, the Hunt Brothers managed to virtually monopolize the world's silver market.
Some estimates placed their personal holdings as high as 100 million (100,000,000) troy ounces!
However, the Hunts made the mistake of conducting their entire strategy through futures contracts. These contracts are typically settled in cash, and therefore the Hunt Brothers had less physical silver in their possession than their financial position in the metal implied on paper.
When some investors demanded physical delivery of their silver, the Hunts were caught off guard and unable to fulfill the orders.
As a result, the silver price plunged back to about $10 an ounce in a matter of weeks. Billions of dollars in profits were wiped out.
The Hunts were subsequently charged with manipulating the price of silver. They ultimately settled the case with regulators and other government agencies, were banned from trading commodities by the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), and went into Chapter 11 Bankruptcy.
Silver Bullion Goes Private
Silver subsequently traded between $5 and $10 per ounce throughout the 1980s, 1990s, and first half of the following century.
During this period, well before the popularity of buying silver exploded as an inflation hedge during the financial crisis, a number of refining facilities began to churn out privately-minted silver bullion.
Where the U.S. Mint left a void by stopping production of 90% silver coins, the private sector stepped up and entered the market for a fiscally sound way to store one's wealth.
From 1965 to 1970, the U.S. silver dollar and half dollar still contained 40% pure silver content. Thereafter, silver was removed from the country's coinage entirely and only copper coins clad in a cupronickel alloy were produced for circulation.
Thus, this opened up an opportunity for a huge portion of the silver bullion retail market to become privatized over the years since the mint stopped producing silver coins itself.
If the people don't trust their nation's currency, they are likely to choose alternatives as a way to preserve their purchasing power.
In this case, silver (and gold) were the ideal alternatives.
When compared to the U.S. dollar, silver has been a much more effective store of wealth over the last hundred years or so.
Privately minted silver rounds and silver bars were the only way that Americans could easily buy silver until the U.S. Mint began issuing its American Silver Eagle silver bullion coins in 1986.
Other nations also started selling their own silver bullion coins during the decade, such as the Canadian Silver Maple Leaf (1988) and Chinese Silver Panda (1982).
However, the intervening decades saw an enormous popularity in silver bullion from private industry. That's why many silver rounds (that have not since then been melted down) were produced in the 1970s or 1980s.
Many new designs have popped up as minting capabilities have improved over the years.
You can choose from all sorts of designs for silver rounds.
Gainesville Coins even carries a number of its own GC exclusive silver bullion products.
The Walking Liberty Design: A New Vision of Liberty
As its name suggests, the 1 oz Silver Round (Walking Liberty Design) uses the famous image of Lady Liberty known as "Walking Liberty" or "Liberty Walking."
This fondly remembered design was popularized and immortalized by the U.S. half dollar designed by the sculptor A.A. Weinman.
The front side of these silver rounds feature a contemporary artist's take on Weinman's classic design.
Adolph Alexander Weinman was a German immigrant. He came to the United States as a teenager to study art and sculpture. In addition to his work with coin and medal designs, he is credited with sculpting many of the statues that appear at some of America's prominent architectural projects of the early 20th century. These include New York City's Penn Station, the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., and the interior of the building where the U.S. Supreme Court meets.
He also sculpted monuments for municipalities in Kentucky, Illinois, Maryland, and several other American cities.
Weinman was among the most accomplished of Saint-Gaudens's students. His work extended to doors, friezes, and other architectural sculpting.
Walking Liberty is revered for its rich symbolism and bold departure from the style of 19th-century coin designs in the United States.
There is a clear resemblance between Walking Liberty motif and the earlier "Sower" design by Oscar Roty for France's silver coins.
Both images show a full view of Lady Liberty in mid-stride. Due to the high level of detail required, this is a fairly uncommon device on coins historically.
The Sower appeared on silver French one- and two-franc coins from the late 19th century through about the era of World War I. This places it right in the time frame of when Weinman would have been influenced or inspired by other sculptors and coin engravers of the era.
