The mystery of two 1971-D Washington quarters struck on solid copper-nickel blanks

Collectors’ Clearinghouse: What these coins are not is easier to say than what they are
By , Special to Coin World
Published : 01/17/17
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Wrong planchet and off-metal errors can usually be traced back to the original purpose of the planchet or stock involved. When a planchet can’t be linked to a known domestic or foreign issue it is considered an “orphan.”

An orphan may represent any of the following:

(1) A planchet/blank intend­ed for an undocumented foreign coin.

(2) A blank punched out of stock intended for a foreign coin.

(3) A planchet intended for a token, medal, or other non­monetary item.

(4) A slug or a circular hardware item like an unperforated washer or spacer.

(5) Improperly fabricated strip, blanks, or planchets.

(6) A planchet altered beyond recognition by chemical, thermal, or physical damage.

Newly arrived at the orphanage is a pair of near-identical 1971-D Washington quarter dollars struck on solid copper-nickel blanks (normal blanks have a copper-nickel clad composition). The first coin comes from error dealer Jon Sullivan and weighs 4.81 grams. It is distinguished by the presence of two very thin, partially worn-through patches of embedded copper-colored material on the reverse face. The second coin comes from error dealer Jim Cauley and weighs 4.77 grams.

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The composition of the first coin was analyzed by Roger Paulen of the Geological Survey of Canada. The coin (including the copper-colored areas) consists of an alloy that is 75 percent copper and 25 percent nickel — the same composition as a 5-cent blank. But I’ve ruled out the latter attribution because the weights are too low and the diameters too large, especially given that neither coin received a particularly forceful strike.

Washington quarter

Washington quarter: The Washington quarter dollar, which has been circulating since 1932, was born out of the Treasury Department's desire to produce a coin to mark the bicentennial of the birth of the first president of the United States. How much are Washington quarters worth?

The first coin shows well-developed reeding around the edge, except from 5:30 to 7:30, where the obverse-adjacent portion is incomplete. On the second coin, reeding gradually weakens toward the northern end and is absent between 11:30 and 1:30. The weakly struck and unstruck edges respectively show the cut-and-tear texture of a blank rather than the smooth surface of a planchet. The blank either bypassed the upset mill or was too small to be affected by it. Any blank that passes through an upset mill set up for a larger denomination will be too small to be rolled and squeezed in the horizontal plane. As a result, most wrong planchet errors are actually struck on blanks.

Numerous design elements at the periphery of both coins display significant metal flow — another indication that the blanks were slightly undersized. A normal-sized blank that is thinner than normal will show little or no metal flow in its peripheral elements. The weakly-struck periphery of each coin is undoubtedly related to the blank’s thinness and the absence of a proto-rim along its margin.

The specifications of these coins do not match that of any foreign coin being struck at the Denver Mint or any other domestic facility, either in 1971 or the years that bracket it. Interested readers may verify this assertion by consulting Numispedia’s list of foreign coins produced by the U.S. Mint.

It is easier to say what these coins are not than to say what they are. The undersized blanks were clearly not punched out by a quarter dollar blanking press. Therefore they cannot be foreign stock errors or bonding mill errors (specifically “solid clad” or “coreless” quarter dollars). The original cut-and-tear texture along the edge further tells us that the blanks were not resized or subjected to circumferential pre-strike damage that might have reduced their diameter.

Since the U.S. Mint was producing all of its blanks in-house at the time, these two blanks could not have come from an outside supplier. They might represent token or medal blanks that entered the production stream accidentally or intentionally. Stranger items have entered our coining presses, including arcade tokens and foreign coins never associated with the Mint. However, I think the most likely explanation is that these blanks were prepared for a foreign issue that was never struck.

Most orphan off-metal errors are one-off events. The presence of two identical examples suggests there may have been some planning involved, either official or unofficial.

This isn’t the only mystery from this place and time. In 1971, the Denver Mint produced a number of puzzling off-metal and wrong planchet errors, such as a 1971-D Jefferson 5-cent coin struck on a blank apparently punched out of copper-nickel clad dime stock and then subjected to significant thermal and physical damage, and a 1971-D quarter dollar struck on a quarter-sized straight-clipped blank that was punched out of obsolete silver-clad half dollar stock (or contemporary Panama half balboa stock) rolled to quarter dollar thickness.  

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