A recent email contains a version of a question that I have been receiving for my entire career.
The writer said, "Just before I moved to Florida, I sold most of my coins, but before I did I was looking for a 1943-S steel penny for my own collection, going through four rolls of steel cents and in doing so I saw this steel cent that looked strange.
"It was. It is a 1946 steel or aluminum cent. Have your had anyone find a 1946 steel cent before."
My reply said this:
"There is no steel 1946 cent known. Use a magnet to see if it is steel. The metal is magnetic where bronze is not.
"People used to coat regular cents with mercury to make them look like silver or steel.
"Also, make sure the date is not in some way altered.
"If it passes all (these) tests, send it to a grading service."
A Texas coin dealer, the late Helen Wallace, said some version of this steel question was the most frequently asked question at her Fort Worth shop.
Usually they came after some local newspaper ran a story about a copper 1943 cent or a steel 1944.
That one-year composition change probably started more collectors than any single other event.
One of my uncles began collecting coins because of the steel cent. The public and the family called them silver cents because of the color.
A coin's color is important.
People immediately see a difference and get curious – event if they can't tell you which President might be on the coin.
I first learned of the mercury coating in high school chemistry.
My soon-to-retire teacher told the story that when he was a kid, he electroplated a dime with copper.
Then he accidentally spent it as a cent.
What did he do?
He mercury coated a cent and spent it as a dime.
Was that fair to the merchant?
But when a kid's sense of justice is outraged, things like this happen.
Buzz blogger Dave Harper has twice won the Numismatic Literary Guild Award for Best Blog and is editor of the weekly newspaper "Numismatic News."
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