Home Precious Metals

Musings on Mexican Silver: Why all the different purities? What is a Libertad?

WeissWeiss Posts: 9,922 ✭✭✭✭✭
edited January 19, 2020 7:10AM in Precious Metals

@CoinCrazyPA 's WTB thread about Libertads touched on something I've been a little frustrated about myself lately.

What is a "Libertad", and why is Mexican silver coinage so beautiful but so frustrating to precious metal stackers?

I think the heart of the problem is that Mexico released so many crown sized silver coins in the 20th century, (the biggest coin circulating at any given time, roughly the size of a silver dollar) but of vastly different purity ranging from the .999 purity of the winged liberty variety that many people call a "Libertad", down to the disappointing .10 purity of the 1950s-1960s era "Morelos" peso that we all excitedly bought from the 3-for-a-quarter bins at our local B&Ms only to find out they had little more than a silver wash. And some people seem to call them all "onzas", Spanish for "ounce", though few of them actually approach an ounce of silver. Then throw in the fact that late-19th century to early 20th century Mexican pesos actually say "LIBERTAD" on the Phrygian Cap on the obverse. It can be confusing.

Here's an incomplete list of the crown sized coins produced in Mexico just in the roughly 60 year period of 1920 to 1979. I've circled in red what % of an ounce each contains. Look how all over the board they are! And look at their current silver value on the right hand side. Some of these were supposed to be commemoratives, in a way. But I think many of these discrepancies resulted from devaluation of the peso. Note in some cases just a few years separated low peso, high silver coins from high peso, low silver coins.

Despite that, I LOVE 20th century Mexican silver. You just have to know what you're doing. Luckily, many of these pieces actually say what they're made of right on the coin itself. The 1947-48 "Cuauhtemoc" 5 peso (one of my all time favorites) literally says "30 Gramos Ley .900" or 30 grams at .900 purity, so actual silver weight (ASW) is .868 troy oz. I don't mind those being called "onzas" by people who don't care one way or another, especially when I'm buying BU examples at melt or less than melt ;)

Regardless of the confusion, Mexico was way ahead of the curve on producing a one-ounce silver coin for silver investors. In 1949, they released the "Onza": a big high quality silver coin containing exactly one troy ounce of pure silver. 70 years ago! These chunky beasts say right on them "Una Onza Troy De Plata Pura" or "One Troy Ounce of Pure Silver", and go on to specify "Ley .925 33.625 Gramos" or ".925 pure, 33.625 grams" which is just over a troy ounce of sterling but exactly a troy ounce of pure silver. They even give the weights in both grams and grains! With no denomination, it was clear these coins were made for investors and savers and were not really struck to be spent. So popular were these, and so strong was the demand, that Mexico minted millions of them again in 1979 and 1980--years before the first American Silver Eagle was released:

At the time most of these were made, the late 1970s and early 1980s, the "silver wars" hadn't come to an end. Few people were familiar with .999 pure silver. Those who were likely figured pure silver to be too soft and not suitable for silver coinage. Americans were used to the 90% silver standard abandoned for the most part in the early 1960s. But at 92.5%, sterling silver was also familiar, and is even more pure than US coin 90% silver had been. From that perspective, it was a great choice. You could draw parallels to the Krugerrand, the wildly popular gold coin of the same era. The Kruggerand contains 1.09 troy ounces of 22k "crown gold"--91.67% pure--which is exactly 1 troy ounce of .999 pure gold. The crown alloy was a known, durable formula which survived circulation for centuries. From the perspective of people who actually spent silver and even gold coins, these alloys made perfect sense.

By 1980, we had survived the first mass silver meltings and sterling had been exposed to be less than desirable to smelters and investors. Why? Was it the gaudy things made from sterling? Was it the fast money lost on candlesticks and knives whose bases and blades were discovered to be plaster and steel rather than silver? Rolls and even the big, heavy bags of dimes and quarters were abundant and well-known, and their value easy to calculate. Did the relatively small amounts of sterling, in odd weights and shapes, just get in the way and slow down the process? These are my theories, I'd love to hear others.

