As with the 20-unit gold coins issued by France, Italy, Switzerland, Belgium and other members of the Latin Monetary Union of 1865 to 1927, silver pieces of uniform size and weight denominated in various national currencies were struck to facilitate cross-border commerce. Budget-minded collectors who are priced out of obtaining U.S. silver coinage of that era will find that the LMU issues to be a somewhat more affordable option.
The one-unit pieces issued by nations from around the world contains .1342 ounce of silver in an .835 fine alloy. That works out to just over 18.5 cents in U.S. silver, which means a fair number of smaller and larger denominations were also struck to Latin Monetary Union specifications.
Belgium wasted no time in creating its version of LMU silver as illustrated by the 1 franc of 1866 to 1918. There are a number scarcer and high-priced dates, including the 1917 and 1918. The 1880-dated franc is a commemorative honoring the 50th anniversary of Belgian independence, and it displays the busts of Leopold I and II on the obverse.
Numismatists who are drawn to U.S. and Canadian dimes can make a natural shift to 50 centimes and half francs with .0671 ounce of silver, while those who like their coins with some heft can pursue the 2 franc pieces that contain .2684 ounce of the metal. The Belgians struck both denominations sporadically from the 1860s to 1914. Why collect the coins of a European nation the size of Maryland?
Legends on Belgian coinage switch back and forth from French to Dutch, reflecting the heritage and origins of most of the nation. For the collector who likes two for one deals, Belgium looks like a winner.
Bulgaria produced some LMU-sized coins on an irregular basis. The list includes the 50 stotinki along with the 1 lev and 2 leva. Having even one example of this Cyrillic-lettered coinage would make for a more interesting collection. Obtaining most or all of the Bulgarian silver would be quite a feat.
The 1916 lev and 2 leva are a rare pair. The vast majority were melted, which means the estimated number of survivors are 50 and 30 respectively. Beware, as counterfeits exist.
Romania is another lesser-known source for collectors with an interest in history. Designs changed regularly on the 50 bani, 1 lev and 2 leva, which makes this batch of circulating silver ideal for the person who craves variety. The 1901 2 leva is a legitimately scarce date, as the original mintage just 12,476 has largely been lost through the decades.
They weren’t struck for long, but the Papal States released some 1 lira and 2 lire pieces with portrait of Pope Pius IX. You don’t have to be named Rocco to appreciate the artwork on the Italian lira and 2 lira f the early 1900s.
No collection of Latin Monetary Union silver would be complete without something from Greece. The choices include 1/4, 1/2 and 1 drachma along with the 2 drachmai. Check out the 1910 and 1911-dated pieces for some incredible artistry, as the reverse displays the mythological character Thetis seated on a seahorse as he holds the shield of Achilles.
France was responsible for a large quantity of continental coinage. The 50 centimes, franc and 2 franc of 1871 to 1895 carried the head of Ceres on the obverse. The transition to the classic “sower” theme was completed by 1898, and that theme remained on French coinage through World War II.
Spain produced silver coinage to LMU specifications into the early 20th century. The most interesting Spanish issues of the era are the “toddler head” pieces of 1889 to 1892 depicting a very young King Alfonso XIII. Born in 1886 shortly after the death of his father, Alfonso didn’t assume his royal duties until turning 16.
Switzerland started a bit late – 1874 – in producing Latin Monetary Union coinage, but they stuck with the concept far long than any other European nation. Silver 1/2, and 2 franc pieces remained the same until 1967 when the precious metal was replaced with a copper-nickel alloy. The same designs are still used on Swiss coinage today.
Nations such as the United States, Britain, Russia, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden ignored the LMU standards and made coins their own way. Austria-Hungry did both, as the 20 kruezer, 1/4 florin and florin gave way to the silver corona in 1892.
Large numbers were struck through 1916, which means the corona is a coin for all budgets. The 1908-dated issue is a classy-looking commemorative honoring the 60th anniversary of Franz Joseph I.
Would nations far removed from the Latin Monetary Union follow the example set in with national coinage in Europe? The answer is a surprising yes.
The Honduran 5 and 10 centavo of 1871 to 1896 met LMU standards for weight and fineness, as did Guatemala’s short-lived 5 centavo of 1881. The Guatemalan 25 centavo of 1881 to 1893 weighed in at .1678 ounce, or exactly 25 percent above a silver franc, lira or lev.
Venezuela produced a long and impressive run of coins fit for the Latin Monetary Union. Designated both by weight (1.25 gram, 2.5 gram, etc.) and face value (1/4 bolivar, 1/2 bolivar, 1 bolivar and 2 bolivares), the South American nation cranked ’em out until 1965, or 38 years after the official end of the monetary agreement.
Today’s European Union is hardly a new or novel concept. The Latin Monetary Union was a less bureaucratic and centralized arrangement, and it was based on honest money in the form of gold and silver. Modern collectors can acquire .835 fine souvenirs of that bygone time from low-priced circulated pieces to auction-quality rare dates.
Al Doyle has written about coins for several different publishers, including the columns "$100 and Under" (2013- ) and "Budget Minded" (2022- ) for The Numismatist. Al has also written for the Chicago Tribune newspaper.