Thursday, March 8, 2012

To Mint ... or Not to Mint

To Mint, ... or not to Mint

That is the question.

The House Martin strikes again.
Pure silver was the topic of the first installment of this series and if that is your interest please refer to it below. As we now move past pure silver it is time to warn you that the term Pure silver is different than 99.999% silver. The definition “Pure Silver” is applied to anything that has more than 92.5% silver content. I own a commemorative coin that contains 94% Silver and its Certificate of Authenticity states that it is Pure Silver. If you want 99.999% silver make sure your item is marked as 99.999%. If you buy something that says “pure silver” only, it is probably not 99.999% (but it will be higher than 92.5%).

Any object made up of 92.5% Silver is designated “Sterling Silver”. The creation of Sterling Silver is lost in antiquity. Copper is the usual 7.5% remaining component, but there are some other choices. There are many stories on how that 92.5% standard emerged, my two favorites are as follows. The first story involves that 92.5% was as pure as ancient technology could achieve/measure, so that became the standard for silver purity. The second story says that 92.5% is the lowest percentage that could not be visually discerned from true pure silver, so it was the minimum that could be gotten away with by minters and became the standard. Naturally, these two stories contradict each other as if the ancients could not achieve higher than 92.5% how could they know what these higher percentages looked like and keeping silver polished to its brightest finish is nigh on to impossible in ancient times. Be these as they may, Sterling quickly caught on for two basic purposes: coinage, and commemoratives. The next installment of this series will detail coinage, here we will focus on commemoratives created by private mints.
If you decide to include Sterling in your silver collection, or even as the focus of your collection (as it is for me), there are a dizzying array of possibilities. The long history of Sterling demonstrates that pretty much as long as people have wanted something that was both pretty and serviceable Silver has been used, and a lot of it is Sterling. I do not collect this stuff for anything except historical memorabilia and do not recommend collecting historical pieces to anyone. There are three main reasons why I strongly recommend not collecting the really old stuff. First, there is no dependable way to know the actual silver content without thorough testing. Second, such extensive testing actually destroys silver and damages the item so conducting the tests is destroying the value of your object. Third, these items are hotly pursued by collectors and they are generally priced more on the collectability rather than their silver content which means they will cost much more than the silver content value.

About 250 years ago silver smiths began hallmarking their creations thus you start finding Sterling items that are dependably Sterling. The spread of this practice led to standardization in the industry and makes collecting much more possible, but still expensive as what survives is collected thus driving up price. Eventually the Silversmiths transformed into private Mints. Today there are a selection of private mints out there (Danbury, Lincoln, and Washington to name a few of the bigger ones), but I prefer what is probably the biggest and best, the Franklin Mint. All of these mints make a variety of items, but each will have certain specialties. For example the Washington Mint makes 5000 grain (just over 10 ounces) ingots in honor of each of the Presidents of the United States. These mints will also take on private commissions for groups or individuals and thus there is even more production. My preference for the Franklin Mint stems from their involvement in several large silver projects that my father collected as well as the simply vast amount of Franklin Mint items out there and available.

There are three basic forms that Sterling Silver issued from private mints take. The first form is their commonly issued series. The second form is their private issued series. The third, and not always available, form is their personal series which was only offered to member collectors.

The most available form of Sterling was the commonly issued collections. These were made in as large a number as they hoped they could sell. These collections offer two vast advantages to the modern silver accumulator. First, there is little collector value as those who wanted a specific coin got them when they were first issued. Second, there were lots of them around so when you find something you like it is easy to add to the collection.

Both the Public and Private collections themselves are vast beyond counting. Whatever you like, there are silver sets to your fancy. Do you like the Monarchs of England? If so, there is a set for you.

Perhaps the American Revolution is more to your interest. Sterling has it covered in abundance as the heyday of these Mints was the 1970’s and the Bicentennial era in America.

For some the allure of international moments is strong, for these there are collections for the U.N. These have the added benefit of usually including a first day Stamp in conjunction with the Silver.

For others, perhaps it is the joy of collecting sets on a yearly basis. Three holidays are the standard of this field (Christmas, Mothers Day and Fathers Day) and something like this Christmas Bar could serve as a standard for your collection.

Still others find some topic in History that they fancy and can enjoy collecting Sterling themed on almost anything. Here are a couple of Locomotive Bars.

These Locomotive Bars serve to point out one danger in this realm of collecting. The Mints almost always issued the Sterling in Two different sizes. Some sellers can be less than forth coming on the size of what they are selling. If the price seems too good to be true, you are probably looking at one of the smaller versions of the item in question.

As a final benefit I would offer that these Mint items come in a variety of sizes and weights. The Franklin Mint offered its regular collectors the tokens below as a small gift for buying a years worth of offerings. They were issued each year starting in 1970 and were free at the time. They started standardized at the size of a quarter (6.5 grams). “Members” received a Sterling Silver round, “Collectors Society Members” received a 24 karat gold electroplated sterling silver round. In 1980 the Mint reduced the size of the coins to that of a dime (2.6 grams), but continued the Sterling and Gold plated Sterling versions. Such rounds of reasonable price, recognized size, and standardized content offer many advantages and a multitude of uses making them one of the very best ways to get into this avenue of silver.

As a final note, before you discount the electroplated gold I would point out to any reader that the weight of the Gold is between .3 and .5 of a gram on the larger coins. At current Gold prices .3 grams of 24 karat gold is worth about $15, or a bit over twice the sterling value of the round itself. On the smaller rounds issued after 1980 the Gold weight is between .1 and .2 grams. This gold would again basically double the value of the Sterling in the token.

Well that takes care of the introduction to Mint Sterling products. Naturally if there are any questions feel free to post them in the comments. Next time I will take a look at the Sterling world of International coinage.

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