By the first few years of the 1980s, things had changed. A new generation had grown up never having spent silver in any purity. Without the perspective of circulation, the need to alloy to a lower purity was foreign and unnecessary. The commodities markets, recently rocked by the Hunts, traded in .999 pure silver contracts. Sterling and 90% wasn't part of that equation.

JM, Engelhard, and other refiners made .999 pure silver bars measured in troy ounces, which had been known to institutional investors, specialty industries, and manufacturers for some time. They had no concerns over wear, and alloying with stronger metals was something industry didn't want or need. Oddly enough, the .999 pure, 1 troy ounce silver "art bars" of the late 1970s had proven the viability of a these smaller pure silver bars in 1 troy ounce increments. They also weren't made to be circulated, so there was no need for alloying there, either.

This growing familiarity and availability of .999 pure silver, and seeing coins as investment vehicles rather than circulating vehicles seems to have caused a dramatic shift around this time. And once again, Mexico was early to the game. In 1982-83, still years before the American Silver Eagle, Mexico released the "Libertad", a beautiful coin containing one full troy ounce of pure silver. Like the "Onza" before them, they had no denomination and were designed as an investment rather than circulation. And like the Onza, their weight and purity was indicated on the coin themselves. But unlike the Onza, the Libertad was struck from .999 pure silver, with no alloy, and weighed exactly one troy ounce:

So at one ounce of pure silver, a Libertad is an Onza. But as with the earlier, sterling silver Scale & Coin Press coin, not all Onzas are Libertads. To me, the Libertad is just the 1983+ winged liberty coin. I'm a bit of a purist, too: I don't think of the newer style Libertad as Libertads. But I'm funny that way ;)

Anyway. Those are my musings on Mexican silver. I'm not sure my theories about what drove out sterling and lower purity coins and what led to pure silver coinage. But I think they're logical.

Thoughts?

We are like children who look at print and see a serpent in the last letter but one, and a sword in the last.
--Severian the Lame

Comments

  • bronco2078bronco2078 Posts: 9,961 ✭✭✭✭✭

    Its my understanding that turmoil in the monetary system is why the size and purity steadily fell through the 20th century. The 1 ounce coins were sold directly to members of the public as a hedge against the debasement of the circulating coins. The people were hyper aware of the debasement it was happening in real time.

    the coin press type is my favorite of the ounce coins.

  • bronco2078bronco2078 Posts: 9,961 ✭✭✭✭✭

    i've owned a ton of mexican silver over the years , I probably have about 100 troy oz at the moment , I have never owned a 42% peso and I don't think I've ever had any of the 30% either.

    Personal favorites are the 90% 5 and 10 pesos and the 72% un peso , well unless we can go back to the 90% cap and rays kind I'll take those.

  • DrBusterDrBuster Posts: 5,300 ✭✭✭✭✭

    Love me some onzas/libertads, wish I had more.

  • tincuptincup Posts: 4,722 ✭✭✭✭✭

    Nice write up. I have always rather liked the designs on some of these coins.

    ----- kj
  • ashelandasheland Posts: 22,564 ✭✭✭✭✭

    Great write up Weiss! I love the Mexican coins, I have a few Libertads from the 80's and 90's...

  • rickoricko Posts: 98,724 ✭✭✭✭✭

    @Weiss....Thanks for a great write up on Mexican silver.....Good information. Cheers, RickO

  • WeissWeiss Posts: 9,922 ✭✭✭✭✭

    Thanks, guys. I'd intended to write up a short piece on why Libertads and Onzas get confused, but it just seemed like a deeper dive was in order. I'm not a specialist on Mexican silver, I probably missed the boat entirely.

    But speaking of deep dives. If you like Mexican Plata Pura, then dive into this...

