U.S. Gold Coins – An Introduction
By Paul Vanguard, for BullionMax.com
The U.S. Mint has been hard at work over the years. If you aren’t an active collector or bullion buyer, you might believe that American Eagles are all that's available when it comes to investment-grade U.S. gold coins. Although it’s true that gold eagles are the most popular of the U.S. Mint’s gold coins (especially among our customers), there’s more.
Today, we’re going on a guided tour of modern U.S. gold coins to show you the diversity available to patriotic Americans who insist that their gold coins must be Made in the USA.
#1 modern U.S. gold coin: the American eagle
For what it's worth, the American gold eagle has earned its popularity! This top seller is always a challenge to keep in stock, for us and for the U.S. Mint too. So what’s so great about the gold eagle?
Striking, iconic design. Legendary artist Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s Lady Liberty design is the perfect balance of Art Deco design and timeless symbolism.
Name brand recognition. The gold eagle is considered the first of the modern U.S. gold coins (though that’s not quite true – read on for the full story.)
Affordability. Sure, it’s tough to think of gold as an “affordable” precious metal, especially these days. That’s probably why the U.S. Mint doesn’t just crank out 1 oz American gold eagles every year. In addition, you’ll find much more accessible pricing among the fractional gold eagles in weights of 1/2 oz, 1/4 oz and 1/10 oz sizes. Don’t be surprised to find fractional gold eagles are thin on the ground – the combination of affordability and relatively low mintages means they tend to disappear quickly. For some reason, the U.S. Mint simply doesn’t produce as many fractionals as they possibly should… according to our calculations, during the entire 26-year lifetime of the gold eagle program, total mintages are:
Weird, right? Why mint more 1 oz eagles than 1/10 oz fractionals, if the latter are so popular? Why is the 1/2 oz eagle so darned rare? We don’t know, but it’s an interesting point.
IRA eligibility. The gold eagle is the only non-24kt gold coin the IRS allows in gold IRAs. Why, you might ask, isn’t the eagle made of pure gold?
Rough-and-ready engineering. The entire American gold eagle line is minted in 22kt “crown gold” alloy (just like its granddaddy the Krugerrand) that’s much tougher than notoriously-soft and scuff-prone pure gold. Public service announcement: a coin’s weight refers to its weight of precious metal, not its total weight. That’s why your 1 oz gold eagle will actually weigh nearly 10% more, with a full ounce of gold along with some silver and copper to greatly boost its durability.
#2 modern U.S. gold coin: the American buffalo
Secondary in popularity but not in quality is the 1 oz American gold buffalo. This, the "Canadian Maple Leaf" of U.S. gold coins, is minted in “four nines” or 0.9999 pure gold. Buffalos are only minted in 1 oz weights and mintage numbers are significantly lower than eagles, which makes them prized by collectors. But that’s not the only reason collectors love them. When it comes to design, whoo boy…
If the American eagle’s design represents the nation's spirit, the gold buffalo represents our land itself. Several Native American chiefs posed for a composite drawing made by James Earle Fraser in 1913, which has been engraved on the obverse. And just to drive the throwback point across, the American bison on the reverse (likewise made by Fraser) will keep that Great Plains association within arm's reach.
We argue a lot around the shop what, exactly, Fraser was trying to tell us with his design: is this a swan song for the end of America’s frontier, the legendary Wild West? Is it a celebration of pioneering spirit? Is it an homage to a people, and a species, driven near-extinction by America’s obsession with Manifest Destiny?
Maybe it’s all these things. Who knows? Fraser can’t tell us. Regardless of his precise intent, you’ve gotta admit he designed a damn fine coin.
#3 modern U.S. gold coin: U.S. Mint’s commemorative series
When we get to the U.S. gold coins commemorative program, there’s a lot to talk about. They’re widely available in two denominations, $5 and $10. Neither quite lines up in the tidy lines of the gold eagle, and they aren’t IRA eligible. Both denominations are made of 22kt crown gold, and the $5 coin has almost 1/4 oz of gold (0.24187 oz – like the $20 Liberty half-eagles from the 1800s) and the $10 has nearly 1/2 gold weight (0.4838 oz – just like the old $10 Indian Head gold coin).
Here’s a breakdown:
$5 commemorative gold coins
Just pick an event, anniversary or virtually anything of historical note, and the U.S. Mint probably made a commemorative $5 gold coin for it.
For the more cynical investor, the 1997 Franklin Delano Roosevelt $5 gold coin will serve as a reminder that gold was illegal to own in the U.S. for decades – somebody at the U.S. Mint has a sense of humor!
The 2006 San Francisco Old Mint $5 gold coin, which we've had in our inventory recently, is kind of a Mint's nod to its westernmost outpost.
There are war-themed and sports-themed mintages, as well as what one might call the classics. These include the 1986 Statue of Liberty $5 coin and the 1989 Congressional $5 coin.
$10 commemorative gold coins
Distinctly unlike the $5 commemoratives, these $10 coins are in a class of their own. Most shockingly, they actually went into production two years before the U.S. Mint’s first “official” gold coin, the American eagle…
- In 1967, South Africa issued the first Krugerrand, ushering the world into the era of modern gold coins.
- In 1975, Americans were once again legally allowed to own gold. (Thanks again, Roosevelt.)
- In 1979, the Royal Canadian Mint challenged the Krugerrand for the gold market with their first gold maple leaf.
- In 1984, the summer Olympic games were held in Los Angeles.
No, really, the 4th point is totally relevant! See, the U.S. Mint was watching developments in the global marketplace and decided America shouldn’t be left out. I think they were secretly preparing their equipment for minting gold coins after a decades-long hiaitus. The Gold Bullion Coin Act of 1985 wasn’t yet the law of the land, but surely there were rumors. So the U.S. Mint spun up their equipment and, in accordance with Public Law 97-220, started making the first commemorative gold coins in over 50 years.
They finally stopped after minting nearly half a million proof $10 gold commemoratives, and another 75,886 uncirculated-quality coins before ceasing production. At first, there was ample public interest, but that soon faded. The U.S. Mint learned a few valuable lessons from the episode, which helped make the American eagle our nation’s top-selling gold coin upon its release.
Despite the brilliant, proof and uncirculated status of many of these surviving coins, they come with a lower premium than you might expect.
So that’s it – the full round-up of modern U.S. gold coins! Five distinct weights, two different gold purities, and a whole lot more designs than you probably thought were available.
Should you wander into deeper waters by investigating gold coins issued in the U.S. before 1984, expect higher prices and threatening glares from collectors.
Paul Vanguard is a lifelong precious metals enthusiast and a proud member of the BullionMax team.