A few silver things—too few to warrant a museum of their own—escaped the Spaniards and survive today in Lima’s Gold of Peru Museum. There I soon find a favorite piece, the pert head of a llama. It’s an Inca tumbler, with ears pricked up and a whimsical half smile beneath golden eyes (page 303). What other treasures those eyes might have seen is anyone’s guess: Most of the Inca silver was melted for King, Spain, and God.
God’s share of New World silver re¬appeared in Spanish colonial churches as crucifixes, chalices, and sumptuous silver altars. The king’s portion, or “royal fifth,” helped finance ruinous wars and inflate and wreck Spain’s economy in a flood of silver coins called reals. Some of the first, minted at Lima in 1568, were thin and small and hardly seem the root of so many evils. The Lima mint also struck hefty Spanish dollars; until 1857 they were legal tender in the coin-short United States.
We’re still short of silver coins. In 1965 U. S. dimes and quarters—previously 90 percent silver—became sandwiches of nick¬el and copper. Quarters briefly reappeared as 40 percenters in 1976, together with half-dollar and dollar coins, to mark the Bicen¬tennial for collectors. Now all are coveted investors’ items.
Ever skeptical of paper money, the French regularly coin millions of ounces of silver. So do West Germans, who in this cen¬tury twice suffered postwar inflation that shrank a basket of paper marks to the value of a pat of butter. Conservative Mexicans put their faith in silver 100-peso coins, in one-ounce medallions of silver bullion called onzas, and in their country’s position as the numero uno silver producer in the world.
THIS TRUST IN SILVER has built a town, Taxco, in the mountains south¬west of Mexico City. By some esti¬mates 10,000 Tasquerios hammer and cast silver, and their attachment to the metal runs so deep it borders on obsession.
There’s a deep depression in the 550-year¬old town, the director of the chamber of commerce tells me when I arrive. He owns a silver store and workshop on the main pla¬za, below the Church of Santa Prisca, a cathedral-size baroque confection in pink stone. A Spanish don started it in 1751, thanksgiving for the wealth he’d extracted from silver mines beneath Taxco.
It’s Wednesday, and the shopkeeper hasn’t had a customer this week. He blames the high price of silver. Yes, that’s to blame, repeats the mayor; to blame, echoes an idle silversmith. The price has come down, true, but not enough to lure back all the tourists.