A federal judge in California has ruled that two men can continue
their quest to own and potentially sell a 1974-D Lincoln aluminum
cent. The court held that it is plausible that the coin could have
left the Denver Mint legally.
The ruling continues a year-long legal battle between Randall
Lawrence and Michael McConnell and the government. Lawrence is the son
of Harry Edmond Lawrence. After a career at the Denver Mint,
predominantly in the assistant superintendent’s position, the senior
Lawrence retired as assistant superintendent in 1980. He died the same year.
The contested 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 Randall Lawrence and the coin
was set to be a highlight of Heritage’s 2014 Central States Numismatic Society auction, but
is withdrawn after the government took steps to seize the coin. The piece has been graded Mint State 63 by
Professional Coin Grading Service.
As Coin World’s Paul Gilkes reported in 2014,
although there is an absence of Mint records on the production of
aluminum Lincoln cents at the Denver Mint, the die setter for the
testing, Benito Martinez, claims to have struck between 10 and 12
1974-D aluminum cents. These were struck one at a time, on planchets
with upset rims that were supplied by the Philadelphia Mint.
Martinez told Coin World that he struck the 1974-D aluminum
cents with regular production dies under the supervision of Harry
Bobay, a Denver Mint production foreman.
Although more than a million 1974 Lincoln aluminum cents were struck
at the Philadelphia Mint and a small number handed out to members and
staff of the House and Senate Banking Committees to support the new
composition, no Denver Mint aluminum cents were known until this piece surfaced.
When Congress decided to not adopt aluminum as a composition for
circulating coins, the U.S. Mint melted down nearly all of the
examples, although Philadelphia Mint examples are known.
In their filing, Lawrence and McConnell state that the Denver Mint
celebrated Harry Lawrence’s retirement by giving him a clock engraved
with his name, with the hours represented by examples of 90 percent
silver coins struck at the Denver Mint. Further, they contend that the
Mint commemorated his retirement by “allowing him to keep certain
error coins struck in Denver which he had accumulated, and one
specimen of the 1974-D aluminum cent.”
A matter of plausibility
A motion for summary judgment allows a court to dismiss a case for
“failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” While the
court noted that it is unlawful for any person without proper
authority to remove property from the U.S. Mint, the court noted that
there was a possibility that Harry Lawrence lawfully obtained the
On March 26, Judge William Q. Hayes issued an opinion where he
denied the government’s motion to dismiss the complaint, stating “it
is plausible that a Mint official, with proper authority and in an
authorized manner, allowed Harry Lawrence to keep the 1974-D aluminum
cent. Drawing reasonable inferences, it is plausible that Harry
Lawrence lawfully obtained possession of the aluminum cent, giving
Plaintiffs superior claim of title to the aluminum cent.”
The two men contend that because the government gave the coin to
Harry Lawrence and that Randall Lawrence had undisturbed control of
the coin for the past 34 years, this creates a presumption of title
and requires the recognition of ownership rights of the coin.
The government challenges this, believing that the men have not, and
cannot, assert “facts that would support any scenario under which
Plaintiffs could plausibly be in lawful possession of the subject
piece.” The government contends that the mere possession of the 1974-D
aluminum cent is not enough to divest the government of its ownership
and that “no authorization exists — and none is alleged — whereby any
Government official could have lawfully allowed Mr. Lawrence to obtain
or keep the subject piece that he possessed through advantage of his
federal employment with the United States Mint.”
Lawrence’s and McConnell’s attorney, Armen Vartian, said this March
31: “The Government’s position was that nobody can legally own a 1974
Aluminum Cent because Congress never authorized these coins to be
issued as money. The Court decided that this position was overly
simplistic, and did not preclude Harry Lawrence having legal title to
his 1974-D specimen, which Denver Mint officials let him take with him
at his retirement along with a group of error coins and an engraved
clock with Denver Mint silver coins in place of the hours. My clients
look forward to the discovery phase of the case, where undoubtedly the
numismatic community will learn a great deal more about the Aluminum Cents.”
This case began more than a year ago. 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 cent.
The two men filed a motion for declaratory judgment
on March 14, 2014, that asked the court to declare the
government’s legal claim to own the cent as invalid and to confirm the
two men as legal owners of the piece.
On June 3, 2014, the U.S. Department of the Treasury, U.S. Mint, and
the United States of America, together filed a motion to dismiss the
complaint. On July 23, the court granted the government’s motion to
dismiss the complaint, contending that the two men did not allege
sufficient facts to support a legal conclusion that they were owners
of the cent and that they had the right to sell that coin at a public auction.
The men filed an amended complaint on Dec. 12, 2014, and on Dec. 24,
2014, the government filed a motion to dismiss this complaint. Replies
were filed by the men on Jan. 19, 2015, and the government replied on
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