US Coin Profile – 1943-S Lincoln Cent Error Struck on a Bronze Planchet

The following coin profile of the 1943-S bronze Lincoln cent error comes from LOT #4764 of Heritage’s 2018 Winter Fun Signature Auction that will be taking place in Tampa on January 3-8. Here is the catalog description:

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“The 1943 bronze Lincoln cent errors are among the best-known and most valuable issues in all of American numismatics. Their fame actually extends far beyond traditional numismatics, as millions of children in the middle decades of the 20th century thrilled to colorful ads about the “copper pennies” on the back pages of comic books, while their parents read similar solicitations in mainstream magazines. Rumors that Henry Ford would reward the finder of any 1943 “copper” Lincoln cent error with a new car swept the country, despite frequently published denials by the Ford Motor Company. The lowly cent was a familiar object to everyone in everyday life and the prospect of finding one that was miraculously worth a fortune was intoxicating. Countless rolls of cents were searched in hopes of finding such a treasure. Frequent “finds” were well-publicized in newspapers and the media, but the finders were almost always disappointed when cursory examination revealed their coins were copper-plated examples of the regular-issue zinc-coated steel cents manufactured in 1943 to conserve copper for the war effort. Still, a few legitimate finds kept the legend of the 1943 “copper” cent alive-and-well with the general public and established a legacy unlike that of any other American coin. Heritage Auctions is privileged to offer one of the earliest and most storied “finds” of this iconic issue, a very rare AU53 NGC specimen from the San Francisco Mint, in its first auction appearance.

An Unintended Consequence

Copper was an essential commodity in the wartime economy of 1943 and any shortage could seriously affect the war effort. To conserve this essential material, the Treasury Department decided to substitute zinc-coated steel planchets for the usual bronze blanks used in cent production in 1943. The “steel” cents were produced in massive numbers, and were widely saved by contemporary collectors for their novelty value. As fate would have it, a few bronze planchets became stuck in the tote bins used to feed the coin presses in late 1942. These planchets went unnoticed when the tote bins were refilled with zinc-coated steel planchets to begin cent production the following year. The wrong-metal planchets soon became dislodged and were fed into the coin press with the regular-issue “steel” blanks, creating the celebrated 1943 bronze cents. This phenomenon occurred at all three active mints. Today, an estimated 15-20 examples of the 1943 bronze cent from the Philadelphia Mint survive, while just a single example from the Denver Mint is known, and six specimens from the San Francisco facility have been confirmed. Any 1943 bronze cent is an important find and examples regularly sell for six-figure prices at auction.

1943-S Lincoln Cent Error Bronze Planchet

The Present Coin

Although the 1943-S bronze cents are much rarer than their Philadelphia Mint counterparts, it appears they were actually discovered first. At least two coins, including the specimen offered here, were discovered within one year of the time of issue. This piece was found in circulation by 14-year-old collector Kenneth S. Wing, Jr. of Long Beach, California in 1944. It was exactly the kind of find that would establish the legend of the 1943 bronze cents and keep hopeful collectors searching through rolls of cents down to the present day, but Wing did not publish his discovery at the time. He did show the coin to a local coin dealer, who made a strong offer of $500 for it, but Wing decided to keep his treasure and try to find out more about it.

Wing maintained an extensive file of correspondence and clippings regarding his 1943-S bronze cent, which he retained throughout his lifetime. He made an inquiry about his coin with the Treasury Department and received a reply from Acting Mint Director Leland Howard in August of 1946 telling him “there were no copper cents struck during the calendar year 1943 at any of the coinage Mints.” Howard’s reply was typical of the Mint’s responses to all questions about 1943 copper cents. Mint officials continued to officially deny the possibility of any off-metal cents produced at the Mint until well into the 1960s, by which time their existence was firmly established.

