The Quarter Million Dollar Mistake

Collectors usually go for the unusual, and with coins, the more unusual, the better.  That’s why they flock to mispressed coins, off-center coins, coins with one date struck over another, coins struck using the wrong sized blanks, or any one of a number of other oddities.  Coin collectors like those oddities that can be seen.

That’s why it’s a bit odd that a collector recently paid $282,000 for a Lincoln penny that, to the casual observer, didn’t appear to be remarkable in any way.  It’s your standard-issue, copper Lincoln penny with the “wheat back” that was minted for 50 years by the billions.

1943 copper cent
The 1943 copper cent

It looks just like billions of others.  What makes it unique?  It’s not supposed to look like all of the others.

This particular Lincoln penny was minted in 1943.  That year is unique among all of the 109 years and counting that the Lincoln penny has been produced by the U.S. mint.  In that year, Congress declared that due to a shortage of copper, all pennies were going to be minted from zinc-plated steel instead.

These pennies, known as “steelies,” are pretty unusual in appearance.  When new, they were pretty shiny, with almost a mirrored surface.  Few are seen that way today, and after 70+ years of lying around, most of those steel pennies have taken on a dull, gray appearance.  Still, they’re unique, and collectors like them.

They’re also quite common.  The Mint made hundreds of millions of them and while you aren’t likely to find one in circulation today, they’re not overly expensive unless you’re trying to find one in exceptional condition.  For MS 65, or so, you might pay a few hundred dollars.  Otherwise, you can shop around and buy a roll of 50 of them for $10-$15 or so.

1943 steel cent
What it should have looked like

So what was so special about this particular penny that sold for so much money?  It was dated 1943, but made out of copper instead of steel.  This was a mint error, and was attributed to being one of a few copper dies that were left or stuck inside the machinery when the new steel blanks were put into it.  A few of them came out made from the wrong material.

Mint employees likely found most of them, but a few appear to have found their way out of the building and over the years, surprisingly few of them have turned up for sale.

So, in this case, the truly odd item is unusual in that it doesn’t look odd unless you are aware of the context.  If you know that all 1943 cents should look silver or gray, then a copper-colored one is going to attract attention.

And attract attention it did.  That’s a lot of money for a Lincoln cent.  While they’re widely collected, most of the dates in the series are relatively common and it’s not all that difficult to put together a set in better than average condition.  The exception, of course is the copper 1943 cent, and for that one, you might have to wait a good long while to find another one for sale.

Start saving your money.