In the weeks leading up to the U.S. Mint’s August 23 release of the first in what is anticipated to be an annual series of American Liberty silver medals, many coin collectors commenting in the blogosphere were uncertain about the reception the medals would receive. Some noted the preference of most coin enthusiasts for coins over medals, for example.
Those views began to change when buyers saw how attractive the medals are and learned the Mint would only produce 25,000 of them, a small number for a modern U.S. Mint product.*
American Silver Eagles
The 2016 American Liberty silver medals are not quite like anything the U.S. Mint has released before, such as the usual bronze medals it produces. They are indeed medals, since they lack the monetization and inscriptions of coins and feature smooth rather than reeded edges, but they are also a new kind of numismatic product that combines features of both coins and medals.
And for the following six reasons they are similar to — and arguably an extension of — the American Silver Eagle coin series:
First, they were struck, as was suggested by the members of the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee, which first conceived this program, on the same 40.6 millimeter, one-ounce planchets as are American Silver Eagles.
Second, the same two quintessentially American symbols that grace each side of Silver Eagles also appear on the medals; namely, an obverse with Lady Liberty, and a reverse that depicts an American eagle.
Third, like Silver Eagles, the medals were struck with different mint marks. In the case of the 2016 issues, that includes one with a “W” for the West Point Mint and one with an “S” for the San Francisco Mint.
The CCAC had recommended doing this to assure a substantial supply of the medals, but the use of mint marks, which was also done on the 2011 9/11 medals, is unusual on medals and makes them similar to coins in that respect.
Fourth, though not done this time, the CCAC recommended that the medals also be sold in special sets paired with a Proof American Silver Eagle, possibly one with a mint mark not used often on Proof coins in recent years, such as an “S”. That will hopefully be done in the future, and it would further promote interest in the medal program.
Fifth, the medals are being graded and sold that way by coin dealers as are millions of Silver Eagles.
Sixth, the particular American Eagle obverse that appears on the 2016 medals is in fact the very one that the CCAC resurrected from designs that were considered for the 2015 commemoratives for the 225th anniversary of the U.S. Marshals Service and recommended as a new reverse design for the American Silver Eagle coin program in 2014.
Although there was a great deal of interest in the Paul Balan-designed flying eagle design, the Mint in 2014 decided against using it as a new reverse for the Silver Eagle.
The appearance of that design on the new medals, rendered in exquisite detail on an ultra cameo Proof surface with a clean look unencumbered by inscriptions, has had a lot to do with the very positive reception of the medals by collectors.
One prominent dealer told me it was the best design he had seen on a U.S. Mint product in many years, and similar views have been expressed frequently by collectors in online forums, especially once the medals reached buyers and they had them in hand.
The Mint’s decision to issue the medals in Proof but not in high relief (as envisioned by the CCAC in its April 2014 recommendations to the Secretary of the Treasury for the American Liberty ultra high relief gold coin and accompanying silver medal program) was initially seen as disappointing by many collectors and by Gary Marks, who led the CCAC from 2010 to 2015, and who was arguably the chief proponent of this program.
Marks has long favored restoring Liberty to our coinage and during his tenure on the CCAC the committee suggested producing a series of circulating coins with modern images of Liberty. Unfortunately, that idea never received sufficient support in Congress, but it was a precursor for the medal program.
In response to my inquiry regarding whether the medals would be struck in regular or high relief, the U.S. Mint’s Michael White told me that the Mint decided it could not do them in high relief and also issue them on the same size planchets as Silver Eagles.
High relief coins typically use smaller diameters than regular relief issues, although some world mints have developed technologies that make it possible to produce high relief coins on large planchets. Coin Invest Trust in Lichtenstein issues such coins using what it calls SmartMinting.
After seeing the 2016 Liberty medals in hand, they do appear to have a slightly higher than normal relief similar to that used on the 2014-W Kennedy gold half dollar.
Whether the Mint made the right call on the relief is debatable, especially since those who have seen the medal find them to be such beautiful works of medallic art. However, the Mint would do well to explore producing high relief silver coins and medals, which is something collectors have asked for repeatedly in Mint surveys.
The highly positive reception the medals have received is one of the key reasons why I believe they have a bright future even if they are struck in higher numbers later. And that is because their chief appeal is their visually stunning artwork and the way they tap into the American love affair with Liberty and eagles.
The modern Lady Liberty design that appears on the medal, which was used on the business strike $100 high relief gold coins, is now viewed by most collectors as very appealing, but when it was first proposed for the gold coin it was the subject of a barrage of negative comments.