You can still find the Sower motif on small-denomination French euro coins today.
Nonetheless, the Walking Liberty design stands on its own as an American original and a masterful work in its own right, no matter where its inspiration may have come from.
This more artistic approach to coin designs was precisely what President Theodore Roosevelt had in mind when he called for an overhaul in the appearance of U.S. coinage shortly after the turn of the century.
The wave of Progressive Era design changes resulted in a wholesale sea change in American coin designs. Included were the Standing Liberty quarter designed by Hermon MacNeil (1916); the Buffalo nickel designed by James Earle Fraser (1913); the incuse Indian Head designed by Bela Lyon Pratt used for the gold $5 half eagle and $2.50 quarter eagle (1908); as well as the two designs by Augustus Saint-Gaudens for the $10 eagle and $20 double eagle (1907).
Many of these artists trained under Saint-Gaudens, including Weinman, Fraser, and Pratt.
The new Lincoln penny designed by Victor D. Brenner (1909) also made its debut during this same short span.
There was considerable resistance to the overhaul of designs by one particular mint official: Chief Engraver Charles Barber.
Barber was not only an important figure at the U.S. Mint, but he was also being asked to dismantle a lifetime of work by helping outside artists like Saint-Gaudens and his pupils come up with new designs. Many of the existing designs that were being replaced had been created by Barber himself.
There were, however, several good reasons for Barber to be frustrated with the implementation of the new designs beyond the bruising of his own pride.
In many cases -- the Walking Liberty half included -- the designs were simply too high relief and too abstract to strike correctly on the coins. Barber had to reduce the relief and rearrange certain elements in order to get the coins into regular production at all.
He was far more experienced with the craft of coining than the nevertheless talented sculptors from outside the mint who were commissioned for the wave of new designs.
Although Barber's adjustments ultimately helped get the coins finalized and placed into circulation, there were still persistent problems with striking them. Many of the most artistically beautiful U.S. coins designs from this period suffer from weakly struck details. They were prone to wear, which imparts a ghostly appearance, if they were not well-preserved as collectibles.
Walking Liberty Design Silver Rounds
It was into this milieu of artistic expression that Adolph A. Weinman's Walking Liberty arrived in 1916.
In fact, Weinman was also the creator of the Mercury dime that was minted during much of the same years, from 1916 through 1945.
If you inspect the two designs closely enough, you can see that the face used for Miss Liberty in each case is rather similar. It's as if the Winged Liberty on the dime (who was mistaken for the god Mercury, hence the nickname) was a close-up version of the Lady Liberty from full view on the half dollar.
The same model -- a woman named Elsie Stevens -- is purported to have sat for both designs. There seems to be a high likelihood that this is true. Other sculptures by Weinman also bear a resemblance to Stevens, especially those that included the goddess Victory, who was a popular figure for statues and other artwork in the neoclassical style at the time.
Weinman, like many of his contemporaries, often sticks to neoclassical sensibilities but adds his own modern twist. It is a fitting renewal of the traditional subject matter of Lady Liberty.
The design shows Lady Liberty striding to the left, welcoming the rising sun of a metaphoric New Dawn for America. Her flowing dress is decorated like the American flag, and she carries oak branches in her arm.
Although the Walking Liberty motif had its critics at the time, many historians and numismatists have judged it to be the most beautiful ever in the United States. It was a fitting choice for the American Silver Eagle and rivals the Saint-Gaudens Liberty, which coincidentally now appears on the American Gold Eagle coins.
These .999 fine silver rounds with the Walking Liberty design also feature a familiar design on the back side. It resembles the heraldic eagle found on the Great Seal of the United States.
The same theme informed the reverse design of the Silver Eagle, which was created by former U.S. Mint Chief Engraver John Mercanti.
Collectors can still own this combination of classic designs in 1 troy ounce of silver without paying more for a name-brand bullion product or a government-issued silver coin. The premium on a generic silver round like the Walking Liberty design is lower compared to these other products.
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