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These days we pretty much take it as a given that gold is more valuable than silver. The obvious example is the Olympics and other such competitions that give "gold" medals for first place and "silver" for second.

When I was younger I read somewhere that silver was actually rarer than gold in Europe, up until the Spanish started exploiting the New World silver mines, and the massive infusion of silver into Europe devalued it.

I haven't ever seen that stated since, so I doubt its true. However, I did find a reference that silver was in fact rarer in Egypt during the Old Kingdom.

So it seems there probably were extended periods in literate areas where silver was more valuable than gold. What (and when and where) were they?

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I'm tempted to suggest checking out Empress Anna Ioannovna's time in Russia, I know for sure they had silver coinage but not certain it was due to higher value than gold. –  DVK Jul 24 '12 at 18:50
    
@DVK - It could just be because silver was much more plentiful (and thus available for making lots of coins). Also, a lot of countries liked to hoard gold in case of war, and making coins out of it would make that tough. I think that's why the British currency was silver-based. –  T.E.D. Jul 24 '12 at 19:19
    
Almost certainly NOT due to plentifulness. Most of the silver used for official royal coin was imported as far as I know. Discover of local silver sources DID happen during Anna's reign (Demidov??? don't recall) but well after the silver coin from imported silver was minted. –  DVK Jul 25 '12 at 2:37
    
I'm pretty sure this happened in ancient Rome for a short time, after great deals of gold plunder were brought to the city. I can't immediately remember which war this was in, sorry. –  Charles Aug 2 '12 at 19:30
    
On a related note, aluminium was more expensive than gold for the biggest part of the 19th century. –  Frédéric Grosshans Jun 12 '13 at 13:30
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3 Answers

up vote 17 down vote accepted

From "The origin of metallic currency and weight standards" By Sir William Ridgeway (Google books); University Press, 1892

... We saw that the Arabs of the Soudan down to the present day prefer silver to gold whilst in the earlier part of the present century when Japan was opened to European commerce the Japanese eagerly exchanged gold for silver at the rate of one to three and even less as they possessed no native silver and were charmed with the beauty of the little known metal.

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... It is almost certain that in all countries at one stage silver must have been of higher value than gold.

Afterwards as its production became greater it became equal in value and finally little by little much less valuable until at last the relation between the metals is 1/22.

All this on pages 145/146; the earlier pages give some historical document references for these.

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Some points about this answer: 1) Like it in general (so +1). 2) The Marco Polo part I'd say doesn't count, as it still shows gold being worth 5 or 6 times more than silver. 3) I think the last quote is probably true, as silver doesn't appear naturally pure like gold does. –  T.E.D. Jul 24 '12 at 19:16
    
@T.E.D. - #2 - definitely insufficient editing. Removed –  DVK Jul 24 '12 at 20:00
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+1 like how the answer is sourced –  kubanczyk Jul 27 '12 at 8:42
    
@DVK +1 Before I found this site I had the same question about silver and was unable to find the answer. Great job and thanks for the source. –  E1Suave Aug 17 '12 at 19:14
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In China, Shanghai in the 19th-20 th century trade was made in taels, made of silver.. Shanghai's wealth came from trading the merchandise China had to offer.. tea, silk..for opium brought from India.
Silver went to British banks that worth more than gold....HSBC in the 20's had a 6 to 7 million pounds worth of silver stored .

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I'm not sure that that tells us when silver was worth more than gold. It just says that HSBC had lots of silver. :-/ –  Kobunite Sep 26 '13 at 11:08
    
Yeah, I addressed a similar comment up in the question comments. –  T.E.D. Sep 26 '13 at 12:13
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While metallurgic ease, geographic access and hoarding habits would influence the amount of effective metal circulating in human society; the fundamental likelihood of the element in the Earth's crust is also informative:

  • Silver is approximately 64 times more abundant than Gold.

Relative abundance of elements in the Earth's upper crust

A society that had less silver than gold was either unlucky in geographic location or simply not mining or trading for it in the first place.

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You're assuming the earth's crust is pretty uniform in its composition except in some "unlucky places". That's a fundamental fallacy. It's in "lucky places" where specific minerals are abundant that you find rare materials, silver among them. So while there might be more silverlodes than gold mines, they can still be very rare in a large area. And of course the techniques for mining and refining silver may be (are in fact) a lot harder to implement than those for gold, making silver potentially very rare even for people living on top of a deposit, where a gold deposit you can just dig for. –  jwenting Sep 27 '13 at 10:34
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Naturally distribution/geographic access is not uniform, but knowing the global average is useful insofar as it indicates how much more concentrated trading or extraction of gold has to be to outweigh the natural bias of silver. Sort of like a Salmon having to swim 64 times harder upstream than down, on average. –  LateralFractal Sep 27 '13 at 11:17
    
@jwenting: Except, silver and gold are so similar chemically that they almost always occur in the same geographic locations, in the same rock structures. Gold was simply harder too smelt for centuries, making it artificially rarer still than silver as only it's alluvial deposits were easily mined, which is to say panned for. –  Pieter Geerkens Jan 12 at 6:31
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