    We are like children who look at print and see a serpent in the last letter but one, and a sword in the last.
    --Severian the Lame
  • bronco2078bronco2078 Posts: 9,961 ✭✭✭✭✭

    have you ever owned any of the oddball onzas from the 80's?

    they had a run of proof strikes with versions of old coins on the obverse and the rear said una onza .999 viva mexico plata pura

    there was a cap and rays , winged statue , cuauhtemoc , pillars of hercules ,caballito, eagle on cactus etc.

    The obverses were not the originals though they looked different and the back looked a little goofy , almost like a casino token. They aren't in the krause books to look up

  • WeissWeiss Posts: 9,922 ✭✭✭✭✭

    I seem to recall something about those. But I don't think I've ever had any of them. I'm intrigued. I might go looking for some.

    We are like children who look at print and see a serpent in the last letter but one, and a sword in the last.
    --Severian the Lame
  • DrBusterDrBuster Posts: 5,300 ✭✭✭✭✭
    edited January 17, 2020 6:58PM

    I believe this was cobbled together, but I got it from the A, no paperwork. 2010 purchase. The 20th is dime size.

    I would like to get my hands on some of the big boy 5/10 pesos, as well as a lot more Spanish pesatas, just great coins all around.

  • bronco2078bronco2078 Posts: 9,961 ✭✭✭✭✭

    @DrBuster said:
    I believe this was cobbled together, but I got it from the A, no paperwork. 2010 purchase. The 20th is dime size.

    I would like to get my hands on some of the big boy 5/10 pesos, as well as a lot more Spanish pesatas, just great coins all around.

    What do you mean Pesetas ? :#

    The 25 gram 90% 5 pesetas ? I like the ones with the baby king :D late 1880's era , sure the king is 5 years old but he's learning on the job!

    1870's 5 pesetas with the reclining liberty type figure and the pillars on the back are the best looking

  • DrBusterDrBuster Posts: 5,300 ✭✭✭✭✭

    @bronco2078 said:

    @DrBuster said:
    I believe this was cobbled together, but I got it from the A, no paperwork. 2010 purchase. The 20th is dime size.

    I would like to get my hands on some of the big boy 5/10 pesos, as well as a lot more Spanish pesatas, just great coins all around.

    What do you mean Pesetas ? :#

    The 25 gram 90% 5 pesetas ? I like the ones with the baby king :D late 1880's era , sure the king is 5 years old but he's learning on the job!

    1870's 5 pesetas with the reclining liberty type figure and the pillars on the back are the best looking

    Pesetas, yeah, the Spain silver dollars. Got an 1870 in Barcelona I’ve been carrying around for a year along with a 1807 8r, love the pillars.

  • bronco2078bronco2078 Posts: 9,961 ✭✭✭✭✭

    @Weiss said:
    I seem to recall something about those. But I don't think I've ever had any of them. I'm intrigued. I might go looking for some.

    actually I found them listed in my unusual coins krause volume .

  • jmski52jmski52 Posts: 22,266 ✭✭✭✭✭
    edited January 23, 2020 6:10AM

    I bought 100 onzas back in 1974, and they were nice to own. Haven't owned any Mexican silver since. But, they are nice looking silver.

    Maybe I'm looking in all the wrong places, but doesn't Mexican silver carry larger than the usual premiums?

    Q: Are You Printing Money? Bernanke: Not Literally

    I knew it would happen.
  • WeissWeiss Posts: 9,922 ✭✭✭✭✭

    I'm a terrible person to ask about pricing. Confirmation bias and all. If I find really cool Mexican silver cheap, I snap it up and proclaim it can be had for nothing. If I see really cool Mexican silver but at high prices, I ignore it entirely and it misses my average.

    Yesterday one of the locals showed up with an original BU roll of 1954 5 pesos. He got them from a local dealer a few years ago before the dealer retired. Key to the short series, mintage of 30k vs. millions for the other 3 years. They're a $60 coin all day long. He paid melt (of just over 1/2 ounce) plus $1 each.

