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The Mints of Then and Now

by F. Michael Fazzari 

When a coin is made, barring any post-strike enhancement by the Mint, that’s it.  At that moment, its originality cannot be improved upon and anything that changes it, including toning and circulation wear, is considered by some purists as damage.

The “old” Mint of long ago actually was a dirty, hot, noisy factory. The entire process of making a coin was done there from refining a coin’s alloy all the way to shipping out the finished product. Since the process of making a coin involved many steps, it is helpful if collectors have a basic understanding of the minting process. I believe several of the folks who studied this process and wrote about it are responsible for the popularity of error collecting today. While their books are in my library and their names rolled off my tongue in the past, time has dulled my ability to recall and I don’t wish to leave mention of anyone out if I made a list here. Suffice it to say that without their interest, books, articles, and visits to the Mint while coins were being made, much of what we take for granted would possibly be lost.

Knowing how our coins were made helps us understand the characteristics we see on them. The Internet is the quickest source for information but you should not neglect the reference books that have stood the test of time. The entire operation has been modernized so much so that on my last visit to the mint, I was left “cold” as everything is enclosed from view in a “spick & span” building! It cannot compare to the complicated, attention-grabbing, bustle of the pre-1950’s working factory. Planchets in, coins out – all automated. Except for the engraving and die making functions, it’s now basically a strike, bag, and ship operation. Still, once a coin is made, that’s it and today it seems that the number of defective coins is much fewer.

Figure 1: Massive planchet flaw.

One such defect (Figure 1) from the “old” days is seen on this 19XX Indian $2 ½ that was struck on a planchet with a very large impurity. It is very hard to tell exactly what produced this major flaw but similar defects can be found on our vintage coins during the time the Mint was producing its own planchets.

Planchets are pre-coins. They are the end result of mixing metals, casting ingots, rolling the thick ingots into the thinness of a coin (the strip), punching them out of the strip, and raising their rim. To save space, your homework is to go online and see this progression.

Sometimes, things happened and not every coin that left the factory was perfectly made. The gold coin in Figure 1 is an extreme example. When we look closely at the major flaw on its obverse, several characteristics become apparent that help identify this type of flaw and the stage of the operation when it occurred.

1. The defect is drawn-out and stretched along a linear axis.

2. It is tapered at the ends.

3. It is into the surface and void of any of the coin’s design.

4. Virtually all of these seen that are unmolested contain hard black debris.

5 The inside of the mark usually has a “lurch and skip” or “zipper-like” appearance.

6. The field around the mark is often discolored.

Figure 2: Lesser flaw of the same type on silver quarter.

These characteristics suggest that somewhere in the rolling process when the ingots are being squeezed down to their finished thickness, some hard impurity became embedded in the surface of the strip or exposed from within the casting. The nature of the defects shown in both images (Fig. 2 a silver coin) indicates they were on the planchet before it entered the striking chamber. That’s because the appearance of any “strike-thru” error resulting when debris becomes embedded on a coin when the dies come together looks entirely different. Strike-thru errors are mostly small and relatively common. These large, defective planchet errors are not common and appear to be rare on gold. The defect in Figure 1 is the largest I’ve seen on a $2 1/2.  While the coin’s surface is visibly impaired, some will even say damaged, unusual coins such as this tell a story and have become collectible.  So, for these two coins, that’s it – just how they were made when they dropped from the press.

This story was originally printed in Numismatic News. Click here to subscribe!

 

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