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The Story of the 1973/74 Aluminum Lincoln Penny

The Story of the 1973/74 Aluminum Lincoln Penny

By Blanchard & Company ……
How do you run a successful business? You make sure that costs don’t exceed revenues. However, in a 2014 biennial report to Congress, the United States Mint explained that it takes 8.04 cents to make a nickel and 1.66 cents to make a penny. This imbalance between manufacturing costs and face value is a problem.

This challenge is not new. In 1973 the Mint had the same problem. They decided to explore solutions. The prevailing idea was to make pennies from aluminum. Specifically, they intended to make them from an alloy of aluminum and trace metals. This approach would replace the copper-zinc composition in the traditional one-cent coin.

Rising copper costs made the traditional 1973 penny nearly equal in cost to its face value. This brought the topic of seigniorage into the fold. Seigniorage is a word used to describe the difference between the face value of a piece of currency and the cost to manufacture and distribute the money. To avoid a model in which costs exceed face value, the U.S. Mint decided on an alloy consisting of 96% aluminum. Aluminum was less expensive, more durable, and resistant to tarnishing. Additionally, aluminum takes less of a toll on the die used to mint coins, which also brought manufacturing costs down.

The Mint went forward with its plan. They struck more than 1.5 million new aluminum pennies in 1973 for intended release in 1974. Opposition to the plan, however, was immediate. Leadership in the copper industry rebuked efforts to abandon the metal. Moreover, those in the vending machine industry became vocal about their concerns over the ability of machines to function with aluminum coins. There was an additional problem to all of this that no one foresaw: radiodensity.

Radiodensity is the inability of kinds of electromagnetic radiation to pass through a material. That is, pediatric radiologists cited the aluminum coins as a risk because they would be difficult to locate in an X-ray scan. An aluminum coin might be undetectable if a child ingested one. The coin might appear indistinguishable from human tissue on the images.

In time, the cost of copper declined. This, coupled with the growing voice of aluminum detractors left the initiative dead. The Mint recalled the aluminum coins. However, a small portioned were never returned, probably totalling 12 to 14 coins. These few pieces have remained hidden and unsold, therefore their value remains obscure.

However, in early 2014 a San Diego resident claimed to own a 1974-D aluminum coin. The “D” signifies that it was minted in Denver. The owner’s father was once a deputy superintendent of the Denver Mint. Some initial estimates put the value of the piece at $250,000 USD, with some suggesting that the value could reach as high as $2 million.

 

Later that year PCGS certified the coin as authentic. The owner planned to auction the piece. At the same time the U.S. Mint requested that the owner return the coin. The issue went before a judge, who said that “it is plausible that a Mint official, with proper authority and in an authorized manner, allowed Harry Lawrence to keep the 1974-D aluminum cent.”

Despite the ruling, the owner returned the coin to the Mint and the 1974 aluminum penny remains a footnote in the history of the U.S. Mint.

Blanchard and Company
Blanchard and Companyhttps://www.blanchardgold.com/
Blanchard and Company, Inc. is one of the largest and most respected retailers of American rare coins and precious metals in the United States, serving more than 350,000 people with expert consultation and assistance in the acquisition of American numismatic rarities and gold, silver, and platinum bullion. Blanchard and its predecessor companies have called the New Orleans area home for more than 30 years.

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29 COMMENTS

    • While this isn’t really a “whatzit worth” site, assuming (A) you found the coin in change, (B) it’s copper-colored and (C) it has the same weight as other pre-1982 cents, it’s 99.999% certain your coin is one of the 2.4+ billion (with a “b”) ordinary cents struck that year by the Denver mint. Unfortunately that means it’s only worth once cent.

      • Hello, the coin in question does not weigh as much as a regular penny, it weighed less then a normal penny, but more than the aluminum version. Can you help me.

  1. I believe the coin was put in a numismatic museum, one of a few in that fate. At least the Mint is preserving that part of their history instead of concealing it.

  2. Two other issues not mentioned in the article were that in the absence of some kind of copper-colored plating, aluminum cents would probably have been confused with dimes, the same thing that happened with their zinc-coated cousins back in 1943; in addition, the coins’ light weight (~1 gram) would have made them easier to lose. Besides the less-noticeable sound that a dropped coin would make, some other countries reported incidents of aluminum coins actually blowing away in a stiff breeze!

  3. Is it illegal to own one? I’d like to sell it but dont want any trouble or to have it confiscated-real..weight confirmed-color etc.

  4. I have found several 1973 aluminum pennies in excellent condition. The article says that 12-14 of them were never returned to the mint, but I have some. Is it illegal to own them? Are they worth anything more than their face value?

    • Yes they are worth alot of $$$$ if they’re really the real aluminum pennines then my friend you have alot of $$$$there.

      • I have a 1971-D that is 2.8
        I also two 1973’s.
        One is a 1973-D that is 2.9
        And a 1973-S that is 2.8.
        Would appreciate some advice?

  5. I have found a 1973d penny I believe it’s one the only thing gets me it looks like to be rusted no magnetic do not stick to it

  6. I actually have I believe , THE 1974 penny that is left out of the 1.5 or so aluminum ones that were melted down

    • Did you check its weight? A standard pre-1982 bronze cent would weigh ~3.11 gm while the aluminum cents were barely 1 gm. If it’s around 3.11 gm, you most likely have a bronze cent that’s been altered after leaving the Mint.

    • Because the US mint also mints foreign coins for them at least they did on some older coins I don’t know if they still do today or not

  7. Hello,found a 1974 penny in my change @ our deli, but it weighs more than the aluminum ones but less than the copper penny, it’s also choppered color.
    Any clue what I have?

    Thanks,

    Barry Calciano

  8. I have a 2008 aluminum penny. It hasn’t been graded yet. But I am looking to do it soon. What is something like that worth?

  9. I believe this to be my 1974 Aluminum penny… The claim is false that this penny was found in a bag with other coins. The realtor visited my open house in CA. and stole this penny out of my jewelry box along with a very special ring. I received this penny from my father at the age of nine in the driveway of our home in Bohemia NY in 1974. My father just cashed his check at the bank and they gave him this penny. He then gave the penny to me thinking it was a steel penny… FYI my penny was and from a bank and therefore legal to own. It was in circulation…. There was no internet and information on this penny therefore I never could find information on this penny. I just thought it was a gimmick or a gift toy but it was special to me… I would occasionally use this penny as a ball marker when putting on greens. It was very special to me. The realtor is complete;y full of shit … he ran out of my home as he knew he was in the wrong… I did report the theft to the the sheriffs department but without pictures of my ring and a never seen before penny It was hard to prove or even explain.

    • The determining factor as to whether an aluminum penny was legal to own or not was if it had been monetized by the United States Government. Which did not happen. Receiving one in circulation is the same as inadvertently buying stolen goods as far as the Feds are concerned.

  10. I remember reading a new story from that era. A mint official brought a tray of aluminum pennies to a Congressional committee for their inspection. By the time the contents of the tray had been inspected by each committee member in turn and returned to the official, the number of pennies had noticeably declined. From 12 to 3, or something like that. Congressional power being what it is, the mint had no choice but to ignore the shrinkage.

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