    We are like children who look at print and see a serpent in the last letter but one, and a sword in the last.
    --Severian the Lame
  • bronco2078bronco2078 Posts: 9,961 ✭✭✭✭✭

    The 47 and 48 5 pesos can be over $30 bucks ,
    the 25 peso Olympic coins are over melt ,
    the early 50's 5 peso in 72% are over melt ,

    the later 50's 5 peso are scarce and well over melt ,
    the 90% 10 peso coins are well over melt ,
    the 90% un peso and 8 reales coins are way way way over melt over $50 each circ , even holed 8 reales sell for $30

    72% un peso 50 centavo 20 centavo well over melt

    50% pesos are not seen very often but over melt
    30% no idea
    42% no idea rarer than hen's teeth
    10% pesos way over melt !!!!! widely disdained long viewed lower than the ugliest war nickle forever are fetching 3$ each on ebay

  • WeissWeiss Posts: 9,922 ✭✭✭✭✭

    @bronco2078 , are you seeing the older style Libertads? Any thoughts on their pricing? I can find them locally for $20 to $22 each right now.

    We are like children who look at print and see a serpent in the last letter but one, and a sword in the last.
    --Severian the Lame
  • bronco2078bronco2078 Posts: 9,961 ✭✭✭✭✭

    @Weiss said:
    @bronco2078 , are you seeing the older style Libertads? Any thoughts on their pricing? I can find them locally for $20 to $22 each right now.

    80's ? I see them for under 25 bucks but rarely , no 90's

    seeing very few of the 80's or late 70's coin press types locally at any price . i'd pay 25 for those all day long

    I'd love to see some of the 1949 onzas anywhere just to see if they exist

    I'll also say I picked up a 90's era bi metallic peso recently , I never see any of the 90's mexican silver soccer coins or whatever , a lot of the sterling probably was melted and might be worth grabbing

  • SoCalBigMarkSoCalBigMark Posts: 2,784 ✭✭✭✭✭

    The Texas Ranger badges were made from Mexican silver.

    https://cincopesobadges.com/

  • CaptHenwayCaptHenway Posts: 31,437 ✭✭✭✭✭

    Getting back to the OP question, weights and finenesses were adjusted multiple times to try to keep silver coins circulating. The American equivalent is the 1965-69 Kennedy half dollar in 40% silver. We all know how well that worked out.

    Numismatist. 50 year member ANA. Winner of four ANA Heath Literary Awards; three Wayte and Olga Raymond Literary Awards; Numismatist of the Year Award 2009, and Lifetime Achievement Award 2020. Winner numerous NLG Literary Awards.
  • USMC_6115USMC_6115 Posts: 2,944 ✭✭✭✭✭

    @Weiss
    Great writeup on Libertads! I don't know how I missed it. I'm about 3/4 of the way to a full set (no proofs) of the 1 ounce. I wish I started earlier as the premiums are rising fast.

  • WeissWeiss Posts: 9,922 ✭✭✭✭✭

    Glad you liked it, @USMC_6115 !
    I launched a youtube channel earlier this year and put out a 5-part video series based on this original post.

    We are like children who look at print and see a serpent in the last letter but one, and a sword in the last.
    --Severian the Lame
  • USMC_6115USMC_6115 Posts: 2,944 ✭✭✭✭✭

    @Weiss said:
    Glad you liked it, @USMC_6115 !
    I launched a youtube channel earlier this year and put out a 5-part video series based on this original post.

    How do I find it.. I'd love to watch it..

  • WeissWeiss Posts: 9,922 ✭✭✭✭✭
    We are like children who look at print and see a serpent in the last letter but one, and a sword in the last.
    --Severian the Lame
  • USMC_6115USMC_6115 Posts: 2,944 ✭✭✭✭✭

    WOW... Great Crown video popped up first.. Will be checking out the rest later, thanks!

Sign In or Register to comment.