If you want to do it right, William, it takes a little work to properly evaluate modern Gold and Silver Eagle coins in $1, $5, $10, $25, and $50 denominations. They are beautiful coins. Please read on. The discussion below applies to uncirculated gold and silver bullion coins that people buy as investments. It does not apply to proof coins, which are a separate topic.
These coins are called American Gold and Silver Eagles when they come from the United States. Many other countries produce similar bullion coins and the same evaluation methods apply. Remember, too, that CoinQuest is not an investment house or financial adviser. We are just plain old coin collectors. Do not make investment decisions based on this page alone.
In almost all cases, specific dates of these coins do not matter. In one exception, the 1996 one ounce silver eagle has a lower mintage than all the other dates, so it carries more value as a collector coin than non-1996 issues. The same goes for the 1991 (MCMXCI) $25 half ounce gold eagle.
So let's get to it ...
In 1986 the US Mint did a cool thing. They started to issue gold and silver bullion coins for purchase by the general public. When you own these coins, you own gold or silver that is guaranteed pure by the US government.
[Opinionated aside: They did a good job picking the designs for these gorgeous coins. Shunning modern pet-projects and politically correct themes, the mint went back to successful Miss Liberty designs: the St. Guaden's design for the gold coins and the Walking Liberty design for the silver coins. Way to go, Mint!]
There are two evaluation factors involved when purchasing these coins:
(A) melt value
(B) retail addition over melt
and there is a third factor if you are selling them:
(C) buyer's margin.
To accurately appraise gold and silver eagles, we must address all three factors.
The first step (A) is to find the current spot value for gold or silver. My favorite places for doing this are kitco.com and monex.com. Armed with the spot value, multiply the number of troy ounces of pure gold in the coin by the dollars per troy ounce spot value. This gives the melt value of the precious metal in the coin. For instance, if you have a one-half ounce ($25 face value) gold bullion eagle and the current spot price is $1000 per troy ounce, melt value would be:
1/2 ounce x $1000 per ounce = $500 melt
This is just a fictional example. You MUST look up the current value of gold or silver to compute the melt value.
Look for an inscription on the coin itself to find out how much gold or silver it contains. Silver is usually 0.999 pure. Gold is often mixed with other metals to give it strength. The inscription gives the amount of pure precious metal.
The retail value (B) of the coin is more than the melt value. In other words, customers buying gold coins from a retail outlet usually pay more than melt for bullion coins they buy. Why? Because (1) the coins are guaranteed to cointain genuine precious metal, (2) the coins are pieces of numismatic artwork with plenty of collector appeal, and (3) the coins often come in protective packaging.
[Another aside: most gold dealers don't consider themselves 'retailers,' preferring lofty titles such as 'investment specialists' and the like. That's ok. Just keep in mind they are retailers at the core.]
The guarantee of genuineness is (in my opinion) worth about $25 on a $500 coin. That would bring our $500 example up to $525.
The numismatic, or coin collector, value can cover a wide range from basically zero to several $10s of dollars for a $500 coin. Excluding proof coins, which are coins minted solely for collectors and must be priced separately, the retail price normally includes additions for uncirculated condition, numismatic grading, and protective packaging. You have to look at the coin and decide for yourself how much you are willing to pay for collector appeal. In an up market, the pressure to buy can make a bullion coin look very desirable. $600 is not an uncommon price for a coin with $500 melt value and $25 genuineness value. If you are not enamored by numismatic appeal and buy coins from a commodity dealer, rather than a storefront retailer, you can usually get away with a few 10s of dollars over spot.
Finally, (C) the buyer's margin has to figure in when you are selling these coins. If you are selling coins to a dealer, they usually pay well below melt value. Shysters will try to get your gold for one-quarter or one-third of melt value. Honest dealers will do better than that, garnering a 10 to 20 percent fee for large transactions.
A general rule of thumb for any retail business is 'buy something for one dollar, sell it for two dollars.' Gold is easy to sell so you can often do better than this rule, but not a lot better. Retailers have plenty of expenses they must cover by buying low and selling high.
In summary, here is our evaluation for our $500 example coin. Translate it as appropriate to your specific needs.
(A) melt value = $500
(B) retail addition over melt = $100
buy these coins around $500 + $100 = $600 retail
(C) buyer's margin = 70% of retail
sell these coins around 0.7 x $600 = $420
This summary applies to a single transaction around the $500 level. If your transaction is a single silver coin for $50, or a roll of gold coins at $20,000, the retail addition and buyer's margin change dramatically.