If an error coin is struck deliberately, is it a legitimate error?

If an error coin was struck deliberately, is it truly an error? And if it was produced deliberately and then removed from the mint that struck it through surreptitious means, should it be subject to confiscation by mint officials? Those are questions for which there are no easy answers.

In the Oct. 16 and Oct. 23 issues of Coin World, we reported on the existence of several “error” coins struck at the San Francisco Mint when it was officially an Assay Office in the 1960s and 1970s. I enclose the word “error” between quotation marks because evidence suggests that at least some of them if not all of them were struck purposely if unofficially and then removed from the Mint through back channels, rather than being struck in error and, after legitimately passing through the inspection process, released through normal channels.

United States Mint policies on such pieces and related coins are remarkably inconsistent. Mint officials have shown no real inclination to confiscate any of the various mules discovered in recent years though it has prosecuted Mint employees for their roles in moving some of these pieces into the marketplace. However, other pieces with questionable origins do draw Mint condemnation.

For example, in 2000, a 1999-W George Washington $5 half eagle struck on a copper-nickel clad dime planchet was consigned to an auction by Ira and Larry Goldberg Coins and Collectibles. David Pickens, then the U.S. Mint associate director for numismatics, viewed the coin during the August American Numismatic Association convention in Philadelphia, and told Coin World that there was no way the coin could have been produced or packaged at the West Point Mint under normal circumstances because no dime planchets had been used at the West Point facility since 1996. The piece was reportedly discovered beneath a normal specimen of the gold commemorative in that coin’s original packaging, though that claim could not be independently verified. At Pickens’ urging, the “error” half eagle/dime hybrid was removed from the auction.

If Pickens’ observations in August 2000 were correct, and we believe that they were, then the legitimacy of that piece should have been questioned, just as the legitimacy of the Kennedy half dollar and Eisenhower dollar struck on Shell Oil aluminum tokens needs to be questioned. There is no way that aluminum tokens given out at Shell gas stations could have made their way to the San Francisco Mint, been struck between dies for a collector version of a half dollar and dollar, not been noticed by the inspectors who examined every example of those coins, placed into Proof set or other special packaging, and then released, without being assisted at every step by one or more Mint employees.

The same case can be made for the various “two-tailed” Washington quarter dollar mules reported in recent years, all considered products of the San Francisco Mint from the same era as the Shell token pieces. It is unlikely that they could have been made accidentally.

Even though a strong probability exists that such pieces were made deliberately, they are still avidly collected as “errors” by those wealthy enough to purchase them. Indeed, many specialists in the field treat these the same way they treat legitimate error coins — those pieces that truly were struck by mistake and then released into the wild through normal means, such as in a shipment of coins from the Mint to the Federal Reserve and then placed into circulation. But should they be considered legitimate and collectible, or should be subject to confiscation? Tell us what you think.