Mexico issues the world’s first modern silver bullion coin, the Onza

Following the Onza's replacement, the Libertad, China launches Panda to compete globally
By , Coin World
Published : 07/04/16
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Editor's note: this is the third part of a feature about the rise of silver bullion coins. The story originally appears in the July issue of Coin World.

The first modern silver bullion coin, backed by a major world government with a guaranteed weight and purity and sold at a silver-related price, was the Mexican Onza.

The .925 fine silver coin contains a full ounce of pure silver (with the alloyed metal, its total weight is slightly more than 1 ounce). It was introduced in 1949 and struck intermittently with that date until new dates were used in 1978, 1979 and 1980. The coin gives a nod to the minting technology once necessary to strike coins, showing a screw press on the obverse and a balance scale on the reverse. 

Mexico’s flagship bullion program, the Libertad, was introduced in 1984, with a reverse design similar to that of the 1943 gold 50-peso coin: the Angel of Independence (the winged Victoria of Mexico City’s Mexican Independence Victory Column), with two volcanoes in an arid landscape behind her. The obverse shows Mexico’s coat of arms, an eagle perched on a cactus with a snake in its mouth. 

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The first Libertads were actually struck in 1982, the year shown on the coins, but were held until the autumn of 1984 because of economic conditions in Mexico, according to Coin World (Sept. 12, 1984, issue). The .999 fine silver coins were the first Mexican coins to be struck from pure silver. The Libertad 1-ounce silver coin measures 40.6 millimeters in diameter. 

In 1991, fractional Libertad .999 fine silver coins of twentieth-, tenth-, quarter- and half-ounce sizes were introduced. Multiple-ounce sizes followed in 1996, when 2- and 5-ounce coins were struck, with 1-kilogram coins first issued in 2002. 

The reverse design of the Libertad coinage was changed in 1996 to a three-quarters view of the same Angel of Liberty allegorical figure, replacing the frontal view used from the beginning. The location of inscriptions was changed and other design elements were changed in appearance as well. 

One quirk of the Libertad program is that the coins do not carry denominations. Another is that no mintage limits are publicly identified. According to Pat Stovall, of Lois & Don Bailey and Son Numismatics Service, the Banco de Mexico board of governors authorizes a certain number each year that the bank can order from Mexico’s mint in San Luis Potosi. Sometimes, but not always, the number ordered does not meet the limit, he said. 

As for disclosure of what those limits are, “That’s kind of a state secret on behalf of the bank,” Stovall said. “That mintage figure is going to be fluid based on what they think they can sell. You never know what the mintage figure is going to be until after the end of the year.” 

When the Libertad series was young, no other coin like it was on the market, and the Libertad soon became the most popular silver bullion coin with the public. That popularity during the mid-1980s caught the attention of other world mints, which then sought to compete in the silver coin field. 

Competition

One of those competitors was the United States, which launched the American Eagle program late in 1986. The .999 fine silver dollar features on the obverse Adolph A. Weinman’s Walking Liberty design from the 50-cent coin of 1916 to 1947. The reverse depicts an eagle with outstretched wings, a shield before it and a ribbon clasped in its beak. An inverted pyramid of 13 stars hangs above the eagle. 

The Royal Canadian Mint in 1988 followed suit with its own 1-ounce silver bullion standard bearer, upping the ante by offering it at a higher purity level than anything then on the market. 

Canadian officials had sought a recognizable symbol when they began the gold Maple Leaf program in 1979, adopting a single maple leaf design for the reverse. That design was carried over when the RCM launched the silver version in 1988. The Maple Leaf 1-ounce .9999 fine silver coin carries the legal tender value of $5 Canadian. 

An effigy of Queen Elizabeth II graces the obverse of the Maple Leaf coins. Three distinct portraits have been used during the life of the program, the designs reflecting a graceful aging of the queen.

The RCM has extended the Maple Leaf program on many occasions, offering fractional sizes just twice in special sets, and issuing Maple Leaf coins with special privy marks, colorization or gold plating for special events, even issuing a Proof silver version to mark the silver Maple Leaf program’s 10th anniversary in 1998. In recent years, the Royal Canadian Mint has continually expanded its silver bullion program. A three-year, six-coin Canadian Wildlife silver bullion coin program featured different animals on the reverse in lieu of the national symbol on the 1-ounce $5 coins. This has been followed by a popular Birds of Prey series and other items, like the Superman 1-ounce silver bullion coins announced June 14. 

Although these new iterations have added to overall sales, the standard Maple Leaf 1-ounce silver bullion coin remains the engine of the program’s success. 

China enters the fold

Following the Canadian lead, in 1989, China launched its Panda silver bullion coins. 

Although China had entered the silver coin market from 1983 to 1985 with Panda .900 fine silver 10-yuan coins, these were Proof issues, weighing just 27 grams (a troy ounce is the equivalent of 31.1 grams) with mintage limits of 10,000 pieces each year, appealing more to collectors than to worldwide silver investors. A Panda .925 fine silver 10-yuan coin containing a full ounce of actual silver made its debut in 1987, along with a 5-ounce version, but these too were Proof issues. 

In 1989, China brought Panda silver bullion coins out of hibernation, launching the program with a .999 silver fineness to compete with the Canadian and American programs. The obverse of each Panda coin shows the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests (the Temple of Heaven). Four different views of the temple have graced the canvas during the program’s tenure. 

Unlike most nations’ bullion programs, the Panda coins’ reverse designs are changed annually (except in 2002, when the 2001 design was retained); each reverse shows a different design of a panda or pandas. 

China’s Panda coins are minted at the Shenzhen Guobao Mint, Shenyang Mint and Shanghai Mint, and are generally not identified with a Mint mark. The first fractional Panda silver bullion coin, a half-ounce silver 5-yuan coin, was issued from 1993 to 1998, the only small silver bullion Pandas ever issued (and the multiple-ounce versions are all Proof issues.) 

Huge changes came with the 2015 and 2016 Panda coins. 

The 2015 Panda coins lack inscriptions confirming their metal content, weight and fineness. Since 1983, China’s Panda coins had included these inscriptions on the reverse, and since 2009 the wording was located below the changing panda design. 

The 2015 move presaged a more drastic change that followed with the release of the 2016 Panda coins.

The 2016 versions of the Panda coins are offered in gram weights instead of being based on the troy ounce standard in other worldwide bullion coins. Reaction was initially mixed, but the change seems to have cause little impact on demand for the “cute” killer bear coin, at least for now. 

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