The Liberty design in question, which is the work of Justin Kunz, is the first to feature a non-Caucasian or multi-racial female to represent Lady Liberty. A lot of collectors said they found the design unattractive in 2014 when the CCAC proposed it for the 2015 gold coin — some saying the model looked anorexic and others suggesting it somehow went against our shared heritage as a nation — but by the time the 2015 high relief gold coins were seen by collectors, many had warmed to the design. The 2015 gold coins ending up selling out of their mintage of 50,000 units.
Perhaps it simply took time for collectors to appreciate the design, but an important factor is that the medals are struck in Proof unlike the gold coins that were issued in business strike. The CCAC had strongly recommended that both the gold coin and silver medal be issued in Proof.
The design clearly works much better in proof because the contrast between the frosted design devices and highly mirrored backgrounds brings out the beauty of the design in a way the matte finish of the business strike gold issues does not quite achieve.
In my discussions with Gary Marks, he said in July: “I am very pleased also that plans to produce another silver Liberty medal are in the works for 2017. Hopefully these Liberty medals will become an annual series (also a Committee recommendation). It is my further hope that collectors will support this program with strong sales as a demonstration to the Mint’s leadership team and key Members of Congress that “Liberty” does indeed sell. Ultimately I want Miss Liberty to be restored to our circulating coinage. A successful medals program might help give that challenging goal a much needed push.”
Mr. Marks also told me he hoped the Mint would sell the medals the same way it sold the 9/11 medals in 2011, which was mint-to-demand for a defined period of time with no mintage cap. He felt that approach would allow us to see how popular the program, and by extension modern Liberty, really is.
But after the Mint clarified in August that both the product and mintage limit for the silver medals would be 12,500 for each of the two 2016 medals, Mr. Marks said he was very disappointed.
He noted that “Sadly, many collectors who have looked forward to the release of the 2016 American Liberty Silver Medal will be unable to buy one. Look for the total mintage of 25,000 to sell out in minutes. Those lucky enough to snag this silver medal this coming Tuesday will benefit from the instant value appreciation of a new American numismatic rarity. Everyone else will just be disappointed.”
Those comments proved to be very prescient since the medals sold out in six minutes and saw an immediate spike in aftermarket value.
From a longer-term perspective, the 2016 Liberty medal program is significant because it may change the way collectors view medals. The combination of themes with wide appeal, well-designed and original artwork, and well-struck Proof finishes could mark a turning point in the popularity of collecting medals.
Producing future silver medals in high relief is also something that should help sustain interest in the program, especially considering the popularity of the ultra high relief silver art rounds produced by Elemetal and distributed by Provident Metals. Not to mention that medals are often struck in high relief.
If the Mint’s artists continue to produce Liberty and eagle designs that are as artistically inspired as those on the new medals, that should enable the program to achieve the two main goals which the CCAC established for the program, namely, to promote greater artistic excellence in American coin design, and to produce medals that showcase the talents of American medallic artists.
But for these goals to be achieved, it will be essential to get the designs right and also to make more of the medals so that a broader cross-section of collectors can enjoy them.
The design for the 2017 gold coin and silver medal featuring a young African-American woman wearing a crown of stars has been the subject of criticism similar to that which the design for the 2015 gold coin received. But hopefully buyers will keep an open mind and wait to see how they look once actually struck as coins and medals.
As far as mintages, it is clear the Mint greatly underestimated demand for the 2016 medals. A level of 50,000 would have matched that of the 2015 gold coins, but the medals only cost $35 each, not $1,600 like the gold coins, which means far more collectors could afford them.
It is impossible to please everyone when it comes to mintage levels. Moreover, the Mint appears to have been uncertain about how well the silver medals would sell, so a limited mintage of some kind seemed reasonable for the 2016 issue, but 25,000 total medals was far too few.
Buyers of the 2016 medals are of course pleased with the substantial aftermarket premium their medals quickly acquired, reaching as much as five times their cost from the Mint. Those values have already come down a little, which is normal as the Mint ships out orders and a large supply reaches the market.
I expect the medals to retain a solid premium going forward since they will remain the keys and first issues of the series.
Only time will tell if the American Liberty medals and the gold coins are eventually seen, as the Mint and CCAC intended, as the start of a new era in U.S. coins, a modern one that succeeds the classic era that ended with the 2009 Ultra High Relief gold double eagle. The 2016 medals are definitely a good start in that regard.
*Unlike coins, which in most cases require congressional authorization and often have maximum mintages, medals are produced at the sole discretion of the Secretary of the Treasury. While it is true that in theory the Mint could produce more of the 2016 medals, that appears very unlikely in light of the Mint’s recent statements regarding the matter.
Louis Golino is an award-winning numismatic journalist and writer specializing on modern U.S. and world coins. His work has appeared in Coin World, Coin Week, and the Numismatist, among other publications. His first coin writing position was with Coin Update.