Undeterred, Wing continued to correspond with coin dealers like Leonard Julian and Abe Kosoff about his coin over the years. He showed his bronze cent to the Superintendent of the San Francisco Mint in 1948 and was privately told it was probably genuine, despite the official denials of the Treasury Department (they were particularly sensitive to any possibility of coins leaving the Mint through unofficial channels because of the controversy about the 1933 double eagles, which began in 1944). In 1957, Wing’s father made a business trip to Washington, D.C. and had the coin examined by Curator Vladimir Clain-Stefanelli at the Smithsonian Institution, among others. In a June 18, 1957-dated letter, Clain-Stefanelli reported, “The authenticity of this piece is in my opinion beyond doubt.” Wing kept his 1943-S bronze cent until his death in 1996 and it remained in his family until 2008, 64 years after he discovered it. His extensive research file accompanies this lot.

Kenneth Wing’s 1943-S bronze cent made national headlines when it finally surfaced in 2008. Rare Coin Wholesalers, headed by Steve Contursi, purchased the coin from Wing’s heirs in July of that year for $72,500, a transaction that made front-page news in Numismatic News and Coin World the following month. It was acquired by prominent collector Kerry Rudin, and has remained in his collection ever since.

1943-S Lincoln Cent Error Bronze Reverse

The present coin is an impressive AU53 example, with glossy surfaces that show a mix of light brown, crimson, and traces of original red patina. Because the steel planchets used for regular-issue 1943 cents were much harder than the usual bronze blanks, the Mint adjusted the pressure settings and die spacing on the coin presses to improve striking quality. As a result, all 1943 bronze cents are sharply struck, and this piece is no exception, showing just a touch of light wear on the strongly impressed devices. The surfaces are lightly abraded but a few slight flaws on the obverse help with pedigree identification, including a near-vertical tick on Lincoln’s cheekbone and a hairline-thin scrape from the obverse field left of T(RUST) to a hair curl above Lincoln’s head down to the ear. The overall presentation is most attractive. One of only six known specimens of this iconic issue, this particular coin has never been offered at public auction before. It may be many years before a similar opportunity to acquire this rare numismatic treasure presents itself. The discerning collector should bid accordingly.

Roster of 1943-S Bronze Cents

We can confirm only six examples of the 1943-S bronze cents certified by the two major grading and authentication services, including several resubmissions and crossovers. Perhaps as many as 15 to 20 examples survive of the 1943 Philadelphia bronze cents, while the 1943-D bronze cent, MS64 Brown PCGS, in the Simpson Collection (for which he paid $1.7 million in 2010) remains unique, despite decades of searching on the part of thousands of collectors. The roster is based on publicized trades and public auctions; private trades may represent other examples that are unlisted here.

1. MS62 Brown PCGS Secure.
 “Found in the year of issue in a Mint-sewn bag of 1943-S steel cents” by Merl D. Burcham, per its early appearances with Superior Galleries (the Superior lot description from February 1974 is reprinted in Dr. Sol Taylor’s Standard Guide to the Lincoln Cent, fourth edition [1999], page 138); later to error coin dealer Frank Spadone; part of a $15,000 trade of “regular and pattern silver coins valued at that time [1965] between Spadone and Walter Farris of Bristol, Tennessee, per the Superior ads (and covered in a Coin World story on page 41, January 20, 1965); authenticated at some point by Walter Breen (before 1965, by which time Farris had obtained the certification); Dr. Charles L. Ruby Collection, Part I (Superior, 2/1974), lot 1991; Jan Bronson; Alan Van Vliet, in 1976; Margene Heathgate Collection (Superior, 6/1997), lot 145, realized $49,500; Dr. Jon Kardatzke Collection (Goldberg Auctions, 2/2000), lot 257, as MS61 Brown NGC, brought $115,000; Legend Numismatics to Bob Simpson as MS62 Brown PCGS for $1 million (9/2012); Simpson Collection. Possibly the MS61 Brown NGC example listed on their Census Report. Wexler-Flynn #3, PCGS certification #25510131.

