Monday, April 27, 2009

Coin Monday: “Seeing Double?”

April 27, 2009
Posted by John Dale

When coin collectors and auctions appear in popular entertainment, usually the writers get a few things right and much more wrong. An episode of Hawaii Five-O from 1973, “The $100,000 Nickel,” was entertaining enough, even if the plot point of a 1913 Liberty nickel getting dropped in a vending machine makes me shake my head.

More recently, the episode of The Simpsons that had Bart and Homer collecting coins, “All About Lisa,” started well enough with the two filling out a coin board with Lincoln cents culled from the change dish at the Kwik-E-Mart, among other sources. Many collectors, myself included, had a similar start. The fake variety, the 1917 “Kissing Lincolns” cent, I could tolerate as creative license. The scene at the auction house got too much wrong, though. The last straw for me was when the auction house referred to the “Kissing Lincolns” cent as a “penny.” No, no, and heck no! The United States Mint has never struck a “penny”; that’s a holdover term from colonial days, and even if Bart and Homer didn’t know any better than to call a cent a penny, that auction house in Springfield should have!

Earlier, the cult-classic Weird Al Yankovic movie UHF had its own coin-collector moment at the climax, when a coin given to a beggar turns out to be valuable. The moment I heard the line “1955-D Doubled Die,” though, I said out loud, “That’s wrong.”

My roommate, who had introduced me to the movie and was watching it with me, asked for clarification. I answered that there is a real 1955 Doubled Die Obverse cent that can be worth thousands of dollars, though it was struck at Philadelphia and not Denver.

The error is so dramatic that when it first turned up in circulation, comments, speculations, and rumors soon built up around it. What could have caused the dramatic doubling on the lettering and date? In the mid-1950s knowledge of the minting process was not as widespread as it is now, and many erroneous explanations were floated for the strange cents.

In its own way, the real story of how the 1955 Doubled Die Obverse cents came to be is just as wild and fantastic as the more outlandish vintage suggestions. The term “Doubled Die Obverse” means that the doubling on these cents comes from the die used to strike them on the front, or obverse. The error happened during the die-making process. Cylinders of steel called “working hubs,” which look like one side of a coin, are pressed against heat-softened blank steel cylinders, leaving a mirror impression on the heat-softened steel; the cylinder receiving the impression became a “working die,” which would then be inserted into a coinage press and used to strike coins. In the mid-1950s, this process, called “hubbing,” had to be done multiple times to transfer all necessary details from hub to die.

Most of the time, the two (or more) impressions made on the working die are perfectly aligned, or are at least close enough that any difference between them is not visible without high-powered magnification. On this obverse die, though, the two impressions did not match; there were several degrees of rotation between the first impression and the second. The result: readily visible doubling, boldest at the outer lettering and the date, less obvious but still visible on certain details of the portrait, such as Lincoln’s bow tie.

Unlike many other rarities which require specialized knowledge to appreciate, the 1955 Doubled Die Obverse cent was instantly recognized as an oddity by collectors and non-collectors alike. As a result, many were saved with only a little bit of wear. Completely unworn pieces are more elusive, however, particularly those that retain their original color. This MS65 Red piece is tied for top coin in the population data for PCGS, which certified it. It’s perfect for the error enthusiast, the Lincoln cent specialist, or—dare I say it?—the cult-classic movie re-enactor.

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-John Dale Beety

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