The 1943 through 1974 Mexican 20 centavo, sometimes called the Pyramid Of The Sun (POTS) coin is one of my favorite world coins. Its design is a composition of historic, mythologic, and esoteric elements that work in concert to create one of the most attractive modern coins of the 20th century.
The Mexican 20 centavo denomination was first produced in 1898. This coin was minted with a 90% silver content with actual silver weight of 0.16 ounces. Monetary reforms in the early 20th century, however, began to reduce the precious metal content of all Mexican coins. By WWII, the average silver content in Mexican coins fell by 65%. And in 1943, silver was completely eliminated from the 20 centavo denomination. Which is where the story of the POTS coin begins...
The Pyramid Of The Sun Coin
On August 3, 1943 Mexican President Manuel Ávila Camacho authorized the issuance of the new bronze 20 centavo to be designed by Chief Engraver of the Mexican Mint.
In his book Numismatic History of Mexico from 1823-1950 (1957), Alberto Francisco Pradeau tells us of the POTS coin, “The dies of this coin were made by the engraver of the mint of Mexico, Manuel Luna Negrete, with the help of his assistant, Francisco Rivera Paniagua”¹
¹ Translated from spanish: “Los cuños de esta moneda fueron hechos por el grabador de la ceca de México, Manuel Luna Negrete, con la colaboración de su ayudante, Francisco Rivera Paniagua”
The obverse of the POTS coin features the Mexican coat of arms: a Golden Eagle perched atop a prickly pear cactus on a stone in the water clutching a snake. This image is based on the legend of the holy city of Tenochtitlan, which goes something like this:
Throughout the POTS coin series, the design of the Mexican coat of arms on the obverse would change three times, gradually becoming less detailed and more abstract.
The first obverse (KM# 439) featured a redesign of the Mexican coat of arms, which became the official design approved by President Miguel Alemán Valdés in 1947.
His successor, President Adolfo Ruiz Cortines approved another redesign for the Mexican coat of arms in 1955, which found its way onto the Type II (KM# 440) POTS coin in the middle of the 1955 production year.
The Type III (KM# 441) obverse is a much less detailed version of the Mexican coat of arms. This version of the Mexican coat of arms, sometimes called the “black and white” version, is still used today to seal official documents.
The more abstract and less-detailed Type III obverse (KM# 441) is quite easy to distinguish from the Type I and II designs, having very little relief. But the differences between Type I and II are less easy to see at first.
The eagle in Type II is a bit larger, with its head raised a little higher and much less detail on the feathers than Type I. But the easiest way to distinguish between the designs of Type I and Type II are denticles around the outside perimeter of the coin. The Type I design has denticles. The Type II design does not.
The reverse of the 1943 to 1974 Mexican 20 centavo is the coin's true highlight. In the January 1971 issue of Coins Magazine, Ralph Yates wrote that the reverse of the POTS coin was, “one of the most attractive scenes to appear on modern coinage in the Western Hemisphere.”
At the center of the reverse stands the Pyramid of the Sun, the largest structure in and central focus of the city of Tenochtitlan, which is inscribed at the pyramid's base.
Atop the Pyramid of the Sun is inscribed the word “LIBERTAD” (Liberty) upon an illuminated Phrygian Cap, a symbol of freedom. The cap divides the denomination “20” in front of rays of sun light from the background, representing enlightenment.
In the foreground, a giant cactus rises from the desert on the left while the leaves of a prickly pear cactus shoot up on the right. Between the cactuses is the word “CENTAVOS” and year of issue. The Mexican Mint's mark (MO) is located immediately above the Pyramid of the Sun.
Flanking the Pyramid of the Sun on both sides are two volcanoes. On the right is Popocatépetl (also called “the Smoking Mountain”), an active volcano. On the left, is the dormant Iztaccihuatl (also called “the White Woman”). These volcanoes are named after the tragic legend of two star-crossed lovers, which goes something like this:
General Market Notes
Mexican coins, in general, aren't the most popular with collectors today. And the few collectors who are interested in Mexico coins seem to be more attracted to the 19th and early 20th century gold and silver denominations like the real, escudo, and peso. This puts the Pyramid of the Sun coin pretty low on the overall desirably scale among the general collectors today.
