Image: PCGS / CoinWeek

Background

The 2003 Lincoln cent was issued against the backdrop of many calling for the denomination’s elimination and represented one of the better-struck issues bearing the Lincoln Memorial reverse.

Cents had been struck on copper-plated zinc planchets since 1982, earning the coins the moniker “Zincoln”. Their composition, adopted to cut production costs, provided only a short-term benefit and eventually proved to be a liability as zinc prices began to rise due to international demand. CNN Money reported that in 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.

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). NPR’s 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.

Yet 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 have become [maybe use “were” instead of “have become”?] elevated far beyond their nominal one-cent face value.

Coin collectors have always demonstrated a preference for coins of high quality or “eye-appeal”, but with the advent 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. With these high grades, coins that circulate commonly at face value suddenly could trade at hundreds of times their values or more.

The difference between a 2003 cent worth one cent and a 2003 penny that’s worth more is the 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 found in human skin, and the rigors of daily use will mar and impair all one-cent coins. Even coins freshly pulled from bank rolls will likely exhibit marks or scratches from other coins or counting machines. The best examples of each year’s mint releases are often found in Mint Sets. Mint Sets are specially packaged by the United States Mint and sold 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 finally assigned its MS70 grade to a circulation strike Lincoln cent. The historic coin was a perfect 2003 cent in full MS70RD.

That a perfect Lincoln cent came from Philadelphia’s 2003 emission is not surprising. If any Lincoln cent were to ever earn that grade it would be one struck in a year when superb gem cents flew like river water.

PCGS Price Guide Editor Jaime Hernandez called the coin the “Holy Grail of Lincoln cents”. PCGS President 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 and realized a record price of $15,120 USD. The euphoria didn’t last long, however, 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 guaranty, PCGS “bought it back” and downgraded the coin to MS69RD. It is now one of 348 coins in PCGS holders at that grade.

While the PCGS MS70RD turned MS69RD coin is stunning as circulation strikes go, the existence of an example this nice to not completely anomalous for the issue. In 2003, the Philadelphia Mint struck a number of ultra-gem circulation strikes in 2003 and PCGS Coinfacts reports more than 1,300 graded MS68RD and 348 graded MS69RD. The Denver Mint struck a number of ultra-gem circulation strikes as well, although not nearly as many as Philadelphia.

These emissions represent the culmination of a two-year period where the Mint released the highest-quality cents of the “Zincoln” (1982-present) period. Prior to 1999, the grade MS69RD was nearly unheard of for circulation strikes, and after 2003, PCGS-certified populations at this level drop off precipitously, with 50 certified from both mints in 2004 and none certified from 2005 to 2013.

Since 2006, PCGS has certified no circulation strike Lincoln cent MS70RD. For Satin Finish Mint Set coins (which are produced to a different standard than circulation strike coins), a small number of coins were graded SP70RD in 2005 and 2006 but none are 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 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.

Obverse:

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 on 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.

Reverse:

Frank Gasparro designed the 1959 Lincoln Memorial reverse that replaced the original 1909 Brenner wheat stalk design. Gasparro’s initials FG appear on the lower-right side of the Lincoln Memorial. Below the edifice and along the rim are the words ONE CENT, while the legend UNITED STATES OF AMERICA run along the top half of the reverse along the rim. Between the top of the Lincoln Memorial and UNITED STATES OF AMERICA inscription is the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM.

Edge:

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

2003 Lincoln Cent Designer(s)

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 (View Designer’s Profile).

Coin Specifications

Country:  USA
Year Of Issue:  2003
Denomination:  One Cent
Mint Mark:  None (Philadelphia)
Mintage:  3,330,000,000
Alloy:  99.2% zinc, 0.8% copper, with a plating of pure copper.
Weight:  2.5 g
Diameter:  19.05 mm
Edge:  Plain
OBV Designer  Victor David Brenner
REV Designer  Frank Gasparro
Quality:  Business Strike

 

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