US Coins

Off-metal 1943 and 1944 Lincoln cents at FUN sale

The desirable 1943 and 1944 Lincoln cent  wrong-planchet errors are, categorically, the priciest error coins, and Heritage’s Jan. 6 to 11 auctions held during the Florida United Numismatists convention in Tampa had one of the richest offerings seen in a generation. Most were from the collection of Bob R. Simpson, co-owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team and former chairman of the Board and founder of XTO Energy Inc.

Simpson has been a lifelong coin collector and as Heritage noted, “Ever since he found what he believed was a genuine 1943 copper cent as a child, his love of the hobby has only grown.” 

The top lot of Simpson’s World War II off-metal Lincoln cents was his 1943 Lincoln cent struck on a bronze planchet, graded About Uncirculated 58 by Professional Coin Grading Service with a green Certified Acceptance Corp. sticker. 

Simpson’s coins offered at FUN were duplicates or from series that no longer fit into his collection. One of his primary goals in selling the coins at auction was to make sure the coins “end up in good homes with collectors who share his passion.”  

As Heritage pointed out, “It must be noted that, despite consigning four different issues from the six 1943-44 off-metal cent issues, Bob Simpson still retains, to our knowledge, a complete 1943-PDS set of bronze cents, all Uncirculated.” This set includes the only 1943-D Lincoln bronze cent, which Simpson purchased in 2010 for $1.7 million. The 1943 bronze cent from the Philadelphia Mint offered at the 2016 FUN show was Simpson’s duplicate, with Simpson retaining an example graded Mint State 62 brown by PCGS for his collection. 

In light of the recent frenzy surrounding the record-setting Powerball jackpot, the 1943 Lincoln bronze cents have similarly captured the imagination of people with the possibility of instant riches. As Heritage notes, “No other U.S. coin issue pervades the popular mentality of the American noncollecting public as do the famous 1943 ‘copper’ cents. Even though the overwhelming majority of such pieces turn out to be obvious copper-plated counterfeits (as any 50 cent magnet will reveal), Americans still dream of someday snagging a ‘1943 copper penny’ from change or from Grandma’s old jar of wheat pennies.” Today all authentic 1943 bronze cents are six-figure rarities that make headlines when they sell. 

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Error coin royalty

1943 Lincoln bronze cents are legendary for their rarity: fewer than two dozen are known to collectors today from all Mints. However, as the catalog notes, the question of how many genuine 1943 bronze cents survive is “complicated not only by the many myths, fakes, and wishful thinking that surround this issue.” 1943 Lincoln cents were supposed to be struck on zinc-plated steel planchets, as copper was needed for the war effort. Through accident or intention, a few 1943 Lincoln cents escaped the U.S. Mint struck on copper-alloy planchets, and today, these are what expert David Lange calls “error coin royalty.” 

The 2016 FUN auction also included a 1943-S Lincoln cent struck on a bronze planchet from a different consignment, graded PCGS AU-55, that sold for $211,500. 

The description for that lot noted something that is key to understanding the value of these 1943 off-metal issues: While they are errors, they are collected alongside regular issue coins. As Heritage explains, “A bit of semantics before we begin: Although the 1943 bronze or copper cents are technically ‘error’ coins — they are considered off-metal or wrong-planchet errors — they are eagerly collected, cataloged, and described alongside ‘regular issue’ U.S. coins that are not errors.” 

These have long been coveted by collectors, and collectors reported finding examples in circulation around the time of issue. When a different 1943-S Lincoln bronze cent was graded AU-53 by Numismatic Guaranty Corp., Coin World reported in our Aug. 11, 2008, issue that it had been initially found in circulation around 1944 in Long Beach, Calif., by a 14-year-old collector while he was trying to assemble a set of Lincoln cents. Heritage lists six confirmed examples of 1943-S bronze Lincoln cents, as opposed to the dozen, or so, known of the 1943 bronze Lincoln cents struck at the Philadelphia Mint. 

A Short-lived experiment

The zinc-coated steel planchets were used only in 1943 and while they were effective in conserving bronze for the war effort, they were also prone to developing rust after a short time in circulation and did not function in vending machines. 

1944 steel cents are also widely collected off-metal errors. These were created in a similar manner as 1943 copper cents, likely when leftover blank planchets from 1943 year remained in Mint tote bins or hoppers. Heritage adds, “Although the 1943 copper cents have seen the lion’s share of publicity over the years, the 1944 steel cents are nearly as rare but less well-known.”

The same planchets were used briefly in 1944 for striking 2-franc coins for Belgium at the Philadelphia Mint.

Other coins consigned by Simpson included a 1944 Lincoln cent struck on a zinc-coated steel planchet graded MS-61 by PCGS that sold for $30,550 and as the description observed, “For potential bidders who already own a 1943 bronze cent, this piece poses an attractive chance to acquire its complement.” 

Simpson’s 1944 Lincoln steel cent graded PCGS MS-63 CAC failed to meet its reserve and a different example graded PCGS MS-64 suffered a similar fate. Simpson’s 1944-D Lincoln steel cent graded MS-62 CAC sold for $54,050. 

The final lot of the World War II off-metal cents presented at Platinum Night was Simpson’s 1944-S Lincoln cent struck on a zinc-coated steel planchet and graded PCGS MS-66 CAC. It failed to sell when it did not meet its reserve of $270,000. 

That example was the finest-graded 1944 “steel” cent from any Mint and was previously offered by Heritage at its 2008 American Numismatic Association Platinum Night auction. Then-graded MS-66 by NGC, it brought $373,500, and Heritage noted that the 2008 sale then represented a record price for any small cent at public auction and for any Lincoln cent at public auction.

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