American Gold Eagle Design
On the obverse of the American Gold Eagle is a full-length image of Lady Liberty, facing forward with an olive branch in her left hand and a raised torch in her right hand. Draped in a long, flowing gown, her hair is swept to the left.
Some describe her as striding forward, but she appears instead to be in a pose.The foot of her left leg rests on a large rock (in front of which are oak leaves), difficult terrain through which to be walking.
To Liberty’s right, at the bottom of the coin, the sun is visible behind a depiction of the U.S. Capitol building.
Rays from the sun extend upward from behind the Capitol and Liberty, to about the level of Liberty’s waist. At the top of the coin is the word LIBERTY, the torch separating I and B.
Fifty tiny six-point stars (representing the number of states) are arrayed just inside the flat rim, forming a circle broken only at the very bottom.
From 1986 through 1991 Roman numerals were used for the date, after which the date is in Arabic numerals. The date is to the right of Liberty near the bottom, though higher than on the Saint-Gaudens original design. A monogram of the designer’s initials ASG is below the date, just above the rock.
The reverse of the American Gold Eagle was designed by Miley Frost. The artist’s design was the result of research she had done on the American bald eagle in Wyoming.
Using this research, she produced a sculpture that was accepted as the official commemorative piece for President Ronald Reagan’s first inauguration. After reading about the establishment of the Gold Commission to explore the issuance of US gold bullion coins, Frost prepared a line drawing based on her sculpture.
The drawing was eventually approved both by the U.S. Mint and Congress for use on the new Eagle bullion coin. Miley accepted no commission for the American Gold Eagle coin design, presenting it as a gift to the American people.
The reverse displays a family of eagles in the center of the coin, with an adult and juveniles resting in a nest of sticks and branches. Above the nest in the air is another adult eagle clutching a branch, wings outspread as if preparing to land.
Around the flat rim is UNITED STATES OF AMERICA at the top, and 1 OZ. FINE GOLD ~ 50 DOLLARS at the bottom. E PLURIBUS UNUM is in the space above the left side of the aerie, and IN GOD WE TRUST to the left, each phrase in two lines.
Just below the eagle nest are the designer’s initials MB (Miley Busiek, now Miley Frost) to the left, and the original engraver’s initials JW to the right.
American Gold Eagle History
The production of gold coins for circulation ended in 1933, and many of the coins from the final years were melted following President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Executive Order 6102 of April 5, 1933.
The purpose of the Order was broadly outlined: “I, Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the United States of America do hereby prohibit the hoarding of gold coin, gold bullion, and gold certificates within the continental United States by individuals, partnerships, associations and corporations.”
Individuals were ordered to deliver gold coins, bullion, and gold certificates to a Federal Reserve bank or branch by May 1 of that year. There were exceptions for ordinary citizens:
- Jewelers and artists could have “such amount of gold as may be required for legitimate and customary use”;
Anyone could retain “gold coin and gold certificates in an amount not exceeding in the aggregate $100.00 belonging to any one person.”
- Collectors could keep gold coins considered “rare and unusual.”
Apparently only one individual was indicted under the terms of the order, a New York attorney who escaped prosecution on technical grounds but nevertheless saw his 5,000 ounces of gold confiscated.
By the mid-1980s, world demand for citizen ownership of gold was growing. Responding to the production and sale of gold coins by other countries such as Canada and South Africa, Congress authorized the U.S. Mint to begin producing gold bullion coins through the authority of the Bullion Coin Act of 1985.
American Gold Eagle Minting
The American Gold Eagle is produced from gold mined in the United States, and though the coins display a legal tender denomination, the value of the coins is primarily that of the metal, which is many times the face value.
Gold coins are produced in a 22 karat standard in four weights, one-tenth ounce ($5 face), one-quarter ounce ($10 face), one-half ounce ($25 face), and one ounce ($50 face).
American Gold Eagles are minted in Philadelphia and West Point; P and W mint marks are located at the lower right below the date, next to the circle of stars.
Until 2006 the W mintmark was used only on proofs; the P mintmark was used only on early (1987 or 1988 through 1991) tenth-ounce, quarter-ounce, and half-ounce proof coins.
Collecting the Gold American Eagle
Though intended as a bullion coin, American Gold Eagles are also collected for their numismatic interest. Unless by accident or unknown intent, these coins do not circulate.
Tens of thousands of the tenth-ounce, quarter-ounce, half-ounce, and ounce coins have been certified as Mint State and as proof, though the number of certified coins varies by date. Greater numbers are certified as MS69 and PR69, and to a lesser extent MS70 and PR70, than as other grades.
A few proof-like Mint State pieces have been certified, but nearly all certified proof pieces have received the Deep Cameo designation. Prices of American Gold Eagles tend to follow bullion prices, with an added premium for the certification. Fractional coins are proportionally more expensive than the full ounce coins (that is, ten one-tenth ounce coins cost more than a single one ounce coin).
Some proof examples and “perfect” 70 grades have an additional premium, particularly the MS coins dated 1986 through the early 2000s, and are expensive to very expensive to purchase. Other higher priced issues are the 1999-W $5 and $10 Unpolished Proof Dies and, to a lesser degree, some First Strike pieces and the 20th Anniversary coins.