A rare 1943 Lincoln cent found in a teen's high school cafeteria pocket change sold for $204,000 Thursday evening, Jan. 10, at a public auction of U.S. coins held in Orlando, Florida, by Heritage Auctions
, the world's largest coin auctioneer. More than 30 bids quickly pushed the coin past its pre-auction estimate of $170,000.
The rarity was mistakenly minted in bronze, instead of zinc-coated steel, which was needed to save copper and bronze to fill metal shortages during World War II. At the time, the United States Mint steadfastly denied such coins existed, until the truth came out in 1947 after teenager Don Lutes found the first bronze Lincoln cent in pocket change from his high school cafeteria in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Only 10 to 15 examples of a 1943 bronze Lincoln cents are known to exist.
"This is the first time this coin had ever appeared at auction since Mr. Lutes found it when he was 16 years old," said Sarah Miller, a Director of Numismatics at Heritage Auctions who is responsible for bringing the rare coin to auction. "Collectors love obscurities and oddities, so it doesn't get better than this."
The story behind the 1943 bronze cent transcends the coin-collecting hobby. A small number of bronze blanks, or planchets, were caught in the trap doors of the mobile tote bins used to feed the Mint's coin presses at the end of 1942.
These few planchets went unnoticed and were fed into the coin press along with the steel wartime blanks (popularly referred to as "steelies"). The few resulting "copper" cents were lost in the flood of millions of "steel" cents and escaped detection by the Mint. They quietly slipped into circulation, to amaze collectors and confound Mint officials for years to come.
Shortly after the white-colored zinc-coated steel cents were put in circulation, rumors of extremely rare 1943 "copper pennies" began to circulate. The coin became so famous that was once falsely reported Henry Ford would give a new car to anyone who could provide him with a 1943 "copper" cent.
Lutes contacted the Ford Motor Company but was told the story was, indeed, nothing but a rumor. He also placed an inquiry with the Treasury Department and received the standard 26-word reply the Mint sent to all collectors requesting information on the 1943 bronze cents:
"In regard to your recent inquiry, please be informed that copper pennies were not struck in 1943. All pennies struck in 1943 were zinc coated steel."
Unfortunately, Lutes died in September, 2018, before he could watch his coin make history or learn its true market value. Miller said Heritage Auctions is working with the estate to honor Lutes' wish that all proceeds from the sale are donated to the Berkshire Athenaeum at Pittsfield's Public Library, where Lutes was active for so many years.