One of the great things about this column is the appropriateness of the name, "Treasure Hunt." Few things are as exciting as a successful hunt for something valuable. It's rewarding for the people who discover something of worth — especially when they're not necessarily expecting it.
Dial the clock back to 1943, and I'm pretty sure millions thought they had hit a wartime jackpot with a new type of penny. Instead of the familiar bronze/copper color, it was shiny like silver. With copper being desperately needed for the war effort for 1943, the government switched to striking pennies out of steel. At the outset, some probably thought they had found a real rarity. Nope. Over one billion of the steel cents were struck; they were anything but rare.
The 1943 pennies also weren't designed to live long. When exposed to water or even humidity, the steel would quickly rust, making them unappealing for use or handling. After the war, when the government wanted to remove them from circulation, the metal made that easy. Being magnetic, they needed only to drag massive magnets over piles of coins. The steel pennies quickly leapt from the piles. Most were melted down, while many survived and are in collections today.
The familiar sightings of these steel cents may be why Randy Lawrence didn't think twice about a silver-colored penny his father gave him over 30 years prior. It was shiny and looked like a really nice, uncirculated example of one of the wartime steel cents. He casually kept it in a plastic sandwich bag in his desk drawer and, for a while, in a box in the trunk of his car.
The thing is his dad was a deputy director of the U.S. Mint in Denver in the 1970s. That was when, because of rising metal costs, the Mint began looking at alternatives to copper pennies. Last August, when Lawrence moved from Denver to California, he saw the coin again as he emptied his trunk. His father had died in 1980 so he nostalgically took a closer look at it. Curiously, the coin didn't have the familiar 1943 date of the steel cent but rather 1974. Plus, the coin felt very light.
It seems that in the early 1970s, more than a million experimental aluminum cents were struck. A number of them were distributed to members of Congress and other employees as examples but were later recalled and destroyed. All were assumed to have been accounted for. Evidently not.
Lawrence took his penny to a coin dealer in La Jolla, Calif. There, proprietor Michael McConnell thought it might be a cent mistakenly struck on the planchet intended for a coin from another country. He submitted it to a professional certification and grading company. It came back as an extremely rare, exceptionally valuable and potentially unique 1974 aluminum Lincoln cent.
The penny was certified and graded as "Mint State-63." Early estimates for its value are north of $250,000. That will officially be determined when it is sold by Heritage Auctions this April in Chicago. Of course, some are sure to ask if, given the recall, the coin might be considered contraband and confiscated by the government. Not to worry: It's free and clear.
In 1976, the government closed its investigation of any missing 1974 aluminum cents, stating, " ... no evidence of any criminal intent ... " was found by anyone possessing the coins. Anyway, it's clear Lawrence's father didn't believe it had value. If he had, the penny would have been carefully stored in a vault — not casually tossed in a drawer. He obviously had just forgotten about it.
The best part is the more the coin sells for, the more good it will do. It's been decided that a chunk of the proceeds will be donated to the homeless in the San Diego area just south of La Jolla. That's surely more than any other penny has done for the needy.
It's a great ending to a fascinating treasure hunt. Or is it? After all, a million is a very big number. Who could possibly keep track of all that were disbursed and returned? Plus, remember a number of them went to members of Congress. What are the odds those unimpeachably honest public servants didn't return them? In other words, keep looking. The hunt is on!
Editor's Note: A JPEG visual of the certified 1974, graded aluminum penny has been sent with this column.
To find out more about Peter Rexford and features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.