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$374k Record Price for a Lincoln Cent
by Greg Reynolds

One of only two known 1944-San Francisco Steel Cents was auctioned on July 31 in Heritage’s Platinum Night event at the ANA Convention in Baltimore. The 1944-S realized $373,750, which is, by far, a record price for a Lincoln Cent, and for any kind of small cent. Laura Sperber, of Legend Numismatics, was the successful bidder.

Of all the 1943 copper and 1944 steel cents, this 1944-S is the only gem quality piece known. Although I have never seen the unique 1943-D copper cent, my guess is that this 1944-S Steel Cent is a more attractive coin. This 1944-S is NGC graded MS-66, and there is probably near-unanimous agreement among experts that it grades at least MS-65. Indeed, it is well struck, coolly brilliant, and very attractive overall. Further, the rich texture of the surfaces is enticing. It grabs the viewer’s attention. It was exciting to examine it.

Rich Uhrich remarks that “it is a terrific coin.” He declares that he “did not see any problems at all. It is, by far, the nicest of all the 1943 copper and 1944 steel cents” from any Mint. “Laura Sperber got a good buy.” Uhrich has been a collector since he was four years old and he has been a full-time dealer since Jan. 2006, when he opted for an early-retirement package from his executive position at a “Fortune 500” firm.

This 1944-S is widely believed to be one of just two 1944-S steel cents. I have never seen the other one. In Jan. 1983, it was auctioned by Bowers & Ruddy. It is said to have some technical problems.

The 1944 Philadelphia steel cent in the July 31st Platinum Night event at the ANA Convention has some imperfections that bothered me. I like the NGC graded AU-53 1944 steel cent that realized $29,900 in Heritage’s Platinum Night at the FUN Convention, on January 10, 2008. It has nice, honest wear, and minimal contact marks.

The Jan. 10, 2008 Platinum Night event, in Orlando, also featured a 1944-Denver steel cent. It is NGC graded “MS-62.” I was not thrilled by it. It realized a surprising $92,000. In April 2008, Heritage auctioned another 1944-D for $28,750. I doubt that either the PCGS or the NGC would assign it a numerical grade. The online images suggest that it has more than a dozen substantial rim nicks and that the color changes on the surfaces may be problematic. In the description of this piece, the cataloguer does note that steel cents in general are “susceptible to corrosion.” The propensity of steel cents to deteriorate over time is discussed by Walter Breen in his “Complete Encyclopedia,” which was published in 1988.

Both 1943 steel cents and 1944 steel cents are more likely than copper coins to have technical problems. The zinc plating on steel is sensitive and steel cent surfaces are more chemically active than those of copper coins, which, in turn, are more chemically active than nickel or gold coins. Steel cents tend not to age well. This is one reason why, on many occasions, superb quality 1943 steel cents have been auctioned for substantially more than one thousand dollars each, even though circulated 1943 cents are worth from ten cents to a dollar.

Technical problems notwithstanding, even lower-grade 1944 steel cents are very highly demanded. Collectors find the issue to be exciting, and not many survived.

Though there is widescale agreement that there are only two 1944-S steel cents, estimates of the number of surviving 1944 Philadelphia steel cents vary considerably. Moreover, in the past, some genuine 1944 steel cents were counted more than once by researchers and some fakes may have been counted as genuine items. I am skeptical of some of the pieces that are not certified by the PCGS or the NGC. Furthermore, there may not be unanimous agreement regarding the authenticity of all the steel cents that have been certified by the PCGS or the NGC. Moreover, the data compiled by the authentication services includes many repeat submissions of some of the same coins. Plus, it is odd that so many more are listed in grading service reports than have appeared in auctions. Could someone at one of the services made a clerical error and thus overstated the number certified? Expert estimates have ranged from a dozen to seventy-five 1944 Philadelphia steel cents.

In a June 2001 address to the Chicago Coin Club, Tom DeLorey stated that there are thirty-one 1944 Philadelphia steel cents and seven 1944-Denver steel cents. Rich Uhrich agrees with the estimate of seven 1944-D’s and Rich believes that DeLorey’s estimate of thirty-one is too high. I hypothesize that there are a dozen 1944-D steel cents, and maybe twenty to forty different 1944 Philadelphia steel cents that are well enough preserved to be definitively authenticated. As I am not an expert in coins of this era, I emphasize that my estimates regarding 1943 copper and 1944 steel cents are very tentative and should not be heavily relied upon by buyers of these items. My strong feeling, though, is that a small number of 1944 steel cents are responsible for a much larger number of auction appearances and especially grading (or just authentication) service submissions. Some of them have been cleaned, re-colored or otherwise modified.

As I discussed in part 1, it seems that there is a maximum of twenty 1943 copper cents known, including Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco Mint strikings. It is entirely plausible, however, that there are a few more that have not been discovered or have not been seen by coin analysts in decades. As for 1944 steel cents, of all three Mints, I suggest that there are between thirty-two and sixty in existence.

