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.
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.