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Aluminum cent's fate in doubt

Perhaps the aluminum 1974-D Lincoln cent will not be sold at the Central States auction at the end of April.

The Mint wants it back.

A letter was sent Feb. 26 to owners Randall Lawrence and Michael McConnell demanding its return.

Sending this demand was Chief Counsel of the U.S. Mint Daniel Shaver.

The recipients of the letter filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California on March 14 seeking a declaratory judgment and jury trial on the issue.

Considering the great lengths the Mint has gone to in its recovery of 1933 $20 gold pieces, it perhaps is not surprising that it would take action regarding the 1974-D aluminum cent.

However, the defense has a case to make on the changeable nature of Mint attitudes to coins and patterns that have found their way into private collector hands over the years.

It also has extensive records to draw upon tracing the history of the Philadelphia 1974 aluminum cents and how a number of them (an estimated 18-21 pieces) cannot be accounted for and are presumably somewhere in private hands. The suit cites one specifically known example of this where the government has not yet attempted the coin’s retrieval though it was submitted to grading services in 2005 and also made the front page of Numismatic News.

The history of the 1974-D aluminum cent is more murky. There are no records of stories of Members of Congress and their staff getting examples to look at.

In fact, when the existence of the coin was revealed earlier this year, it was a complete surprise to numismatists.

Even the Mint said, “We are not aware of, nor have any information on, the striking of such pieces at the United States Mint at Denver.”

The suit declares this to be wrong and cites a former Denver Mint employee “who personally struck fewer than a dozen of these coins as a die setter.”

These coins were hand delivered to the Coining Division Office of the Denver Mint and then forwarded to the U.S. Mint headquarters in Washington, D.C

Since one of the current owners of the cent in question is the son of former assistant superintendent of the Denver Mint Harry E. Lawrence, the suit notes that “production of the Denver Mint aluminum cents does not suggest that Harry Lawrence was present at any time during the coins’ striking, and upon information and belief, Harry Lawrence was in Washington at the time.”

It is likely that the question of how Harry Lawrence got the aluminum 1974-D cent and whether he was legally entitled to keep it will be the hinges on which the Mint’s case swings. He died in 1980.

Presumably as a Mint employee he would have been bound to return his aluminum cent when his ultimate boss, Mint Director Mary Brooks, asked that all such pieces be returned.

That, of course, remains to be seen.

Will the two owners be able to keep the coin?

Even if they are, such a court judgment might not come in time for the April auction.

That would delay its ultimate sale.

If the Mint wins, the coin will disappear from collector view and perhaps be destroyed.

Whatever the outcome, the 1974-D aluminum cent has gotten the attention of collectors everywhere and its ultimate fate is a matter of keen interest.

Buzz blogger Dave Harper is winner of the 2013 Numismatic Literary Guild Award for Best Blog and is editor of the weekly newspaper "Numismatic News."