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Italy Embraced Coins a Fraction of a Lira
By Mark Benvenuto, World Coin News
February 05, 2014

Since the euro is more than a decade old, and many collectors have shifted their European coin collecting interests into channels such as finding one of each 2 euro or 1 euro coin per member state, it seems that some of the older, national coins have been relegated to dealers’ bargain bins. One country for which this seems to have happened in a big way is Italy. After all, Italy might have had some beautiful designs on their final, national coins, but they always appear to be made of some base metal or alloy, and thus not have much value. If we roll the clock backwards though, we can find rather quickly that Italy has quite a rich history when it comes to numismatics. Let’s start at the end, as it were, and move back in time toward Italy’s modern beginning.

Let’s be specific, and look at Italian coinage before 1946.

All the post-World War II Italian coins that folks generally see are those base metal pieces that might not attract too much attention. The time frame in which things start to get interesting is 1900 – 1946, the reign of Victor Emanuel III. Starting with the 1 lira coin – which from 1946 onward was a little, junky, aluminum disk – at the beginning of Victor Emanuel’s reign, we find that it is made of silver. Surprisingly, the humble lira wasn’t so humble after all. What happened though was from 1900 on into the First World War, it underwent several design changes until there was a hiatus from 1917-1922. When it reappeared in 1922, the silver was gone, and the coin actually had “Buono da L.1” on it, meaning “good for 1 lira.” The war had clobbered Italy’s economic system, which was reflected in the coinage. The Second World War, and Italy coming in on the losing side of that conflict, would further degrade it.

But we use the 1 lira coin as just one example of what is a fascinating series, and what can become a very interesting collection. Moving up in denomination, the 2 lire coins made as the twentieth century opened up were made of 0.2893 ounces of silver, and had a total weight of 10 grams. These are not found in dealer bargain bins, to say the least. As with their one lira brethren, there were several design changes for the 2 lire pieces in the early decades of the twentieth century. But perhaps of more interest is the fact that these coins were large enough that they served as the platform for an early commemorative theme. The year 1911 saw a commem that honored the 50th year of the Kingdom of Italy (prior to unification in 1861, what we think of as Italy was several smaller nations, and had been so for centuries). As with the 1 lira pieces, the year 1923 saw the silver vanish from the 2 lire coins, and that “buono” appear on the reverses here as well.

Italian coinage of this time frame saw higher denominations as well, including large, silver 5 lire pieces. The 50th anniversary of the kingdom was honored here also, on a 5 lire coin that contained 0.7234 ounces of silver and is about the size of a US silver dollar. These are not impossible to find today, but they aren’t exactly common either. It might take some hunting, and a healthy dollop of patience, to land one for your collection. The artistry of these coins are beautiful, though.

Believe it or not, there were some circulating gold pieces in early Italian coinage, although not for too many years. It was 1912 that saw a healthy issue of 10, 20, 50, and 100 lire gold pieces. All of them are available today, although once again, a person will have to get serious about looking for them, as they are not as easily obtained as any of the modern bullion coins that seem to be everywhere in the current market.

Gold coinage was not a one-year phenomenon for Italy, but the other years generally tend to be rare, no matter what denomination you are looking for. The 1903 and 1905 gold 20-lire pieces are the exceptions to this rule, as the first was made to the tune of 1.8 million and the second a whopping 8.7 million coins. Since they are gold, neither is cheap today. But since there are not all that many collectors of them, their prices are usually not too much higher than that of the gold metal within them.

Don’t let all this talk of gold turn you off to earlier Italian coins, however. The other end of the spectrum, as it were, is where just about anyone can collect the coins of Italy, acquire some pieces of history, enjoy the artwork, and learn a bit about the economics of inflation at the same time. You see, back before two different world wars chewed deeply into the value of the lira, it was divisible by 100. What this means is that there was a time when an entire series of centesimi coins was minted, all of them fractions of a single lira.

Italian coins have been issued in the denominations of 1 centesimo, as well as 2, 5, 10, 20, 25, and 50 centesimi. These were the true small change of a newly united Italy, and many of them are quite collectible today.

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Starting with the little guys, there are plenty of 1 centesimo coppers that were issued from 1900 – 1918 (actually, there are some as far back as 1861, but we’ll stick with the 20th century coins for now). Their look starts out quite traditionally, with the king on the obverse, and a wreath and inscription on the reverse. The year 1908 saw a design change on the reverse to a more artistic image, one of an allegorical female figure in traditional garb. She might have walked right out of one of the ancient pieces from the Roman Empire. Overall, they aren’t too tough to collect today, as all of them were made in large quantities, and are still relatively inexpensive. Time and patience are what you will really need, as it will take some of each to find them all.

Likewise, the 2 centesimi coppers follow their 1 centesimo siblings pretty closely in terms of the years in which they were minted, and in their large quantities. Even the 1908 design change on the reverse is the same.

Both the one and the two-centesimi coins met their demise at the end of World War I, as the first wave of inflation hit many of the nations of a war-torn Europe. The exact same problem that hit these small, copper coins is currently hitting our own one and five-cent pieces. The cost of producing them had become too high. But that certainly didn’t mean all the different centesimi coins went the way of the dodo bird.

The five and ten-centesimi coins which were part of this system of Italian coinage were larger copper coins right as the 20th century dawned – although the 10 centesimi coins were made in 1894, and then again only in 1908. In 1911 though, the 10-centesimi coins sport the commemorative reverse that we just mentioned, for the 50th year of the kingdom. It is a large, handsome piece, and is not too expensive today, even in higher grades.

Both the 5 and 10 centesimi pieces survived the first war, although they were downgraded in size and in metal, as it were. They became brass, then became aluminum-bronze, as the 1930’s unfolded. For collectors today, that translates into affordable prices for just about any of them.

The 20-centesimi, the very short-lived 25-centesimi, and the 50-centesimi coins also saw a good deal of use, and some comfortably high mintages in the early 1900’s. Of these three, the 20 and 50-centesimi pieces offer something of a challenge, since after 1922 the annual mintage of 20’s plunged to 500 pieces in 1926, then only 50 pieces for most years until 1935. For the 50-centesimi, the big plunge came in 1926. Unless you are a serious aficionado, it might be worth staying away from these, even if you can find them, and concentrating on the much more affordable pieces that came out in three different designs from 1908 to 1943.

The 25-centesimi pieces have a history that mirrors the United States 20-cent pieces which came out roughly three decades before. They were minted in 1902 and 1903, and are arguably the most staid and least artistic of all of these smaller denominations. Yet both years logged mintages in the millions, making them inexpensive today, when a person does find one. But it always feels a bit strange to claim you have built an entire collection of some type of coin when it only requires two dates to do so.

What lies beyond this?

There are plenty of Italian lire and centesimi from before the twentieth century. Collecting the coins of Victor Emanuel II and of Umberto I (usually called Humbert to us native English speakers) can be as much fun as assembling a collection of the 1900 – 1946 coins. And the coins that came before unification? Why yes, there are plenty of those, too – which we’ll leave for another day and discussion. All in all though, from gold and silver down to copper and brass, the pre-Euro coins of Italy have a lot to offer for collectors of any means.

More Coin Collecting Resources:

• Strike it rich with this U.S. coins value pack.

• Collect specialized issues? Get the new Standard Catalog of World Paper Money value pack!

• Build an impressive collection with Coin Collecting 101.


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