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Pardon me, will you help me cash these?

HarperD_color.jpgEvery time I look in the mirror, I see by the thinning and graying hair that I am getting older. The 1980s and 1990s are two decades I consider to be yesterday. Not everyone has memories of the events of those years. More and more communications that I receive prove the point.

Today I received two coins in the mail. Both were 500-peso coins of Mexico dated 1986. Enclosed with them was a copy of what looked like the USA Today foreign exchange table. Helpfully circled was the exchange rate for the current Mexican peso, which is almost 11 to the dollar. This makes the value of the peso something over nine cents. A 500-peso coin would then, you might think, have a value of $45 at current exchange rates. Two coins would be $90.

Unfortunately, the sender probably has no knowledge of the terrible inflation that occurred in Mexico in the 1980s and early 1990s. The sender probably also has never heard of the monetary reform of 1993 that lopped three zeroes off the peso values of the time.

That information tells the whole story. The coins basically have no value. Mexico retired them and had them melted. I remember reports of scrap dealers in Texas getting railroad cars full of the demonetized coins.

This brings back memories of earlier days. Scroll back 30 or 40 years and hobbyists used to tell each other the story of the German hyperinflation of 1924 that rendered the mark worthless. There was also a terrible Hungarian inflation in 1946 that shot the value of the pengo. The Hungarian inflation is recorded as the worst inflation ever.

By the time I arrived at a desk in this building in 1978, we would get letters telling us the writers had German mark bills that were worth a fortune and wondering how to cash them in. As I recall, the 100,000-mark denomination of 1 February 1923 was an often mentioned note. Perhaps people knew that the notes of 5 February 1924 that said they were worth 20 billion, 50 billion and 100 billion marks weren?t likely to be cashed at the local bank. My point is that these letters were frequent and easy to answer, but it was quite obvious that the stories of the German inflation that were repeated in numismatic circles didn?t reach the ears of the general population. That is usually the case, but we keep trying.

Time passes. Stories change. We haven?t done much of a job telling the outside world, or even ourselves, about the Mexican inflation since it happened. Sure, it wasn?t nearly as bad as the German and Hungarian inflations, but it was bad enough. Now that nearly a generation has passed, it is time to pass the story along as history. The letter I received in the morning mail is probably the first of the next generation of questions.

You look around the world and see many other examples of terrible inflations. Currently, there is Zimbabwe. The 1980s also saw terrible inflations in Brazil and Argentina. They were not alone, but they sure stood out at the time. However, I rarely ever get asked questions about those two countries? economic traumas.

Colin Bruce II, who works on our Standard Catalog series of reference books, collected paper money with the 1 million denomination at the time. To use his favorite descriptive phrase, ?they were cute.? The notes do tend to get a conversation started.

Argentina went through multiple currencies, the peso, peso argentino and austral. Argentina finally dollarized, but with the peso name. Brazil had more currencies than Argentina with the cruzeiro, cruzado, cruzado novo, cruzeiro (again), cruzeiro real and finally, the one that worked, the real.

It became important, though, for Colin to acquire the bills after they had been around a while. Buying the 1 million denominations at initial release was a virtually guaranteed way of losing a significant amount of money. Inflation can chew up collectors of new issues.

The monetary reforms in those countries finally worked, but now scattered around are many 1 million denomination notes for a new generation to find and bring to my attention.

Send comments to Numismatic News editor David C. Harper at e-mail address david.harper@fwpubs.com.

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