Even if I have under-estimated the number of survivors of one or two of these issues, it is very likely that there are fewer than one hundred combined of all 1943 copper and 1944 steel cents. Certainly, there are more than ten thousand 1909-S VDB Lincolns in existence. Likewise, there are thousands of 1914-D and 1922 ‘No D’ Lincoln Cents. In a sense, the 1943 and 1944 ‘off-metal’ strikings are the rarities of the Lincoln Cent series.

Collectors have paid more than $20,000 each for representatives of several better-dates in the Lincoln series that grade MS-65 or higher and have strong, original mint red or orange color. Usually, circulated coins of the same dates are available for less than $2 each. Condition rarities among Lincoln Cents, however, are a separate topic.

The focus here is on the importance of 1943 copper and 1944 steel cents. I believe that these ‘off-metal’ strikings are truly errors. When a 1943 copper and a 1944 steel cent were consigned to the 1981 ANA auction, a story was told that these two might have been previously owned by a female companion of former Mint Engraver John Sinnock. The consignor may have fabricated this story or learned of it from someone who ‘made it up.’ For more than one reason, this story is suspicious. As far as I know, there is no evidence that any 1943 or 1944 ‘off-metal’ strikings were deliberately made.

The steel strikings of 1944 were never as famous as the copper strikings of 1943. The 1943 copper cents were more likely to be found in circulation, and might still be. Steel cents of 1943 and 1944 tend to stand out, as these are a markedly different color than all the other U.S. cents that were minted from 1865 to the present. A 1944 steel cent could, however, be found in a jar of 1943 steel cents that was casually set aside long ago. Many families have sacks or cans of old pennies lying around.

The fame of these ‘off-metal’ strikings goes beyond the fact that most of them came from circulation or bankrolls. Rich Uhrich exclaims that these “are definitely cool coins. They are not just regular off-metal strikings. They are not even comparable to an Indian Cent struck in nickel, or a Lincoln struck in silver, because copper is the metal of cents.”

Generally, off-metal errors involve planchets (prepared blanks) that were intended for other denominations or for foreign coins. Uhrich focuses on the fact that these “were struck on cent planchets,” the correct denomination. “A 1943 cent struck on a dime planchet is not worth anywhere near as much” and “is something much less important than a 1943 copper cent.” Uhrich goes on to say that 1943 copper cents and 1944 steel cents are logical “opposites.” In Uhrich’s experience, “if someone buys a 1943 copper cent, he will definitely want a 1944 steel cent,” or if someone buys a 1944 steel cent, he will then search for a 1943 copper. “There is a parallel kind of situation.”

As Uhrich emphasized, 1943 copper cents were struck on 95% copper planchets, and cent planchets had been 95% copper from some point in the middle of 1864 through the end of 1942. So, in some logical or practical sense, the ‘correct’ planchets are copper and steel planchets are aberrations. (Planchets used in 1944 and ‘45, and maybe in 1942 as well, were of a slightly different alloy, but were definitely 95% or more copper.) The use of copper planchets in 1943, however accidental, kept a tradition going. This tradition is important to coin collectors and to many members of the general public, who become emotionally attached to copper pennies.

Why are 1943 copper and 1944 steel cents special? (1) These are struck on planchets of the ‘correct’ denomination. (2) Their particular ‘off-metal’ nature results in startling visual appeal. (3) These circulated. (4) These complement each other. (5) These directly relate to World War II. (6) Kids who collect coins usually start with Lincoln Cents. (7) These fit into both collections of Lincoln Cents and collections of errors.

(8) Copper 1943 cents and 1944 steel cents are the only small cents that are EXTREMELY rare in any grade. Every regular date in the Lincoln Cent series is often available. There is no business strike in the Flying Eagle or Indian Cent series that is close to being rare, except the 1856 Flying Eagle Cent. There are, however, probably more than one thousand Proof 1956 Flying Eagle Cents in existence.

(9) The publicity surrounding finds of 1943 copper and 1944 steel cents has contributed to their fame.

(10) Even beginning collectors and non-collectors can easily understand the essence and rarity of these.

Tens of millions of people have thus heard of them and understand that these are cent-errors made during World War II. A much smaller number of people have heard of Great Rarities like the 1870-S half dime, the 1873-CC ‘No Arrows’ quarter, or the 1856-O Double Eagle.

If the seemingly unique 1943-D copper had been auctioned in May or July 2008, it probably would have realized more than $500,000. As I stated in part 1, this ‘43-D copper was auctioned for $212,750 by the Goldbergs in Feb. 2003. Prices for most rare U.S. coins have risen substantially since early 2003.

At the moment, this 1943-D is probably the most valuable Lincoln Cent. A curious topic, though, is how much Stewart Blay’s Proof 1974-S Lincoln Cent in ALUMINUM is worth. Is it the only such piece? The PCGS determined that it was struck on a foreign planchet. If so, it is an error rather than a pattern. The 1944-S steel cent that Heritage just sold for $373,750 is also a mint error. Are this gem 1944-S steel cent, the one known 1943-D copper cent, and Blay’s 1974-S aluminum cent the most valuable of all mint errors, of any kind?

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