William is the managing editor, appointed to that position on May 1,2015, after serving as news editor for many years. He joined the Coin World editorial staff in 1976 as an assistant editor for "Collectors' Clearinghouse." Bill manages the editorial staff and is responsible for the day-to-day management of the print and online editorial content of Coin World. He serves as chief copy editor for all Coin World publications and directs ditorial production aspects of Coin World. He has served as lead copy editor for all books published by Coin World since 1985. Bill began collecting coins at age 10. He is a graduate of Bowling Green State University and majored in journalism.
Mint confirms existence of the coin they said they never struck
At the time, I had no Mint confirmation that such a coin had been struck. In fact, while Mint publications confirmed that a bronze-clad steel composition had been tested, the Mint claimed in those documents that planchets made of that material had been tested only with strikes bearing “nonsense” designs and not the regular Lincoln cent designs. Nonetheless, after considering the evidence we had available to us, the editors here felt confident enough to publish a news article about the discovery anyway, while being careful to describe the coin as something that “appeared” to be genuine.
In preparing the article for publication, we also discussed our strategy for protecting the identity of my source and to prevent any possibility that the Mint might ask the U.S. Secret Service to come to our offices to confiscate the coin or to request that we identify the person who sent us the coin. We were concerned on two counts and had cause to be paranoid: (1) the Mint considered the 1974 Lincoln cents struck on aluminum planchets during the same round of experiments as the bronze-clad steel cent illegal to own; and (2) the Secret Service some years earlier had come to our offices and confiscated a coin that we had published a Page 1 news article about (I will write about this coin in the weeks ahead).
Because of those concerns, I returned the coin to the owner as quickly as possible, even neglecting to take color photographs of it (something I quickly regretted). I also took steps to protect all of my notes correspondence with the source.
Once I did both of these things, I reached out to the Mint, asking the public affairs office to dig into the Mint’s archives to see whether there was evidence that the bronze-clad steel cent had been struck with regular cent dies. It took Mint officials several months to go through their archives to get the information I requested, but the wait was well worth it.
Here is what I reported on Page 1 of our Sept. 5, 1994, issue:
“The United States Mint retains two experimental 1974 Lincoln cents struck on bronze-clad steel planchets in its specimen files, a Mint spokesman said Aug. 15.
“The admission confirms a July 4 Coin World article announcing the discovery of the previously unknown experimental pieces.
“The existence of the experimental bronze-clad steel pieces was unknown until June when a collector contacted Coin World with a first-person account of the destruction of a quarter-million or more of the pieces in a steel mill furnace, and the accidental survival of a handful of pieces now in private hands.
“The 1974-dated experimental pieces are survivors of 1973 testing that also resulted in the famous 1974 aluminum cent.
“It took Mint officials two months to confirm that the Mint did in fact strike experimental 1974 Lincoln cents on bronze-clad steel planchets using regular dies. Mint spokesman Michael White said no records survive of the coin's production or destruction.
“However, the anonymous collector who says he holds five of the pieces says he witnessed the destruction of a quarter million or more bronze-clad steel cents in 1974 at a Pennsylvania steel mill (see Coin World, July 4, Page 1). Several other burnt pieces may also survive in private hands, according to the collector.
“A 1973 Department of the Treasury study discusses the testing of the bronze-clad steel composition, but indicates that none were struck with regular cent dies. ‘Nonsense’ dies were reportedly used, according to the 1973 Treasury report now known to be incorrect.
“An examination of one piece by Coin World staff indicated that the cent was struck by regular Lincoln cent dies dated 1974. The coin, with its steel core, is attracted to a magnet.
“The bronze-clad steel pieces are unlisted in any work discussing pattern issues, including the just published United States Patterns and Related Issues by Andrew W. Pollock III. The new book was published almost at the same time as the bronze-clad steel cents surfaced.
“Both the 1974 bronze-clad steel cents and the well-known 1974 aluminum cents were struck in 1973 as Mint officials experimented with alternatives to the 95 percent copper, 5 percent zinc cent then in production. Rising copper prices threatened to make the cent’s intrinsic value higher than its face value. Copper prices dropped, however, and the composition remained unchanged until 1982.“
As exciting as it was to get confirmation that the bronze-clad steel cents had, in fact, been struck, it was even more exciting to learn that Mint retained examples. The Mint had gotten a reputation in the 1960s and 1970s for destroying its history, including the mass meltings of experimental pieces like the 1964-D Peace dollar and 1974 aluminum cents. The fact that two bronze-clad steel cents were held by the Mint was exciting.
Even more exciting was White’s comments about whether the bronze-clad steel cent was legal to own. I was so surprised at his response that I asked him to confirm that a second time and his response was the same. Still doubtful, I then asked for a formal statement from Mint legal counsel and decided not to publish White’s initial responses until we received that formal opinion from the Mint. This time, it took less than a month for the Mint to respond to my request, and the response was what I expected. Here is how I explained my repeated inquiries on the legality of private ownership in the next article I wrote about the coin, appearing in the Sept. 26, 1994, issue:
“Experimental 1974 Lincoln cents struck on bronze-clad steel planchets have the same legal status as the more famous 1974 aluminum cents, the Mint stated Sept. 9: Both are illegal to own and are subject to confiscation.
“In a Sept. 9 letter, Mint chief counsel Kenneth B. Gubin states: ‘The Mint’s policy regarding the 1973-dated [sic] aluminum one-cent pieces remains unchanged; since these pieces were experimental and never issued by the Mint, any still outstanding are considered property of the U.S. Government and may not be circulated, sold or held in collections. If they were to appear in the hands of the public, they are, and will continue to be, subject to confiscation by the U.S. Secret Service as no individual may acquire valid title to them. This policy also applies to other similar experimental pieces, including the experimental 1974 bronze-clad steel Lincoln cents.’ ”
Had the Mint reversed its policy on private ownership on the 1974 experimental cents, it is interesting to speculate about what other “forbidden” coins might have surfaced in collections.
As for the owner of the experimental bronze-clad steel cents, he attempted to enlist my assistance in marketing the cents. He said he would be open to a trade — one of the cents (or maybe all of of them; I forget which) in exchange for a new top-line pickup truck. I had to decline to assist him. Similarly, years later I had to decline a request from a prominent collector of Lincoln cents to place him into contact with the owner of the coins. In any case, I do not have contact information for the owner of the coins and for all I know, he may now be deceased.
Covering the story of the 1974 bronze-clad steel cent was one of my best journalistic “scoops” and one that I remember with fondness and pride.