The Pyramid of the Sun coin was produced in large quantities. Nearly 900 million coins were produced in total throughout the entire POTS coin mintage. With such a high production and little overall desirability, most POTS coins have little numismatic value and will sell for less than $1. Only a few years in the best condition have any significant numismatic value.
There are many POTS coins currently available at coin shops, numismatic shows, and online auctions. The large majority of these, however, have not survived the years in BU condition, particularly some the earlier dates.
Perhaps the hardest date to be found in BU condition, and most valuable, is the 1951. Other early dates that less commonly found still in BU condition include 1943, 1946, and 1952. Later dates of the POTS coin that can be harder to find in BU are 1960, 1968, and 1959. Nevertheless, there are no dates that are impossible to find in BU condition.
Other Interesting Tidbits
As previously mentioned, there were a lot of POTS coins minted. As a result, the 20 centavo has been widely used for exonumia.
The most common exonumic application for the Mexican 20 centavos seem to be ashtrays. There are many examples of ashtrays made from the 20 centavo that can easily be found at many antique stores and online auction sites. There are many different styles, but the general designs are basically the same. I personally have three of these, one of which I actually do use as an ashtray.
Other objects that have been made out of the POTS coin include a variety of jewelry, cufflinks, bolo ties, and even guitar picks.
Ah, Ya Me Cayó El Veinte
Years ago, before cell phones and communications giant Telmex, most people in Mexico used payphones.
A caller would dial the number and then speak to the operator. The phone operator would ask the caller to pay for the call. Then, when the operator heard the coin drop they would connect your call.
If the operator didn't hear the clang of the coin drop, they would ask the caller to try again. When the operator heard the coin drop, they would say something close to, “Ah, ya me cayó el veinte” or in English, “Oh, now I heard the twenty drop.”
Over the years, this phrase came to be the English equivalent of “Oh, now I understand,” or “Now I get it.” Today, the Mexican phrase is not as widely used, although some Mexican people from older generations still use the phrase.
Though completely different in meaning, the English term to “drop a dime” on someone (meaning to divulge or expose information about someone behind their back) also stems from the use of payphones, which at one point cost ten cents to use. If one person were to rat-out another, they might literally “drop a dime” into a payphone to make the call.
Similarity to the Great Seal of the United States
I am not sure if this is by design or just a coincidence, but the general design of the POTS coin has striking similarities to the Great Seal of the United States.
As we've seen, the obverse of the POTS coin features an eagle, facing it's right, grasping a snake. Similarly, the obverse of The Great Seal of the U.S. features an eagle, facing it's right, grasping a banner.
The reverse of the 20 centavo features an unfinished pyramid with an illuminated cap floating above it. Meanwhile, the reverse of The Great Seal of the U.S. also features an unfinished pyramid with an illuminated cap floating above it.
Of course, there are many clear differences between the two designs. But overall, I think the similarities between the two are greater than the differences. Compare them for yourself:
The historic, mythologic, and esoteric design elements of the POTS coin make it one of my personal favorite coins of the 20th century. It is an extremely easy and affordable coin series to collect, aside from just a few dates, and makes for a great beginner collection.
Thanks for reading.
Buttrey, Theodore V., A Guide Book of Mexican Coins, 1822 to Date, Western Publishing Co. Inc., Racine, WI, 1969.
Long, Richard A., The Availability of 20th Century Mexican Coins, Gulf Coast Printing Co., Corpus Christi, TX, 1969.
Pradeau, Alberto F., Numismatic History of Mexico from 1823-1950, 1957.
Utberg, Neil S., The Coins of Mexico, 1536-1963, San Antonio, TX, 1963.