 AU58 PCGS. Central States Auction (Kurt Krueger, 4/1989), lot 979; Dave Berg in 1989; private collection; Haig Koshkarian Collection (American Numismatic Rarities, 3/2004), lot 380; Simpson Collection; Long Beach Signature (Heritage, 2/2016), lot 3087, realized $282,000. This piece became the Bob Simpson “duplicate” when he purchased a 1943-S bronze cent in MS62 Brown PCGS Secure for $1 million in September 2012, a transaction arranged by Legend Numismatics. Formerly graded AU58 NGC, still listed on the NGC Census Report. Wexler-Flynn #1, PCGS certification #18523980.

3. AU55 PCGS Secure.
 Fred Weinberg in 1979; Dwight Berger in 1983; purchased from an unspecified auction “sometime during the 1980s” and newly certified at PCGS in autumn 2015. Previously authenticated by ANACS. The Sorensen Collection / FUN Signature (Heritage, 1/2016), lot 5267, brought $211,500. Wexler-Flynn #2, PCGS certification #25653505.

4. AU55 NGC.
 Saint Louis Signature (Heritage, 3/1989), lot 56; Dwight Berger; ANA Signature (Heritage, 7/1997), lot 5919. Wexler-Flynn #4, listed on the NGC Census Report.

5. AU53 NGC.
 Ex: Kenneth S. Wing Jr. Collection. “Discovered within a year of its issue, this attractive specimen remained in the same family for more than 60 years,” according to its NGC Photo Proof certification and extensive documentation provided by its current owner. Found in circulation in 1944 by 14-year-old collector Kenneth S. Wing, Jr. in Long Beach, California; Kenneth S. Wing family; sold to Rare Coin Wholesalers for $72,500 (7/2008); purchased from Park Avenue Numismatics for $173,000 (8/2008); Kerry Rudin. NGC certification #3184796-001; formerly in a slab with NGC certification #3210930-001 (now listed as AU53/Deleted by NGC), also formerly certified as XF45 PCGS, certification #11456467, and still pictured on the PCGS CoinFacts site. Photographed on NGC Coin Explorer. The present coin.

6. VF35 PCGS.
 Dr. Carl A. Minning, Jr. Collection (Bowers and Merena, 8/1999), lot 1122, brought $51,750; Pre-Long Beach Sale (Superior, 10/2000), lot 4147; Phillip Flannagan et al. Sale (Bowers and Merena, 11/2001), lot 6076, realized $62,100; Alfred V. Melson Collection, Part Two / Long Beach Signature (Heritage, 2/2010), lot 178, garnered $207,000; Geyer Family Collection / New York Signature (Heritage, 11/2013), lot 3510, brought $141,000. Described by the 1999 Bowers and Merena cataloger as “King of the Small Cents / Nationwide Publicity Item!” PCGS certification #3457896.
From The Kerry Rudin Collection. (NGC ID# 22E9, PCGS# 82715)

Weight: 3.11 grams

Metal: 95% Copper , 5% Silver”

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    • As the article notes, it’s extremely unlikely that any of these coins would show up in change but it’s faintly possible a few of them may exist in private hoards from the wartime / postwar era. In general a professional inspection’s needed to make a final determination of authenticity but there are a few simple tests that can be done at home:
      – If the coin sticks to a magnet, it’s a 1943 steel cent that’s been copper-plated. There are tons of these on the market; they’re classed as altered coins and are interesting only as curiosities.
      – If the tail of the “3” points horizontally to the left, the coin is an altered 1948 cent. The tail on a genuine 1943 cent should point diagonally down and to the left, roughly 60º below horizontal. There are also altered 1945-date cents but they’re more difficult to detect and need professional inspection.
      – If you can get an accurate scale, check the coin’s weight. An altered bronze cent will weigh ~3.11 gm while a steel cent will come in at ~2.7 gm.


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