Anomalous 1942-S Jefferson 5¢ coin mystifies expert researchers

Unique coin bears 1941-style reverse but is on a wartime alloy planchet
By , Coin World
Published : 04/22/16
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Researchers may be getting a bit closer to understanding the nature of a unique 1942-S Jefferson 5-cent coin that United States Mint records say should not exist.

The anomalous coin, known since 1961, bears the original reverse design style, with the S Mint mark positioned to the right of Jefferson’s home at Monticello, though records state that the San Francisco Mint did not strike any 1942-S 5-cent coins of that design style. The coin is made of a silver-copper-manganese alloy (though in recent years the coin’s composition has mistakenly been identified as copper-nickel by some sources). Interestingly, the ratios of the three metals in the coin’s makeup have been shown to differ from the standard.

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Multiple grading services have examined the coin over the decades. Numismatic Guaranty Corp. examined and tested the coin but chose not to authenticate it. Professional Coin Grading Service also examined the coin and declined to authenticate. ANACS examined the coin when the grading service was still part of the American Numismatic Association; it chose not to authenticate the coin because testing revealed a silver content that differed from the standard of 35 percent.

In early April, a group of noted numismatists, a majority of them experts in error coins and die varieties, coin authentication, or Mint research, began discussing the coin in a voluminous email exchange. The discussion helped clear up some mysteries about the coin but provided no final answers. 

What we know

Here is what researchers know about the coin with a high degree of confidence:

  • The coin has been known to exist since 1961, with the first named owner being Ken Frith. 
  •  The coin today cannot be clearly identified as either counterfeit or genuine.
  • According to Kevin Flynn, a die variety expert who initiated the discussions, “Using the large photograph of the Frith specimen [provided by NGC], the date was compared against the date on a genuine 1942-S nickel and found to have the same size, shape, and relative distance between the digits.” Examination of the date shows no signs of alteration.
  • The S Mint mark on the reverse matches in size, shape, and style one of two Large S Mint marks found on genuine 1941-S 5-cent coins. Examination of the S Mint mark has shown no signs that it was added to a Philadelphia Mint coin by a forger.
  • After testing by NGC, the alloy has been revealed to be 50 percent silver, 45 percent copper and 6 percent manganese according to David Lange, an error coin specialist with the firm. The Mint standard is 35 percent silver, 56 percent copper and 9 percent manganese. However, producing the wartime alloy to the standard specifications was difficult for the Mint, and certain kinds of post-minting alteration can result in altered metallic content on the surfaces.
  • If a genuine San Francisco Mint product, no one can identify why or when it was struck, or whether other examples might have been struck but destroyed before leaving the facility.

The coin’s composition

Congress authorized changes to the composition of the cent and 5-cent coin during America’s involvement in World War II, to aid in the transfer of strategically important metals like copper and nickel from coinage production to the war effort.

The 5-cent coin’s standard composition of 75 percent copper and 25 percent nickel was replaced in 1942 with the aforementioned copper-silver-managanese alloy but not before the Philadelphia and Denver Mints struck 5-cent coins of the regular kind.

Flynn writes about the timeline for the switch in alloys: “Based upon Roger Burdette’ archive research, it was found that Jefferson nickel production was ceased in May 1942. The use of a silver alloy for the Jefferson nickel ... was approved by Treasury Secretary Morgenthau on September 1, 1942. The Engraver was instructed to add the mint mark above Monticello on September 14th, and production began on September 21, 1942 at the Philadelphia Mint.”

In recent years, the coin has been identified in some venues as being of the standard 75 percent copper and 25 nickel alloy, including in a Nov. 18, 2014, online announcement by SilverTowne, the Winchester, Ind., firm. 

However, the 2015 sixth edition of Cherrypickers’ Guide to Rare Die Varieties of United States Coins, Volume 1, correctly identifies the coin’s wartime composition, though the ratios of the metals are not given.

Why was it struck?

The circumstances of the coin’s production, if it is genuine, are unknown. Flynn offers some speculation, based on the contributions of multiple participants in the discussion (Type 1 refers to the original style of reverse): “Working dies during this period were only created at the Philadelphia Mint. The dies were numbered and shipped to the branch mints, usually starting in October and November of the previous year. Even though the San Francisco Mint did not strike any Jefferson nickels on copper-nickel planchets in 1942, it is more than likely that they were still sent 1942 dated obverses and Type 1 reverses for Jefferson nickel coin production for 1942, or may have had left over Type 1 reverses left over from 1941. It is extremely unlikely that the San Francisco Mint would have installed the new dies in 1942, struck only a few coins and released them into circulation.”

Flynn added: “Testing on the new alloy would have been performed at the Philadelphia Mint before the Treasury Secretary approved the composition on September 1. Not only was it necessary to understand how the alloy would strike in the coining press, but also how easily the different metals were to extract when returned to the Mint and melted. The Philadelphia Mint may have used Type 1 reverses to test the new alloy, but there would have been absolutely no reason to test these with an ‘S’ mint mark reverse. There are no test coins with a Type 1 reverse on a wartime alloy as part of the Smithsonian collection or in any private hands.  These test coins were most likely all destroyed. ...

“By September 21st, the Mint determined through production tests that no more than 20% return of good blanks from original ingots could be obtained through annealing furnaces and were far less than were obtained from the copper-nickel alloy,” Flynn added. “In addition to testing the alloy, the Philadelphia Mint would have tested the new reverse with the mint mark above the dome of Monticello. They would have checked whether there was any striking differences on the obverse opposite the mint mark. There would have been no reason to test the alloy or working dies at the San Francisco Mint unless a problem occurred, which was not seen at the Philadelphia Mint. “

So what is this coin? We simply cannot say, other than to describe it. We don’t know whether it is an error, a one-off deliberate striking by a Mint employee, one of a larger quantity or test pieces, or a really clever counterfeit. As Flynn writes, “For now, this coin remains a mystery and a topic of great discussion.” 

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