US Coins

1943 Lincoln cent mostly tin, plus other metals

A 1943 Lincoln cent discovered on the ground by a collector from the Portland, Oregon, area 50 years ago has been authenticated by Numismatic Guaranty Corp. as being struck on a planchet other than that of the specified zinc-coated steel, though not of the standard 95 percent copper alloy used for the cent since 1864. 

Experts believe the piece, composed of tin, primarily, along with three other base metals and trace elements, is likely an experimental 1943 Lincoln cent struck late in 1942 as the U.S. Mint tested coin metal options to conserve copper for the war effort during World War II.

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NGC is reluctant to specifically declare the piece “experimental” since no known documented evidence supports the claim. 

“It’s impossible to know whether the coin was struck intentionally as a test of the alloy or by accident during a normal press run of [zinc-coated] steel cents,” according to David W. Lange, NGC’s director of numismatic research. “I believe the latter is more likely, but there’s no way to determine that now.”

NGC has graded and encapsulated the new discovery Extremely Fine Details, Damaged, because of heavy wear and two deep gouges that appear in Lincoln’s coat on the obverse.

Manuel Houston, a collector from the Portland suburb of Tigard, told Coin World during a June 5 telephone interview that he recovered the coin circa 1969 when he was roughly 8 years old. Houston believes he found the coin either while helping his father with yard work or during repairs to the front porch of the family home. Houston said he was intrigued by the color of the coin since it didn’t not match Lincoln cents struck in copper alloy. Houston said his father explained to him the history behind the zinc-coated steel cent composition.

At the time of his discovery, Houston said the cent had a slight bend. So that the coin would fit in the Whitman coin folder his father had purchased for him to house other cent finds, Houston said, he put the coin in a bench vise to straighten out the bend.

Houston said his interest was piqued in January 2019, when he read a story about copper alloy 1943 Lincoln cents and that people should check any cents dated 1943. Houston said he had fewer than a dozen 1943 cents the same color as his discovery coin. He used a magnet on each of them, one at a time. All stuck to the magnet except one, sparking a search to discover why that one coin was not magnetic.

Assay and identification

Houston had Portland assayer AAA Precious Metals Inc. conduct a nondestructive metallurgical analysis, an X-ray fluorescence, or XRF, analysis, on his cent, with intriguing results. In contrast with the zinc-coated steel composition used to produce hundreds of millions of 1943 Lincoln cents at the Philadelphia, Denver and San Francisco Mints, the metallurgical analysis concluded Houston’s cent’s composition is 86.41 percent tin, 8.37 percent antimony, 1.75 percent copper and 1.02 percent vanadium. Houston’s experimental cent weighs 2.7 grams, very near the standard 2.69 grams for the zinc-coated steel composition.

With those test results, he then contacted numismatic researcher Roger W. Burdette, author of United States Pattern & Experimental Pieces of WW-II, by way of the NGC message board. Burdette said he then referred Houston to NGC, in Sarasota, Florida, for authenticating and grading the garden find.

Upon receiving Houston’s cent for evaluation, NGC had a second XRF analysis conducted. That assessment’s result is recorded as 86.4 percent tin, 8.4 percent antimony, 1.8 percent copper and 1 percent vanadium. The result of the NGC assessment is printed on the grading label for Houston’s cent.

“In December 1942, cent dies dated ‘1943’ were being used in testing of possible materials for calendar year 1943, making it likely this piece was made in later 1942,” according to Burdette. “I have found no information specific to this composition; however, it is similar to other pieces made in so-called Britannia metal and other commercial alloys. The presence of vanadium is unusual, but we don’t know the Philadelphia Mint’s sources of metal. It might have come from melted commercial scrap.

“It’s unusual to find an experimental alloy piece in pocket change (or the garden), and the coin certainly shows it has not led a pampered existence.”

In his reference, Burdette catalogs each coin by an RB number for attribution purposes, and for Houston’s find, the number is RB 43-91.

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