At a recent spot price of $20.82 (as of 10 Mar 2014 16:00), a $1,000 face value bag of 90% silver U.S. coins has a melt value of $ (based on 715 ounces pure silver per bag).
Regardless of the type of coin, the value of 90% silver coins compared to spot prices varies widely at times. Sometimes there are very high premiums (such as late 1999, just before Y2K, when people thought they would be useful for bartering if computer systems went down). At other times, such as the early-to-mid 1980s and shortly after Y2K, these bags would sell well below the spot price. In some cases, this was due to low demand, and in other cases (such as during the high prices of silver in early 1980), this was due to the lengthy delay to melt the coins into fine silver (and the risk of the price declining before that happened).
But, if you are just buying it for the silver content, what matters the most is how much silver the coins contain. A $1,000FV bag of 90% silver coins contains about 715 ounces of pure silver (plus about 80 ounces of copper).
Typically, for dimes, you will get Roosevelt dimes (the same type we have today), but occasionally will see some mercury dimes (or even more rarely, Barber dimes) mixed in. Some dealers will sell bags of just Mercury dimes at a premium (which is nice, as you don't have to check the dates of them to make sure they are pure silver, as post-1964 Roosevelt dimes are not made of silver). For quarters, you'll usually get Washington quarters with an occasional Barber quarter mixed in. Halves are typically mixed, with the majority being Franklin halves.
Since silver is sold in troy ounces, we won't bother telling you the avoirdupois ounce weights (what it would be on a bathroom scale), or the weight in pounds. Do not trust anyone selling silver using avoirdupois ounces; no dealer will sell using avoirdupois ounces (it is illegal). The same holds true for people selling 'pounds' of silver (12 troy ounces or 16 avoirdupois ounces) -- silver is sold in troy ounces, not in pounds (this gets even more complicated, since a troy pound weighs less than an avoirdupois pound, whereas a troy ounce weighs more than an avoirdupois ounce).
If the price of silver climbs high enough, this will stop. It will likely happen when the price of silver becomes high enough that the 8% or so difference in value between "good" bags and "bad" (highly circulated) bags will become very significant. At $14/oz, a $1000FV bag containing the worst possible 90% silver coins costing about $10,000 will contain about $800 less silver than a bag containing "good" coins. If silver were to reach, say, $100/oz, then that same bag of the worst possible 90% silver coins would be short over $10,000 -- more than the original cost of the bag! I can guarantee you that if you brought the bag to a refiner, they would only pay you based on the weight (otherwise, they would be paying you for perhaps 715 ounces of silver when they would only be able to extract perhaps 665 ounces).
A $1000FV bag of brand new, untouched coins would weigh 803.75 troy ounces, and at 90% silver, would therefore contain 723.38 ounces of pure silver. But those brand new ("brilliant uncirculated") coins all have high collector value, so you aren't going to get a bag containing the full 723.38 ounces of silver (unless you are very, very lucky!).
Most dealers assume that the bags weigh 715 ounces (so they do not have to weigh them all). Websites claim that $1000FV bags of circulated coins contain on average various amounts of silver. We've seen "approximately 715 ounces", "718-720 ounces" (for Walking Libery Halves), "the average amount of Silver per $1000 bag is a little over 710 ounces". But that just ain't always right. When you buy a $1000FV bag (or a lesser amount), you usually don't know what you are getting. Sometimes the seller will specify "dimes" or "quarters", and sometimes even the specific variety (such as Mercury dimes or Walking Liberty halves). But I haven't seen any dealers that specify the weight of the bags.
So how much silver is really in there? If you get a bag, you can weight it, convert the weight to troy ounces, and multiply by .9 to get the pure silver content (which will be as exact as your scale; wear of the coins should be exactly even between the silver and non-silver content). But that isn't always easy.
To test, we took 10 mercury dimes that were extremely worn (where you could no longer see the ridges on the edges of the coins), and weighed them. They should have weighed 25g total if new (2.50g each); they actually weighed in at 22.8g (2.28g each). This was on a scale accurate to .1g. Dividing 22.8 by 25.0 shows us that they now weigh 91.2% of their original weight. Multiplying 723.38 (the original pure silver content of a $1000FV bag of 90% pure coins) by 91.2% results in 659.7 ounces. The good news is that with the bag that we found those in, a random sample of 20 coins weighed 48.6g, or 2.43g each, or 97.2% of their original weight (or 703oz for a $1000FV bag). That's a bit lower than average, but not terrible.
We then tested some Walking Liberty halves, picking out 10 of the most well worn ones out of several hundred. These weighed 117.7g (11.77g each), compared to the 12.50g they should have weighed. That's 94.16% of the full weight, or almost 6% short of the original weight. That would be just 681.1 troy ounces for a $1000FV bag. The good news is that a random sample of 10 coins from that bag weighed 122.5g, or 12.25g each, just 2% short of the full weight when new, for 709oz for a full bag. And those coins looked pretty well worn (but most had the full rims).
Of course, Mercury dimes and Walking Liberty halves tend to be more well worn than newer coins. And since those older coins tend to carry a premium, it is unlikely that you would come across many of them without asking for them. So a bag you encounter would likely have a higher silver content than 700oz. A sample of 40 random Roosevelt dimes from a bag weighed 2.48g each, or over 99% of their original weight (or 717.6oz for a $1000FV bag). And a sample of 10 random Franklin Halves weighed in at 12.36g each, just under 99% of their original weight (or about 715.3 ounces).
So where does that leave us? It means that when you buy a $1000FV bag of coins, you'll probably get about the 715 ounces that are usually claimed -- but in some cases, it could contain as much as 50 fewer ounces than you might be led to believe (or possibly less, if the coins were worn worse than the ones we tested, but these were pretty bad, with the dates on some barely legible). At best, you could be lucky and get uncirculated coins at slightly over 723 ounces (about 1% more silver than you paid for).
|Type||Denomination||Percent of Original Silver Content|
|Well Worn Mercury Dimes||$.10||91.2%|
|Well Worn Walking Liberty:||$.50||94.2%|
|Random sample from Mercury Dime Bag||$.10||97.2%|
|Random sample from Walking Liberty Bag||$.50||98.0%|
|Industry standard assumption of a 715oz bag||Any||98.8%|
|Random sample from Franklin Halves||$.50||98.9%|
|Random sample from Roosevelt Bag||$.10||99.2%|
Finally, you need to be sure that the dates are all 1964 or earlier. It's easy to tell with obsolete coinage, but 90% Roosevelt dimes, Washington quarters and Kennedy halves look and feel almost exactly like the coins with 0% silver (or 40%, in the case of some Kennedys). one bag that was spot-checked had a 2003 quarter in it (probably due to someone taking one of the old quarters and replacing it, not realizing that the old one was silver).
$1,000 face value bags of silver coins were trading on the New York Commodity Exchange back then, as well.
|Troy Oz||Troy Oz Silver|
|BU, brand new||876.90 (54.806 lbs)||803.76||723.38|
|What most claim||866.7 (54.171 lbs)||794.4||715|
|Worst Case (?)||799.7 (49.98 lbs)||733||659.7|