Taking inspiration from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice Told Tales, I
comment on the 1955 Lincoln, Doubled Die Obverse cent. By any measure,
this is the most famous die variety in U.S. numismatics.
My first encounter with the coin came not long after they reached
circulation. Jim Ruddy, who would become my partner in the Empire Coin
Co. in 1958, operated the Triple Cities Coin Exchange in Johnson City,
N.Y. One day a most curious coin was shown to him: a 1955 cent with
all of the lettering and digits doubled, as iinn ggoodd wwee
ttrruusstt and 11995555! Then he was shown another.
Each, as bright as the day it was minted, had been found under the
cellophane in a pack of cigarettes from a vending machine. The retail
price for cigarettes was 23 cents a pack, and change for the
anticipated quarter dollar payment was prepared by enclosing the two cents.
News spread, and Jim offered to pay 25 cents each for every cent
he could find. Soon, he had a few dozen, with no buyers in sight, and
he canceled his offer! At the time there was not much interest in
modern coin oddities. These began to be publicized in 1956, at first
called the “shift” cent. Kenneth Bressett a few years later coined the
term “doubled die” when the variety was first listed in A Guide
Book of United States Coins, known as the “Red Book.”
Empire Coin Co. built up an active trade in these, making a market
for them. At one time, we had more than 800 on hand. Seeking to learn
more, I inquired at the Philadelphia Mint and learned that on a
particular day in 1955 several presses were coining cents, each
dumping the coins into a box where they were then collected and mixed
with the cents from the other coining presses.
Late in the afternoon, a Mint inspector noticed the bizarre
doubled cents and removed the offending die. By that time, the die had
produced somewhat more than 40,000 cents, about 24,000 of which had
been mixed with normal cents from other presses. The decision was made
to destroy the cents still in the box and to release into circulation
the 24,000 or so pieces that were mixed with other cents.
The Mint had no reason to believe that these would attract
attention or have value with collectors. They were simply viewed as
defective coins. Through later “finds,” Jim and I learned that there
were three points of release: in and around Johnson City, the Boston
area, and in western Massachusetts. Likely, about 3,000 to 4,000 1955
Lincoln, Doubled Die cents exist.
And, the coins that were once expensive at 25 cents each are now
worth thousands of dollars each! I wish I had kept one!
Q. David Bowers is chairman emeritus of Stack’s Bowers Galleries
and numismatic director of Whitman Publishing LLC. He can be reached
at his private email, firstname.lastname@example.org,
or at Q. David Bowers, LLC, Box 1804, Wolfeboro, NH 03894.