1943 error penny found in lunch money could fetch fortune at auction

1943 error penny

1943 bronze Lincoln penny known as the “Off-Metal Planchet Error” cent. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions, ha.com

DALLAS – Collectors of American coins have their eyes riveted on a 1943 bronze Lincoln penny known as the “Off-Metal Planchet Error” cent. The legendary one-cent coin is being offered in an online auction conducted by Dallas-based Heritage Auctions, with the leading bid now standing at $130,000 [as of 12 noon ET, Jan. 10, 2019].

The fabled penny is steeped in lore and considered the most famous error coin in American numismatics. In fact, the appeal of the 1943 “copper” cent far transcends traditional numismatics, as the issue has captured the imagination of coin collectors, school children, and members of the general public alike. Despite relentless searching by eager collectors over a period of more than 70 years, only a handful of legitimate specimens have ever been discovered. PCGS CoinFacts estimates the surviving population at no more than 10-15 examples in all grades. Heritage has compiled a roster of all specimens certified by the two leading grading services below, including an unknown number of resubmissions and crossovers. Heritage Auctions confirms that the discovery coin they are offering has never before appeared at auction.

The Lincoln Cent in 1943

Copper was a strategic metal in 1943 and a major component used in the manufacture of shell casings, telephone wire, and other wartime necessities. To conserve this important resource, the Treasury Department authorized the U.S. Mint to strike all 1943 Lincoln cents on zinc-coated steel planchets, rather than the familiar “copper” blanks of previous years. The white-colored “steelies” were produced in large numbers and were often seen in circulation until collectors culled out the survivors in the collecting boom of the 1950s and ’60s. However, rumors of extremely rare 1943 “copper pennies” began to circulate almost as soon as the wartime issues were released. It was reported (falsely) that Henry Ford would give a new car to anyone who could provide him with a 1943 “copper” cent, setting off a nationwide search for these reported rarities by school children, bank tellers, and citizens from all walks of life. Stories appeared in newspapers, comic books, and magazines and a number of fake copper-plated steel cents were passed off as fabulous rarities to unsuspecting purchasers. Despite the mounting number of reported finds, the Mint steadfastly denied any copper specimens had been struck in 1943.

The truth would surface many years later, long after legitimate specimens had become well-known in the numismatic community. It seems that a small number of bronze planchets was caught in the trap doors of the mobile tote bins used to feed blanks into the Mint’s coin presses at the end of 1942. These few planchets went unnoticed when the bins were refilled with zinc-coated steel planchets in 1943. They eventually became dislodged and were fed into the coin press, along with the wartime steel blanks. The few resulting “copper” cents were lost in the flood of millions of “steel” cents struck in 1943 and escaped detection by the Mint’s quality control measures. They quietly slipped into circulation, to amaze collectors and confound Mint officials for years to come. Examples of 1943 bronze cents are known from all three active U.S. Mints today, with 10-15 examples known from the Philadelphia Mint, a half dozen specimens confirmed from the San Francisco facility, and a single coin from the Denver Mint.

Aside from the bronze cents that were produced accidentally in 1943, research by Roger W. Burdette has revealed that the Mint struck a limited number of experimental cents in various compositions using the normal cent dies in 1943. Some of these experimental pieces are easily mistaken for the bronze cent errors, despite slight differences in color and striking characteristics. A particularly interesting MS63 Red PCGS example, with a composition of 91.7% copper, 7.5% zinc, and 0.8% silver, is currently on display at the Edward C. Rochette Money Museum in Colorado Springs.

The Present Coin

Sixteen-year-old high school student Don Lutes, Jr., of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, discovered this coin in change he received from his school cafeteria in March 1947. Lutes was old enough to remember the “steel” cents struck in 1943, which were still commonly seen in circulation at the time, so this copper-colored example aroused his curiosity. As a coin collector, he set the coin aside for future study, but did not publicize his find until years later.

