Note: This article was originally published May 18, 2015 and updated May 5, 2016.
Silver mining is thought to have begun more than 5,000 years ago in what's now Turkey. The metal was seen as a valuable resource to early civilizations, and its value has held throughout the centuries. As trading evolved, so did the use of silver and gold as currencies of trade. These commodities were eventually used to back paper currency systems, with the silver certificate growing in prominence in the U.S. in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Those certificates still hold value today.
What is a silver certificate?
Silver certificates were issued between 1878 and 1964 in the U.S. These were representative money and part of the circulation for paper currency. The certificates were originally redeemable for their face value in silver dollar coins, and then for one year, from June of 1967 to June of 1968, for raw silver bullion. Since 1968, silver certificates have only been redeemable in Federal Reserve Notes and are therefore basically obsolete, though the certificates are still legal tender.
The value of a silver certificate today
The real value of a silver certificate today lies not in its ability to be used as legal tender, but for its value to collectors. The value can vary depending on the year issued as well as the condition. For example, the most common silver certificates were those issued between 1935 and 1957. These look very similar to a regular dollar bill with George Washington on the front. A key difference is that below Washington on a silver certificate dollar it says that it is, "one dollar in silver payable to the bearer on demand."
These silver certificates are typically worth a small premium over face value, with circulated certificates typically selling for $1.25 to $1.50 each. Meanwhile, uncirculated silver certificates can be worth between $2 and $4 apiece.
Earlier issued silver certificates can be worth much more. For example, the 1923 silver certificate, also featuring George Washington on the front, but in a last large-sized format, can be worth $20 to $50 apiece depending on the condition. Even more valuable is the 1899 silver certificate, which features an eagle on the front and can be worth between $40 and $250, again depending on condition.
Other certificates, such as those featuring Martha Washington (pictured at the top) or the Vignette of History Instructing Young (pictured below) are even more valuable, especially in uncirculated condition. In fact, the 1896 design can be worth over $1,000 if it's in perfect condition, with circulated certificates trading for $100 to $500 apiece.
Having said all that, the best way to determine the true current value of a silver certificate is to take it to a couple of different collectors and have them give an appraisal.
How to invest in silver
While silver certificates hold value to collectors depending on vintage and condition, the value to investors is minimal. Because of this, investors looking to invest in silver shouldn't go about collecting silver certificates. Instead, a better option would be to stick with the physical metal itself. There are actually a number of ways to own physical silver, including buying silver coins or silver bullion, or even purchasing fine silver jewelry or silverware.
Another option is to invest in a physical silver exchange traded fund, or ETF, which are backed by physical silver in a vault. In the case of some funds, holders of certain dollar value equivalents can actually redeem their units for physical silver bullion. Other than access to real silver and the upside to silver prices, ETFs offer a cost-effective and convenient way to invest in silver.
A final though somewhat less directly correlated option is to invest in companies that own silver mines, or those that invest in silver mines, such as silver streaming company Silver Wheaton (NYSE: SLW). The risk investors face by investing in a mining company is more company-specific, with a mismanaged company potentially vastly underperform silver prices, leading an investor to miss out on the upside sought from an investment in silver. That being said, a well-run silver miner would have leveraged upside to silver prices, so it does work both ways.
The bottom line, here, is that silver certificates aren't the best choice for an investor, because these are really a collector's item. Instead, investors should consider either owning the physical metal or an ETF that tracks the metal for pure exposure to sliver prices, or a miner for leveraged upside.
Matt DiLallo has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of Silver Wheaton. (USA). Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.