¿Águila o Sol? The Mexican 20 centavos of 1943-1974

4 Sep

By Connor Falk

The Mexican bronze 20 centavos of 1943 to 1974 is a beautiful coin with a wealth of history in its design. From the Pyramid of the Sun on the reverse to the National Arms on the obverse, the design is attractive and bold. A lustrous, Gem BU example shines with a bright, copper-red color. Also pleasing is a circulated example with surfaces an earthy-brown tone, having served a long time in Mexican commerce.

History of the Bronze 20 Centavos

With the beginning of World War II, Mexico became a primary supplier of silver to the United States of America. Such strong, wartime demand for the metal increased prices and sparked public hoarding and melting of Mexican silver coinage, particularly of the 20 centavos. In addition, the Casa de Moneda (the Mexican Mint in Mexico City) found it difficult to strike enough silver coinage to satisfy public demand.

Even the silver coinage that was issued didn’t circulate well. Reports at the time show many people made do with bronze 1 centavos as well as copper-nickel, then bronze, 5 centavos to replace the 20 centavos. Such a system was cumbersome and could not fully alleviate the 20 centavos shortage. With an economy heavily skewed towards silver coins (upwards of 94% of coins in circulation at the time were silver, the rest being bronze or copper-nickel), an alternative needed to be found to bring back the 20 centavos.

On Aug. 10, 1943, a presidential decree signed by President Manuel Ávila Camacho authorized a new bronze 20 centavos. According to Historia del Banco de México: Volume 3 by Eduardo Díaz (2015), the dies for a bronze, 28.5 mm 20 centavos piece had been made already by engraver Manuel Luna Negrete, assisted by Francisco Rivera Paniagua. Those dies were rapidly put to use. Production began almost immediately on Aug. 19, 1943 using “all the copper they could get.” The Casa de Moneda was soon producing 400,000 20 centavos a day. Total production in 1943 amounted to 46,350,000 bronze 20 centavos compared to a scant 3,955,000 silver 20 centavos.


Reverse of the 1943 20 centavos featuring the Pyramid of the Sun.

The design of the bronze 20 centavos is fully emblematic of Mexico and quite striking. The obverse features the coat of arms of Mexico: an eagle clutching a snake above a cactus, with the legend ESTADOS UNIDOS MEXICANOS above. The reverse features the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacán with the city’s name at the pyramid’s base. Beyond the pyramid are the volcanic mountains Ixtaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl; above, the denominator 20 is divided by a liberty cap and embellished with sun rays with the mintmark oM below. In the foreground, two varieties of cactus flank the denomination CENTAVOS and the date. The depiction of an eagle on one side and the Pyramid of the Sun under a sunburst on the other gave rise to the Mexican phrase “¿águila o sol?” (eagle or sun?) in the same way Americans say “heads or tails?”

Some design elements of the bronze 20 centavos reflect earlier Mexican coinage designs. The Phrygian cap and sun rays are nearly identical to those found on the cap-and-rays 8 reales of the 1800s. Similarly, the two mountains Ixtaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl appear prior on the gold 50 pesos of 1921 to present (struck with a frozen date of 1947 since that year) and the 1921 2 pesos. Finally, the coat of arms of Mexico is present on a number of coin designs though styles vary. The closest early depiction to that of the arms found on the bronze 20 centavos would be the “hook neck eagle” of the 1824 silver reales.

The bronze 20 centavos series is marked by three distinct obverse design changes. Type 1 (KM-439), produced from 1943 to 1955, features a small national emblem. Type 2 (KM-440), which began part way through 1955 and continued to 1971, features a larger national emblem with wider spacing between ESTADOS UNIDOS MEXICANOS. Type 3 (KM-441), minted in mid-1971 to 1974, features a stylized national emblem that is very different from the previous two reverse designs. Although mintages were split between Types 1 and 2 in 1955 and Types 2 and 3 in 1971, there is no noticeable scarcity in those years for any particular type. No bronze 20 centavos were struck from 1947 to 1950 and in 1961, 1962, and 1972.


Left to Right: Type 1 (1943-55), Type 2 (1955-71), and Type 3 (1971-74).

The end of the bronze 20 centavos denomination is very similar to how it began. By the early 1970s, the price of copper had risen enough to surpass the face value. In mid-1974, the Casa de Moneda ended production of the bronze 20 centavos in favor of a lighter, smaller copper-nickel version.

The Market Today

The market for the bronze 20 centavos is wide open to collectors. Most dates have high mintages in the tens of millions and can be had in Gem Brilliant Uncirculated grades for a few dollars. At the grading services, the majority of graded examples are from lower mintage dates. Such dates include 1951 (11,385,000 struck), 1952 (6,560,000 struck), and 1959 (6,017,000 struck).

All dates are readily available, both raw and in slabs, even in Mint State grades. According to the NGC census as of Aug. 3, 2018, 77 coins (12.9 percent) of all graded bronze 20 centavos are 1951-dated; at PCGS, 27 coins (8.3 percent) are from 1951. For 1952-dated pieces, NGC has seen 131 examples (21.9 percent); at PCGS, 31 coins (9.5 percent). Another 76 coins (12.7 percent) of NGC-graded pieces are from 1959; PCGS reports 27 coins (8.3 percent) for the same date. For those three years at the two grading companies, all slabbed examples received Mint State grades.

Only business strikes are known for the series; no proof strikes were made. There is, however, an interesting mule error known for the 1973 issue. The error pairs the 20 centavos reverse (the pyramid side) with an obverse meant for the 1973 copper-nickel peso. The error is not readily apparent. The size difference is negligible; the 20 centavos has a diameter of 28.5 mm while the peso has a diameter of 29 mm.

Under examination, a few key diagnostics give the mule error away. Most notably, the “T” in ESTADOS on a normal 1973 20 centavos has a top bar that dips down at the ends; the mule has a T with a straight top bar. The “A” in ESTADOS also varies from thick with legs connected at the bottom on the regular issue versus a thinner, open version on the mule. The “I” in UNIDOS stands straight on a regular strike; the mule has an “I” with its top tilted to the left. Lastly, the “M” in MEXICANOS is wide on a regular example; the M appears narrow and bold on a mule.


Regular 1973 20 centavos at left, mule peso obverse at right.

It is unknown how many 1973 20 centavos mule errors were made. At this time, NGC has graded two pieces: one MS 66 Red, the other MS 67 Red. A value on a mule 20 centavos is tough to give at this time. No mules have appeared on the market recently and are unlisted in Krause. Given the large mintage for the year, it is reasonable to think that more are out there.

Another collectible in the series are bronze 20 centavos encapsulated by NGC in commemoration of the 2014 U.S. Mexican Numismatic Association Convention. The coins were donated by the Mexican Coin Company (now World Numismatics) and slabbed for free, then handed out to convention attendees. They can be found in NGC sample slabs with the invoice number 2048221. Dates found in the USMEX slabs are 1957, 1960, and 1973. According to NGC records, 150 sample slabs were made.


An example of a USMEX Convention NGC sample slab containing a 1960 bronze 20 centavos.


The Mexican bronze 20 centavos was a workhorse in commerce for many years. It arrived at a pivotal time for the nation’s coinage, as gold and silver gave way to bronze and other base metals. Beyond its history, each piece also represents an example of Mexican craftsmanship with a design that is a well-executed testament to Mexico’s rich history.

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