Decoplata: The History of .720 Silver in World Coinage

By Austin Jepsky …..
 

Sometimes referred to as “Mexican Silver”, coins of a .720 silver fineness at one time or another could be found in circulation on five of the seven continents. Despite this widespread use, precious little has been written about this silver alloy, henceforward to be referred to as Decoplata. The purpose of this article is to synthesize the limited amount of written information about the alloy into a concise numismatic history.

The Decoplata alloy was likely used at least a few times in Ancient and Medieval coins from across Europe and Asia, but with limited records surviving from these periods, no firm assessment of its regular usage by any state can be reliably made. The earliest coins that can be verified as being minted in the alloy are fractional Guldens, minted by the Netherlands starting in 1854 for use in its colonies in the East Indies (Michael 2019). These fractional Guldens were produced until 1945, with One Gulden and 2 ½ Gulden coins minted in the alloy in 1943.

During this period in Eastern Asia, Portugal minted a Rupee for their colony in Goa in 1862 in the same alloy. Japan also began minting coins in the alloy starting in 1907; however, their use of 72 percent silver was a debasement from an 80 percent silver alloy intended to maintain the size of coins while reducing production costs (Kemmerer 1912).

Image: Heritage Auctions.

Chile was the next country to utilize Decoplata in 1915. The decision to use the alloy seems to have been reached by the consensus of a committee (Kemmerer 1926). It was only utilized until 1917 to mint One Peso coins.

Beginning in 1919, Mexico began using Decoplata, and by 1920 it was minting 10, 20, and 50 Centavos and One Peso coins in the alloy. The next year the Netherlands debased their larger denomination domestic coins to the alloy, which they would continue issuing regularly until 1967. Japan also debased all of its smaller silver coins to the alloy between 1918 and 1922.

The “Roaring ’20s” saw Guatemala in 1925, British Palestine in 1927, and Ecuador in 1928 all utilize Decoplata for their domestic silver coinage and continue to use the alloy into at least the 1940s. The ’40s also saw Uruguay in 1942 and Dutch Curaçao in 1944 begin to issue coins in the alloy. The Dutch Curaçao coins were minted at the United States Mint in Philadelphia for the Dutch government in exile during World War II (Michael 2019).

1973 Egypt Pound (FAO). Image: PCGS.

The Post-War years saw many additional countries utilize the Decoplata alloy, including Taiwan in 1949, Morocco in 1951, and Egypt in 1956. Portugal also utilized the alloy in the coinage of all of their African colonies and Macau at points between 1951 and 1960. Curiously, the alloy was not used in mainland Portugal during this time, despite being of higher silver content than domestic Portuguese coins (Michael 2019).

The 1960s saw Yemen, Dutch Suriname, and Paraguay also issue coins in the alloy, but by this time rising silver prices were beginning to end the use of silver in all circulating coinage. By 1970 only Mexico and Egypt still minted coins of that alloy for circulation. Mexico issued the last Decoplata coin for circulation in 1979 with a face value of 100 Pesos.

Mexico, the Netherlands, and Egypt continued to issue Crown-sized commemorative coins in Decoplata for several years. Mexico ceased in 1987 and the Netherlands stopped in 1994. Today, only Egypt mints commemorative coins in the alloy, and in such small quantities as to make the coins unobtainable for the majority of collectors (Michael 2016).

Throughout its history, Decoplata has seemed to emerge by accident. It has not been a silver standard adopted to more easily trade with a hegemon, as was done by colonies and satellite states of the UK, the US, and France. Rather, it emerged as a compromise alloy, providing the governments that utilized it some minor savings by debasing their silver coins to the alloy while at the same time maintaining a relatively high silver content in their coinage (Dean 2020). While it is now exceedingly difficult to find any mint issuing a Decoplata coin, the relative abundance of Mexican and Dutch coins minted in the alloy guarantee that any collector can acquire a specimen of this unique alloy at a fairly low price.

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References

Dean, A. (2020). China and the End of Global Silver, 1873-1937. Cornell University Press.

Kemmerer, E. W. (1912). “The Recent Rise in the Price of Silver and Some of Its Monetary Consequences”, The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 26, 215–274. Oxford University Press. https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/1884764.pdf

Kemmerer, E. W. (1926). “Chile Returns to the Gold Standard”, Journal of Political Economy, 34(3), 265–273. https://doi.org/10.1086/253762

Michael, T., & Krause Publications, Inc. (2016). 2017 Standard Catalog of World Coins, 2001-Date. Krause Publications.

Michael, T., Schmidt, T. L., Giedroyc, R., Flemming Lyngbeck Hansen, Henry, E., Keplinger, C., Korchnak, L., Lang, J., Montz, P., Shapiro, A., & Van, E. J. (2019). Standard Catalog of World Coins, 1801-1900. Krause Publications/F+W Media, Inc.

Michael, T., Schmidt, T., & Giedroyc, R. (2019). 2020 Standard Catalog of World Coins, 1901-2000. Krause Publications/F+W Media, Inc.

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About the Author

Austin Jepsky is a writer currently based outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He has been collecting coins since 2010 when he received his first silver dollar from his grandfather. He normally writes on topics related to conservation, agriculture, and history. He has had works published in Dark Mountain and Front Porch Republic.
 

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