Hearing of the Henry Ford new car rumor, he checked with the Ford Motor Company, but was told the rumor was false. He also placed an inquiry with the Treasury Department and received the standard 26-word reply the Mint sent to all collectors requesting information on the 1943 bronze cents:

“In regard to your recent inquiry, please be informed that copper pennies were not struck in 1943. All pennies struck in 1943 were zinc coated steel.”

At that point, Lutes gave up on marketing his coin and decided to just keep it for his collection.

Meanwhile, other specimens of the rare off-metal error began turning up. Conrad Ottelin, a physician from Cleveland, Ohio, wrote a letter to The Numismatist in June of 1947, reporting that his son had found another 1943 bronze cent while going through his wife’s change. Nothing further was heard about Ottelin’s coin, but a third example surfaced 10 years later in the hands of 14-year-old California collector Marvin Beyer. Beyer’s father contacted prominent dealer Abe Kosoff about the coin, had it tested for authenticity, and offered it in Kosoff’s 1958 ANA Convention Auction. Although the coin was withdrawn from the sale, the offering was widely publicized and focused collector attention on the issue in a big way. The 1943 bronze cent was reportedly sold privately for $40,000, a staggering price at the time.

The news about Beyer’s coin renewed Don Lutes’ interest in his 1943 bronze cent. He attended the NENA convention in Worcester, Massachusetts in October of 1958 to show the coin to Walter Breen for authentication. Breen pronounced the coin genuine, but expressed doubt about the reported $40,000 sale of the Beyer specimen, which he believed was grossly exaggerated. Breen arranged to exhibit this coin at National Coin Week and the Central States Numismatic Association convention, and discussed it on an ABC radio program, Big Joe’s Happiness Exchange, in 1959. Although the coin was reportedly offered for $10,000 at the time, Don Lutes retained ownership of this piece through all the intervening years, down to the present day. The Lutes specimen has been featured in articles in all the major numismatic periodicals over the years. It is documented as the discovery coin in series references like David Lange’s Complete Guide to Lincoln Cents and theAuthoritative Reference on Lincoln Cents, by John Wexler and Kevin Flynn.

Through the good offices of his friend, coin dealer Peter Karpenski, Don Lutes finally agreed to consign his iconic 1943 bronze cent in Heritage Auctions’ January 2019 FUN Signature auction. A small packet of research materials, provided by Karpenski, including copies of articles in the Flying Eaglet, Coin World, and the Numismatic Scrapbook Magazine, and a copy of a postcard from Walter Breen accompanies the lot.

Physical Appearance

The present coin is a lightly circulated olive-brown specimen, with hints of steel and copper-red patina in selected areas. The zinc-coated steel planchets used in 1943 were considerably harder than the bronze planchets used in earlier years. To make sure the design elements were fully brought up, the striking pressure on the coin presses was significantly increased for cent production in 1943. As a result, almost all examples of the 1943 bronze cent exhibit sharp striking characteristics. Like most examples seen, the design elements of this coin were strongly impressed, and only a trace of wear shows on the cheek and jaw, and the wheat strands in the wreath. The completely original surfaces are lightly abraded, aside from a short horizontal gouge below the 3 and a slanting mark at the top of the 1 in the date. The bust is glossy and a few subtle hints of original mint luster remain intact in selected areas. The overall presentation is most appealing.

The coin offered by Heritage is the discovery specimen of one of the most famous issues in all of American numismatics. It has remained in the possession of Don Lutes, Jr. since he noticed it in change received from his school cafeteria in 1947. While a number of other examples have surfaced over the years, no other specimen has been celebrated and written about as much as this remarkable coin. This piece inspires a special pride of ownership not equaled by any other example. “This lot represents a true “once in a lifetime” opportunity. Prospective bidders should bid accordingly,” Heritage Auctions’ expert notes in the auction catalog description.

The 1943 bronze cent is listed among both the 100 Greatest U.S. Coins and the 100 Greatest U.S. Error Coins. Click to view the full description, additional photo angles and information, and to bid in the auction.

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Auction Central News wishes to thank Heritage Auctions for the in-depth historical and descriptive information used in creating this coverage.