Monday, March 16, 2009

Coin Monday: A nickel is a cent is a very rare nickel, and it will be offered in Baltimore

March 16, 2009
Posted by John

One of the most intriguing items in our upcoming Baltimore U.S. Coins auction is actually a mistake: a five-cent piece struck on a planchet (or blank piece of metal) intended for a one-cent coin. As far as minting mistakes go, the wrong-planchet error is uncommon, though by no means unheard-of; stray cent planchets get stuck at the bottom of a tote bin, for example, and jar loose when the bin is filled again, this time with nickel blanks. What makes this error so special is when it was struck, a time that is inextricably linked to a host of temporary changes to U.S. coinage; this error could not have happened in any other year.

It was struck in 1943, at the height of America’s involvement in World War II, a time when the nation’s need for metals such as copper and nickel had never been greater. Many people, even among non-coin collectors, have heard of “steel cents” and “war nickels,” though they may not know exactly what they are or how they differ from regular pieces.

In 1943 only, one-cent coins were minted out of zinc-coated steel instead of the bronze alloy that had been used from 1864 until 1942. The various mints faced enormous technical challenges with the steel planchets (steel being much harder to strike than bronze, among others), and the odd coloration of the steel cents led to confusion with dimes. In 1944, the metal used for cents changed back to a majority-copper alloy, which was called “shellcase brass” after one of its main sources, salvaged ammunition casings. Cent coinage in bronze resumed in 1947.

The “war nickel” alloy was more successful. While the five-cent pieces called “nickels” were only 25% nickel (the element), the rest of the alloy being copper, the element nickel was essential to making stainless steel, and thus crucial to the nation’s military manufacturing. Starting in October 1942, the alloy used to strike five-cent pieces changed to 56% copper, 35% silver, and 9% manganese, cutting down on copper usage and completely eliminating nickel. This alloy was more successful than the steel-cent experiment and continued through the end of 1945. The “war nickels” also had their designs changed, with prominent mintmarks placed above the dome of Monticello on the reverse, the better to identify them; as silver prices rose, more and more were taken out of circulation for their silver content, with the “war nickels” virtually vanishing from pocket change by the mid-1960s.

This wrong-planchet error could only have come from 1943, the year when the cents were steel and the nickels were silver. The surfaces are slightly worn, suggesting that it either circulated for a short time or was kept as a pocket-piece curiosity. The surface area of the steel cent blank, smaller than that of a nickel, has cut off parts of the design, including much of the date, though the bottoms of the digits are visible, including the distinctive curve of the 3.

Wrong-planchet errors involving steel cent blanks are some of the most prized mint mistakes, since they were made within a one-year window, and most errors made in any given year are caught before they can leave the mint and melted down. If you’re visiting us in Baltimore, our lot viewing is a great chance to look at this fascinating error, as well as a whole host of other treasures.