The United States Mint is seeking the return of an experimental
aluminum 1974-D Lincoln cent it claims is government property, even
though the bureau’s own records show no evidence of the coin ever
being produced by the Mint.
Meanwhile, Randall Lawrence and Michael McConnell — from whom the
U.S. Mint is seeking the coin’s return — filed suit in federal court
March 14 seeking declaratory judgment that would allow the two men to
retain ownership of the coin for its planned sale at auction.
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The experimental aluminum 1974-D Lincoln cent was scheduled to be
offered for sale during Heritage Auctions April 24 Platinum Session
held in conjunction with Central States Numismatic Society’s 75th
Anniversary Convention in Schaumburg, Ill.
The coin has since been withdrawn from the sale pending the outcome
of the litigation.
Lawrence’s and McConnell’s attorney, Armen Vartian, said March 20
that the 1974-D experimental cent remains in the possession of
Heritage, as would any coin consigned for auction whose title has come
Lawrence and McConnell had hoped to donate a minimum of $100,000 of
the net proceeds from the sale of the coin at auction to help provide
services to the homeless in the San Diego area.
Heritage Auctions officials value the 1974-D aluminum cent in the
neighborhood of $250,000, according to Todd Imhof, Heritage’s
executive vice president.
The 1974-D Lincoln aluminum cent, the only example known extant from
a purported production of no more than 12 pieces, is graded and
encapsulated Mint State 63 by Professional Coin Grading Service.
Imhof said Heritage officials consulted with Vartian and considered
his opinion that the 1974-D aluminum cent is legal to own before
proceeding with the announcement that the 1974-D aluminum cent would
be offered at auction.
Randall Lawrence is the son of Harry Edmond Lawrence. After some 20
years in the Denver Mint facility, predominantly in the
assistant superintendent’s position, the senior Lawrence retired as
assistant superintendent in 1980. He died the same year.
The 1974-D Lincoln aluminum cent was among items Randall Lawrence
inherited from his father.
In September 2013, McConnell, a coin dealer in La Jolla, Calif.,
purchased the 1974-D aluminum cent from the younger Lawrence along
with some other coins H.E. Lawrence had owned.
Vartian argues in the complaint for declaratory judgment that if the
court rules in favor of the government’s claim that the 1974-D
aluminum cent was never officially issued as legal tender, the ruling
would have far-reaching ramifications for ownership of other
Vartian warns that many classic U.S. coin rarities that were never
issued as legal tender could come under future scrutiny as to whether
they are legal to own. He noted that all U.S. coin patterns, among
other issues, are in this category. All have traded openly for decades
in the numismatic marketplace without any government invention,
Vartian argues in the complaint.
Vartian filed the complaint in the United States District Court for
the Southern District of California in San Diego against the U.S.
Department of the Treasury, U.S. Bureau of the Mint, and the United
States of America.
Vartian pens the “Collectibles and Law” column for Coin World.
When PCGS authenticated the 1974-D aluminum cent as genuine, it
noted that the piece weighs the same 0.93 gram as the Albert P. Toven
specimen of an aluminum 1974 Lincoln cent. That coin was struck at the
Philadelphia Mint as part of the U.S. Mint’s efforts at finding a
replacement for the 95 percent copper composition used for the cent.
Once McConnell learned of the experimental cent’s value, after PCGS
confirmed the coin to be genuine, McConnell contacted Randall Lawrence
to have him share in the new-found potential spoils, and they agreed
to consign the piece to auction.
The Toven cent
The Toven aluminum cent, which surfaced in 2005, was graded and
encapsulated About Uncirculated 58 by Independent Coin Grading. The
cent was subsequently graded MS-62 by PCGS.
Toven was a U.S. Capitol police officer who reportedly picked up the
1974 aluminum cent in the basement of the Rayburn Office Building,
after a congressman dropped the coin. Toven tried to return the piece,
thinking it was a dime, but he was told to keep it.
Upon closer examination, Toven realized it was not a dime, but one
of the experimental cents. Toven kept the piece until he died, in
1999. The Toven 1974 aluminum cent is still owned by the Toven family.
The U.S. Mint has never made any effort to seek the return of the
Vartian on 1974 cent
For a Feb. 17, 2014, Coin World article, Vartian said his
opinion on the legal status of the Toven 1974 aluminum cent that
surfaced in 2005 has not changed, and that opinion applies to the
legality of the private ownership of the recently surfaced 1974-D
“There has never been the slightest suggestion that any 1974
aluminum cents were stolen from the Mint,” Vartian told Coin
World. “These pieces may not have been issued as money, but that
ground for declaring coins illegal to own was rejected in the Langbord
case.” Vartian was referring to suit involving the ownership of 10 1933 Saint-Gaudens gold $20 double eagles that
publicly surfaced in 2004, and which were determined to be stolen
government property in a 2011 federal court trial in Philadelphia. The
Mint retains custody of the coins.
Demand for return
According to the complaint, the U.S. Mint’s chief legal counsel,
Daniel P. Shaver, sent separate letters dated Feb. 26, 2014, to
Lawrence and McConnell demanding the return of the 1974-D aluminum cent.
“The letter stated that the Government takes the position that,
because Congress [never] issued an aluminum cent as legal tender, any
aluminum cent remains property of the federal government, regardless
of how long it has been in private hands,” the complaint states.
A similar letter dated Feb. 26 was also sent to Heritage Auctions.
“We received a letter from the U.S. Treasury Department requesting
that we withdraw the coin from auction,” confirmed Noah Fleisher,
spokesman for Heritage Auctions. “We have complied with that request
and will await a resolution between the owner and the U.S. Mint.”
Mint records devoid
Until 2013, it was believed that all production of the experimental
aluminum cents was conducted at the Philadelphia Mint.
After the existence of the 1974-D aluminum cent was made public in
2013, U.S. Mint officials conducted an exhaustive search of Mint
records before informing Coin World on Dec. 26, 2013, that no
documentary evidence was found that 1974-D aluminum cents were ever
struck at the Denver facility.
However, Coin World was able to locate the die setter for the
testing, Benito Martinez, who claimed he struck between 10 and 12
1974-D aluminum cents, one at a time, on planchets with upset rims
that were supplied by the Philadelphia Mint.
Martinez told Coin World he struck the 1974-D aluminum cents
with regular production dies under the supervision of Harry Bobay, a
Denver Mint production foreman.
Martinez said Bobay delivered the struck 1974-D aluminum cents and
any unstruck planchets to the Coining Division office within the
Denver Mint, with the belief the experimental pieces were being
shipped back to U.S. Mint headquarters.
Bobay died in 1988.
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