For many a Western investor, the Canadian Maple Leaf gold coin is replacing the Krugerrand. In just five years the Maple Leaf has taken 25 percent of the world market in gold coins. The Gold Institute in Toronto says many buyers - especially Americans - are concerned about the apartheid content in Krugerrands.
But the biggest buyers of all, the Japanese, seem to like the Maple Leaf because it is purer than its arch rival from South Africa.
Both coins contain one ounce of gold. The Maple Leaf is purer - about 99 percent gold. It is ''four 9s,'' as they say in the gold trade, while the Krugerrand is mixed in with a solution of copper, making it a little more than 92 percent pure gold. The Maple Leaf is fine for the purists, but other experts say it's softer and might chip.
Despite the growing market for the Maple Leaf, the Krugerrand is still No. 1. Last year 3.45 million ounces of South African gold were sold as Krugerrands. The Maple Leaf required 1.02 million ounces of gold. A distant third was the Austrian gold piece, which sold 66,000 ounces' worth last year.
The Maple Leaf has been a boon to the Royal Canadian Mint. The coins are punched out at the refinery in Ottawa. The mint makes its money by charging distributors - mainly banks - a fee that ranges from about 3 to 5 percent. The distributor then adds his charge.
Church groups in Canada recently called for a ban on sales of the Krugerrand at Canada's No. 1 gold bank, the Bank of Nova Scotia. The church groups will bring up the matter at the bank's annual meeting, arguing that banning sales of the Krugerrand will ''make a meaningful human rights statement'' on apartheid.
South Africa, for its part, has demanded a formal investigation by officials of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade because the Province of Ontario dropped a 7 percent sales tax on the Maple Leaf but kept it on the Krugerrand and other gold coins. ''We're being discriminated against,'' Steve Goodrich of Intergold in Johannesburg said recently.
The Maple Leaf has impressed buyers in Japan. It now has 45 percent of the gold coin market there. The Krugerrand has the rest. Foreign markets - especially the United States and the Far East - buy 95 percent of the Maple Leaf. Canada is the world's third-largest gold producer - a long way after South Africa and the Soviet Union - but Canadians are not big hoarders of gold. That title, according to Consolidated Gold Fields, goes to Japan, followed by Indonesia, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Saudi Arabia.
The Maple Leaf coin has been good news for Canada's gold mining industry, which has been expanding steadily for almost 10 years. Gold production last year was 2.2 million ounces. That is expected to climb to 2.5 million ounces this year. The big Hemlo gold field in northern Ontario will begin producing in 1985, and Canadian gold production is expected to jump to 2.9 million ounces or more in 1986, according to the Gold Institute.
The Royal Canadian Mint in Ottawa is the biggest customer for Canadian gold. It used about 50 percent of last year's production to turn out gold Maple Leafs. Last year the coin made up 84 percent of the mint's profits.