Copper in the Hopper
Did a naughty teenager make the six 1943-S bronze cents?
By Leon Worden
The jury is out on the first two questions. But now, after more than 60 years, comes a compelling tale that, if true, could unravel one part of the mystery of the 1943 bronze cent.
Understand, 1943 bronze cents have been the rage ever since 16-year-old Don Lutes Jr. found one in change from his school cafeteria in 1947. The popularity of the off-metal errors quickly transcended the collecting community. Newspaper and matchbook-cover ads offering a huge "REWARD!" compelled a generation of Americans to rifle their purses and pockets for the elusive treasure.
More than a few people have walked into a local coin shop with dollar signs in their eyeballs, only to learn their great find was a cheap fake. (Tip: Use a household magnet. If it attracts, it’s a copper-coated steel forgery. If it doesn’t, take it to a knowledgeable dealer. Chances are, it’s still phony.)
But like Willy Wonka’s gold certificate finders, there were some winners. Today, most certified 1943 "coppers" trade in the neighborhood of $100,000. In 2003, a unique specimen with a "D" mint mark sold at auction for a whopping $212,750 more than 20 million times its original issue price.
According to Dr. Sol Taylor, author of "The Standard Guide to the Lincoln Cent," and Steve Benson, who has investigated every bronze 1943 cent and once owned the finest "P" and "S" examples, there are 13 known specimens from the Philadelphia Mint, six from San Francisco and one from Denver. Almost all were found in circulation, and their raison d’etre is, at best, educated guesswork.
Were some bronze blanks left in the hoppers at the end of 1942 and carelessly commingled with their zinc-coated steel replacements? Were they lodged in the feeding chutes of the coin presses and pushed through unnoticed when the dies were switched out for the new year?
It would appear, based on a review of the literature and discussions with experts, that in all the years, no one has stepped forward with direct knowledge of the fabrication of these numismatic anomalies.
"The superintendent only let high school students work on the penny and nickel presses, apparently because he didn’t trust them with higher-value coins," Reis writes. "My father was assigned to work on the penny presses."
"My father said that one day, he came across a ‘handful’ of copper penny [sic] planchets. I never asked him exactly where he found them. He said that he didn’t tell anyone that he found them and that he threw them in with the steel planchets being fed into the penny presses. He said he retrieved five or six of the copper pennies and brought them home to give to his mother."
Reis (pronounced "Reece") said his father first told him the story in 1960 when he was 10. He immediately asked his grandmother to hunt for the coins, but "she had no memory of my father giving her any pennies … 17 years earlier." He said that that over the years his grandparents told him similar stories of his father’s wartime escapades at the Mint.
Reis disclosed the information by e-mail to Sol Taylor in February and produced a copy of his father’s San Francisco Mint employee card. Undated, it is signed by Peter J. Haggerty, superintendent of the Mint from 1933 to Dec. 31, 1944. Handwriting on the back (perhaps penned by a clerk) juxtaposes the first and second names of Reis’ father Charles Samuel Reis Jr. as "Samuel C. Reis." The card identifies him as employee No. 481.
He also sent Taylor a copy of his father’s Selective Service registration certificate, dated Dec. 28, 1944 his 18th birthday.
Reis’ father died March 2, 2005, aged 78 years. His father’s sister died a month later. She had been executrix of their parents’ estate. Reis found his father’s Mint employee card among in a box from his grandparents’ estate. He didn’t find any coins.
Reis contacted Taylor through the Web site, soltaylor.com, and asked Taylor to give his "estimation of the credibility of these stories."
"[Finding] my father’s mint card was sort of a trigger," Reis told COINage. "Not that I had forgotten [the stories] or anything. I was just wondering if there’s any way to confirm them from another source. For me, I think it would be really neat."
Born in 1926, Charles Reis grew up on Alemany Boulevard in San Francisco, where his parents lived since 1920. After his temporary Mint job, Charles, who developed an interest in engineering at Balboa High School, worked for the U.S. State Department as an engineer on Voice of America radio broadcasts. Around 1950 when David was born he went to work for Hewlett Packard, which was making high-speed frequency counters for radio stations and, later, oscilloscopes. By 1966 or 1967, Charles had saved enough money to retire and buy an apartment building, which he converted to condos.
"My father never said to keep [the coins] a secret," David Reis said. "I guess I just didn’t think anybody would be so interested in it. But since he passed away, it’s just one of those things. You kind of feel an obligation to pass that kind of history on, if it is of interest."
"I believed everything that he said is accurate."
Taylor knew that many Mint employees were drafted into military service and yet somehow, the coining facilities managed to operate at or near capacity during the war.
Taylor said Reis’ story explains why no 1943-S bronze cent was known to exist before the first one was discovered in 1973. In contrast, every known P-mint coin had been pulled from circulation by 1960, Taylor said.
"Why didn’t this coin show up between 1943 and 1973? Because all of them were in the possession of one family," Taylor said. At some point, a family member "probably found some loose change and spent them. And then they started showing up."
"The 1943 copper is probably the best known of the Lincoln cents," said Taylor, who has collected Lincoln cents since the late 1930s and handled them professionally since 1953. "There were probably 10 million people looking for it, and if they were in circulation for 30 years, somebody would have found one or two."
Collector-researcher Steve Benson doesn’t think the known S-mint coins were stashed away for 30 years because they’re too worn. Four of the six are listed in Taylor’s book as EF-40, one as EF-45 and one as AU-50.
"If they were in one person’s hands, they’d probably be in tremendous condition," Benson said.
Splitting the difference, if Reis’ grandmother had no recollection of the coins in 1960, she might have unwittingly released them into circulation in 1952 or 1953 when she moved from San Francisco to nearby San Bruno.
"They condensed their belongings, I guess," Reis said. "When you move you condense them. You get rid of things."
The coins’ circulating time would have been cut by a decade. Their condition is still relatively high for coins that have been used in commerce and the AU-50 coin was subsequently regraded MS-61 by Numismatic Guaranty Corp., Benson said.
"Let’s assume they were spent after 1953," Taylor said. "The Philadelphias weren’t discovered right away, either."
Circulating since 1943, the first Philadelphia coin was detected in 1947. The next discovery to receive wide publicity came in 1958. Another was reported in 1960.
"In any event [the San Francisco coins] weren’t out there too long," Taylor said. "If they were circulating since 1943, there would be some VFs," showing more wear. There aren’t.
Current U.S. Mint personnel said no documentation exists to confirm whether teenagers were hired during World War II.
"I never heard such a story and imagine it is anecdotal," said prominent numismatic author Q. David Bowers. Researcher Robert W. Julian, a walking database of old Mint records, said it is "possible that
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