HomeUS Coins2003 Lincoln Cent : A Collector's Guide

2003 Lincoln Cent : A Collector’s Guide

2003 Lincoln Cent. Image: PCGS / CoinWeek.
2003 Lincoln Cent. Image: PCGS / CoinWeek.

By Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker for CoinWeek Notes …..

The 2003 Lincoln Cent was issued against a backdrop of many people calling for the denomination’s elimination. However, these murmurs did not impact the quality of the coin, as the 2002 cent is one of the best-struck issues bearing the Lincoln Memorial reverse.

Lincoln Cents had been struck on copper-plated zinc planchets since 1982, earning the coins the “Zincoln” moniker from coin collectors. The coin’s composition, adopted to cut production costs, provided only a short-term benefit and eventually proved to be a liability as zinc prices rose due to international demand. CNN Money reported that by the early 2000s, China shifted from a net exporter to a net importer of zinc and that around 2003, Chinese demand for zinc skyrocketed, driving the metal’s prices up.

Efforts to Eliminate the Cent During the Early 2000s

In 2006, Arizona congressman Jim Kolbe (R-AZ5) introduced legislation to eliminate the denomination, as he had in each session of Congress since the 1990s (in 2001, he even introduced legislation to require cash transactions to be rounded to the nearest five cents). National Public Radio’s (NPR) Planet Money reported in 2020 that Kolbe’s initial interest in eliminating the cent was born of a desire to introduce a copper dollar coin, providing an outlet for copper mined in his state. Gradually, he came to see the elimination of the cent as a cost-saving measure.

Why Certain Lincoln Cents Are Worth More Money

Despite the calls for its elimination and the increasing cost of manufacture, 2003 saw Lincoln Cent production continue unabated, with a mintage of 3.3 billion coins struck at the Philadelphia Mint and an additional 3.548 billion struck at the Denver Mint. From that massive quantity of increasingly costly-to-produce cents, a number of coins caught the eyes of collectors and were elevated far beyond their nominal one-cent face value.

Coin collectors have always preferred coins of high quality or “eye-appeal”, but with the ascendence of third-party grading services, collectors and dealers recognized that incremental differences in grade for Mint State modern coins could form the basis of a new type of numismatic market. In extremely high grades, coins that circulate commonly at face value could suddenly trade at hundreds or thousands of times their face value.

The difference between a 2003 Lincoln Cent worth one cent and a 2003 penny worth more is the coin’s condition. A run-of-the-mill coin that one is likely to encounter in commerce will range from Extra Fine to the lower tiers of Mint State. Exposure to the elements, oils from human skin, and the rigors of daily use will mar and impair all one-cent coins, rendering them entirely useless to collectors.

Even coins freshly pulled from bank rolls will likely exhibit marks or scratches from other coins or counting machines. This will limit the numismatic premium of these pieces to a small amount over the coin’s face value.

Because of this, collectors and dealers look to Mint Sets, which usually include coins struck and handled with a greater degree of care than ordinary circulation strikes. The United States Mint specially packages Mint Sets and sells them at a premium to collectors. They include one example of each denomination struck for circulation at each mint. In 2003, collectors were treated to coins of the finest quality ever produced in Mint Sets.

The Tale of the Perfect Cent?

On August 29, 2006, PCGS published a press release announcing that, for the first time after 160,000 submissions, it had assigned its MS70 grade to a circulation strike Lincoln Cent. The historic coin was a perfect 2003 cent in full MS70RD.

Given the quality of the issue, the fact that a perfect Lincoln Cent came from Philadelphia’s 2003 emission is not surprising. PCGS Price Guide Editor Jaime Hernandez called the PCGS MS70RD 2003 Lincoln Cent the “Holy Grail of Lincoln [C]ents”. Ron Guth called the piece “a remarkable coin” and said it was unlikely that PCGS would ever see another of its caliber.

2003 Lincoln Cent. Previously graded MS70RD by PCGS. Image: PCGS.
2003 Lincoln Cent. Previously graded MS70RD by PCGS. Image: PCGS.

In October of that year, the coin appeared in an online auction at Teletrade, selling for a record price of $15,120 USD.

However, the euphoria didn’t last long as the coin developed a naked-eye visible copper spot shortly after the sale and was sent back to PCGS. Under the terms of their grade guarantee, PCGS bought the coin back and downgraded it to MS69RD. At MS69RD, the once-perfect 2003 Lincoln Cent is now one of 379 examples in PCGS holders at that grade.

