US Coins

Monday Morning Brief for May 23, 2022: When errors aren't

Wild Proof error coins are avidly collected by those who can afford them, though the nature of some suggest that they probably could not have been made without human help.

Original images courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

The cover feature in the June monthly issue of Coin World focuses on error Proof coins, including some spectacular coins that clearly could never have legitimately left the U.S. Mint facility at which they were struck. Yet they exist.

As part of his research in writing the feature, Steve Roach contacted United States Mint officials for comment on some Proof “errors” that had no remote chance of fitting into any slot in the hard-plastic holders introduced for Proof sets in 1968. The Mint’s response was “the Mint declines to comment,” which did not surprise me at all.

However, the error collecting community has a collective memory, providing background on how at least some of these physically impressive Proof coins were released. It was the error community, in fact, that notified Mint officials that something suspicious was going on after the appearance in the marketplace of Proof error coins that could not have been released legitimately.

Error coin specialists Fred Weinberg, who is winding down his hobby career, and the late Arnold Margolis explained what happened in their book The Error Coin Encyclopedia (third edition, 2000).

The authors begin by stating that the “subject of errors on proof coins is a touchy one for the error coin collector.” Proof coins are struck under greater scrutiny than circulation strikes, and in the 1960s and 1970s, the Proof striking production process involved a lot of hands-on steps, including feeding planchets into the press and removing the struck coins afterward. While it is possible for a wrong planchet to be fed into a press striking circulating coinage (such as cent planchet falling between 5-cent coin dies), it would have been impossible for the Eisenhower dollar struck on three copper-nickel clad dime planchets carefully arranged in a sort of clover leaf form to have been struck by mistake. Just impossible.

Margolis and Weinberg explained how an “error” of such proportions was produced (though they were not targeting this specific release). “It was established that some of the operators of proof presses occasionally created deformed proof coins.”

But how did they escape?

The two error specialists explained, writing, “A few loquacious and loose-lipped collectors boasted about how it was done.”

In the 1970s, the San Francisco Assay Office was not only striking Proof coins for collectors, it was making coins for circulation. That resulted in tote bins of planchets and coins being moved around the production floor by propane forklift trucks. Those forklifts periodically required maintenance, which was done outside the Mint facility. Are you getting an idea as to how these misshapen Proof coins were removed from the Mint?

After a deliberately created Proof coin oddity or Proof coin struck on a wrong planchet was completed, the press operator or confederate dropped the coin into the oil filler spout of a handy forklift. The coin sunk to the bottom of the oil pan, surrounded by oil. Eventually, the forklift was transported outside the Mint for work. The oil pan was drained, and the coins removed and cleaned in gasoline, presumably by a confederate of the Mint employees. The coins were then sold to collectors and dealers who apparently did not concern themselves with provenance.

Error specialists who did care about right and wrong contacted the Mint, and “notified the Mint about this smuggling route,” the Margolis-Weinberg book states. “When we visited the San Francisco Mint some time later, we were shown the screens and security measures added to the fork lift oil filler pipes to prevent this activity from recurring. We were also thanked for the help in plugging the leak.”

The coins made in this manner (I think calling them “error” coins is wrong, since they did not occur because of some mishap or error in the production process) were subject to confiscation by the Secret Service as being illegally made and smuggled, back when this was news. However, these Proof coins remain in the marketplace, and Mint officials largely have ignored their own investigations into illegal activities at one of their facilities. They show no interest into moving against these coins.

Obviously, the marketplace accepts these coins, and some collectors are happy paying thousands of dollars for coins that show every indication of having been created through illegal means.

But does that make it right?

These coins were made illegally, smuggled illegally, and sold into the marketplace illegally. I guess that individual collectors and dealers will have to determine for themselves whether to purchase, sell and own such “error” coins.

Community Comments