Pennies rarely get the attention that they deserve. Often left unloved down the back of a sofa, or deep in a shopper’s grubby pocket, coppers are unfairly seen as poor companions to their papery counterparts. But, as a recent story goes to show, there’s often a lot more to coins than meets the eye.
In 1947, 16-year-old Massachusetts student Don Lutes Jr was finishing lunch in his school cafeteria, when he spied something dully glinting on the grimy kitchen floor. As he reached down to grab it, he realised that the object was a small, round copper penny, bearing the face of President Lincoln and dated from 1943. Thinking nothing of his discovery, he pocketed the piece and carried on with his day.
However, not long after the find, Lutes began to hear rumours concerning the provenance of his particular coin. What he heard could have potentially life changing consequences. Some people were suggesting that his was no ordinary 1943 penny, but the direct result of one the “most famous error...in American numismatics,” and might be worth a small fortune.
Due to the war effort, coins in 1943 were minted with a very particular technique. Instead of using copper, a strategically crucial resource in the production of weaponry, telephone wire and other necessities essential to the war effort, all pennies were instead manufactured from zinc. All, that is, except a handful of “blanks”, who were created in the original copper. It is said that only 15-20 such coins had ever been produced. Now, Lutes might have one in his pocket.
Excited, the teenager took his discovery to the treasury, expecting them to confirm its authenticity and make him a very wealthy young man. However, his hopes were promptly dashed. Authorities told Lutes that his coin was a fake - one of hundreds being circulated by a growing cabal of fraudsters and cheats.
Undeterred, Lutes tried another tac. He had heard that, in the obsessive pursuit of anything valuable, none other than automotive pioneer Henry Ford was offering a free car to anyone who could source a ‘43 copper. Politely, he made an enquiry. He was, in no uncertain terms, told that whatever offer he had heard was a total fabrication. Despite these setbacks, Lutes decided to keep the coin that everyone had told him was worthless. It remained in his possession for more than seven decades.
Tragically, Lutes died in September, before his coin could be properly appraised. However, his family have since had it examined by experts, who have determined that it is not only genuine, but also worth a small fortune. More than 70 years after he first picked it up off the dining room floor, Lutes’ coin is finally about to go under the hammer at Heritage Auctions. It is expected to fetch around $1.7 million. It just goes to show that even something as unassuming as an old penny can have hidden value if you’re prepared to look below the surface.