While the story of this particular coin is notable and would have been destined for the memory hole were it not for essays like this, the hundreds of coins graded MS69RD appear on eBay frequently enough that any collector so interested can obtain one for about $60.

In terms of ultra-high-quality cents, the 2003 Lincoln Cent has company. Prior to 1999, the grade MS69RD was nearly unheard of for circulation strikes, but the quality of coins produced from 2000 to 2004 was sufficient for several examples to earn that grade. Remember that the available supply of Mint State coins for these dates is nowhere near exhausted.

For Satin Finish Mint Set coins (which were produced to a different standard than circulation strike coins), a small number of coins were graded SP70RD in 2005 and 2006, but none were reported at this grade after that. Given what happened to the 2003 cent, this may have signaled a policy revision on the part of the service.

That changed in 2019 when the Mint released “freemium” 2019-W Lincoln Cents in Mint Sets. While seldom encountered in a perfect “70” grade, PCGS did find that 11 of the 6,040 coins submitted met their criteria for its highest possible grade.

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Market Data and Noteworthy Specimens

Top Population: PCGS MS69RD (379, 5/2024), NGC MS69RD (76, 5/2024), and CAC None Graded (5/2024).

  • PCGS MS69RD #6012XXXX: eBay, May 14, 2024 – $56. The last four digits of the certification number were obscured.
  • PCGS MS69RD #08830773: eBay, April 16, 2024 – $50.
  • PCGS MS69RD #43980236: eBay, March 10, 2024 – $129.95.
  • PCGS MS69RD #48528750: eBay, March 2, 2024 – $119.95.

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The obverse of the 2003 Lincoln Cent was designed by Victor David Brenner and appears largely as it did when the type was first minted in 1909. The main difference between the 2003 obverse versus the 1909 version is the location of Brenners’ initials, V.D.B., which were added under Lincoln’s bust in 1918 after their removal from the reverse in late 1909. The year 2003 appears to the right of Lincoln, and the motto IN GOD WE TRUST appears above the president. To the left of the 16th president is the word LIBERTY.


Frank Gasparro designed the 1959 Lincoln Memorial reverse, replacing the original 1909 Brenner wheat stalk design. Gasparro’s initials FG appear on the lower-right side of the Lincoln Memorial. The denomination written out as ONE CENT is below the edifice and along the rim, while the legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA runs along the top half of the reverse along the rim. Between the top of the Lincoln Memorial and UNITED STATES OF AMERICA is the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM.


The edge of the 2003 Lincoln cent is plain or smooth, without reeding or lettering.

2003 Lincoln Cent Designers

Lithuanian-born coin designer Victor David Brenner is best known for his iconic design for the Lincoln Cent (1909-Present) (View Designer’s Profile).

Frank Gasparro was an American medalist and coin designer. He joined the Mint’s Engraving Department in 1942 under John R. Sinnock and worked under Gilroy Roberts as Assistant Engraver. Gasparro succeeded Roberts as Chief Engraver of the U.S. Mint on February 23, 1965 and served in that role until January 16, 1981. He died on September 29, 2001 (View Designer’s Profile).

Coin Specifications

Country: United States of America
Year of Issue: 2003
Denomination: One Cent (USD)
Mintmark: None (Philadelphia)
Mintage: 3,330,000,000
Alloy: 99.2% zinc and 0.8% copper, with a plating of pure copper
Weight: 2.50 g
Diameter: 19.05 mm
Edge: Plain
OBV Designer: Victor David Brenner
REV Designer: Frank Gasparro
Quality: Business Strike


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CoinWeek Notes
CoinWeek Notes
CoinWeek Notes presents expert analysis and insights from Charles Morgan and Hubert Walker, the award-winning editors of CoinWeek.com.

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  1. This article states that the cent’s composition is “99.2% zinc, 0.8% copper, with a plating of pure copper.”

    However the US Mint website says the coins are 97.5% zinc with the copper coating accounting for the remaining 2.5%.

    Any clarification would be helpful.

    • Yes I believe you cause I got a 1961 all the same color as the ww pennies. I don’t understand how it got that color at all. It’s not coated cause I had it checked. I’m afraid to send it out it might get stolen


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