Monday, December 7, 2009

Coin Monday: The Legend of the 1943 Bronze Cent

Dec. 7, 2009
Written by John Dale

Back in late October, I discussed wrong-planchet errors in the context of a Franklin half dollar that had been struck on a planchet designed for a quarter. (The results from Houston are in, and the piece sold for $1,150. Not bad for a Mint mistake!) At the end, I left a slightly cryptic clue to another wrong-planchet error I knew about: “Oh, but I did mention ‘wrong size or type,” didn’t I? Well, I’ll tell you about that later…”

It’s officially later, if later than I’d planned, so now it’s time to let you in on the secret. This is the good stuff. The really, really good stuff.

For those of you who clicked and didn’t experience sudden coin euphoria, let me slip into my best Olmec impression and tell you The Legend of the 1943 Bronze Cent:

“Long ago, in the city of Philadelphia, there was a building called the U.S. Mint. In the early days of World War II, when copper was needed urgently for bullets and artillery shells, the Mint was using tons of copper to strike one cent coins, which were made out of bronze. To save that copper for the war effort, the Mint metallurgists experimented with other, different metals in search of a replacement. They even tried making cents out of plastic!

In 1943, for one year only, the Mint made cents out of zinc-coated steel, but a handful of 1943-dated cents were made in the old bronze alloy instead, and one of them made its way to the January 2010 FUN Auction!

Your quest is to outbid the rest of the room, retrieve the 1943 bronze cent, and add it to your collection.”

…yes, I watched Legends of the Hidden Temple way too much as a kid. To Viacom, Nickelodeon’s corporate parent: no box set? Seriously? Not even a “best-of” compilation on one DVD? But I want to give you money...

Where was I? Oh, yes, 1943 bronze cent. These wrong-metal rarities have been sources of intrigue ever since their discovery, and even today, tall tales about them flourish. To quote the 1943 bronze cent’s description in the catalog:

“Almost from the outset, the 1943 bronze cents were the subject of misinformation. Henry Ford, the automobile titan, supposedly offered a new car in exchange for a 1943 ‘copper’ cent, for example; this was not the first coin hoax centered around Ford. … Similarly, news dispatches in 1999 about a 1943 bronze cent supposedly spent as an ordinary coin overestimated its value; the original wire report claimed it was worth a quarter of a million dollars, a number that increased to a cool half-million as the story was retold!”

The legends made the 1943 bronze cent as special as it is. Generations have sought it, most finding nothing, some discovering a great love for coins. The best part of any legend, though, is its tiny center of truth, and that truth—3.11 grams of bronze, stamped by dies that never should have struck anything but steel—makes all the built-up hype seem irrelevant. It sits in the hand, sandwiched between layers of protective plastic, terribly ordinary-looking for such a prized relic. Yet it is the driving force, the dreamed-of ending for thousands of stories, true stories.

Come January, let the end be written.

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-John Dale Beety

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