Back in 1947, a 16-year-old Massachusetts teenager, Don Lutes Jr, held out his hand at the school cafeteria for change after paying for his meal. Little did he know, some 70 years later that handful of pennies would be worth hundreds of thousands – if not millions – of dollars. One penny, in particular, is now dubbed the “most famous error coin” by Heritage Auctions, who is auctioning the penny. At the time of writing, it's currently at a bid of $120,000. It's thought it could fetch over $200,000, though it's so rare, a previous one sold for $1.7 million.
At the height of World War II in 1943, copper was a strategic metal used to make shell casings, telephone wires, and other wartime necessities. To save rations, the Treasury Department at the time authorized the US Mint to strike 1943 cents on zinc-coated steel plates, known as planchets, rather than on copper blanks. These white colored “steelies” were produced in large numbers and seen in circulation throughout the 1950s and '60s when collectors started pocketing them, but rumors of extremely rare “copper pennies” soon circulated the channels – ones that were made by mistake and subsequently covered up by the US government.
Lutes Jr heard the rumors but was told they were false so kept the coin for his collection. Over the years, after many inquiries and attempts to buy it, he contacted the US Treasury, but was told the coin was "fraudulent" and that all 1943 pennies were zinc coated steel, with no exceptions.
The truth about these accidental copper pennies surfaced later when the US Mint announced a number of small bronze coin blanks were caught in trap doors at the end of 1942 and subsequently pressed into pennies in 1943, escaping detection by the Mint. Today, we know there are surviving examples from all three active mints, including 10 to 15 from Philadelphia, half a dozen from San Francisco, and just one from Denver.
The pennies “captured the imagination of coin collectors, school children, and members of the general public alike,” but alluded even the most persistent collectors; only a handful of legitimate specimens have turned up in the following seven decades – including the one belonging to Don Lutes Jr, who passed away in September.
But don’t go digging around in your change jar just yet because a find of this sort is “once in a lifetime.” Still not convinced? OK, here's what you're looking for.
Experts say to look for a very sharply engraved penny. Zinc-coated steel plates were “considerably harder” than those used in earlier designs, so penny pressers had to strike the blank steel coin much harder. As a result, the softer copper penny exhibits “sharp striking characteristics” with strongly impressed elements. This particular coin is an “olive-brown specimen” with “hints of steel and copper-red patina in selected areas.”
The easiest way to get your hands on one, frankly, is to buy it. A similar one sold in 2010 for a staggering $1.7 million – you know, pocket change.