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Full Article
Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Aluminum cent slabbed

From Numismatic News by Alan Herbert

An aluminum cent whose existence was first reported in an exclusive report on the front page of Numismatic News in the Feb. 20, 2001, issue was authenticated and graded by Independent Coin Grading of Englewood, Colo.

James Taylor, ICG’s president, made the announcement July 1. He said the firm had had the coin in its possession since January 2005. It was graded AU-58 and pedigreed as the Toven specimen.

The coin is one of the tiny remnants of some 1.5 million that were struck and promptly melted when Congress failed to approve changing the cent alloy to aluminum. The mintage figures and melt figures are not exact enough to make any determination as to the number outstanding.

There is no question that this coin has been get ting around. Since its “gift” to a Capitol policeman in the House Office Building in 1973, it has made at least one trip out of the country, has been examined and photographed by staff experts at Numismatic News in Iola, Wis., has been a pocket piece, has been in the hands of at least two coin dealers and in the hands of at least two grading services, one of which refused to grade the coin after holding it for some time.

The story began in late 1973 when Patrolman Albert Toven picked up the aluminum cent after seeing a congressman drop it. The hurrying representative refused the return, starting a chain of events that did, and does still make headlines in the hobby.

When it was in the hands of Numismatic News in 2001, Fred Borgmann, the an authentication specialist, examined it and rated the coin as a “high AU,” matching the ICG grade of AU-58, or about uncirculated.

The Secret Service is well aware of the piece and its cloudy legal status.

Shortly after I wrote the discovery story in 2001, an agent called me. In the course of the conversation he admitted that he hadn’t even been born when the aluminum cents were struck. I recited the history of the coin – up to that point – and that was the last I heard. The agent did not ask for the name of the owner, which he probably already knew, or any other questions that would have been pertinent.

The Toven coin is one of three that appeared, or were reported on the hobby scene within a short time frame of a couple of months in late 2000 and early 2001.

A fourth coin is in the Smithsonian Institution. One of the coins was freely displayed for the public at a coin show in Tucson, Ariz., in 2001, and the third was reported at the same time, said to have a deep gash, the result of a stupid attempt by some purported expert to determine if the coin was solid aluminum.

Behind the scenes there has been a substantial legal battle going on. (See David Ganz’s history on Page 20.)

The owner of the coin has spent a considerable sum on lawyers, who have been in constant touch with Treasury Department attorneys, negotiations which apparently have reached an impasse. The owner has also been in touch with me several times, during which we discussed the possibility of putting the coin on permanent display at American Numismatic Association headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo.

Despite the government claim that the coins were not legally issued and thus are still government property, there were at least two substantial leaks that put the coins into public hands. Besides the group tendered to senators and representatives, at least a dozen of which were never returned, the Mint displayed the coins at the 1974 Florida United Numismatists show in Florida, with Mint officials passing them around a room full of people. Ed Rochette, the retired ANA executive director, and one-time editor of Numismatic News, was one of the people who saw the coins in Florida.

I’ve seen two of the three outstanding aluminum cents, putting me in a unique position.

Obviously, nobody in 1973 considered them to be anything more than “just another ‘penny.’” This attitude – outside of the Mint and the Treasury Department – undoubtedly was the underlying cause for those that didn’t get returned. Probably nothing would have been thought of it if Jack Anderson hadn’t written a column trumpeting the disappearance of the coins in the halls of Congress.

A jinx attached to the 1974 aluminum cents seems very real. One of the principals who negotiated our 2001 exclusive died shortly afterwards of cancer. The owner of the coin displayed in Tucson wanted the $20,000 asking price for cancer treatments and reportedly died of the disease shortly after he sold it.

A reliable source told Numismatic News that the collector-dealer who had two of the coins (including the gashed specimen) also died of cancer after disposing of them.

Publication in Numismatic News of the discovery coin in 2001 failed to bring any others into view. Several people contacted me (and the owner) in an attempt to buy one of the coins, but no additional specimens were reported to us.

Substantiating its importance, the Toven coin is the centerpiece of the cover of the sixth edition of my Official Price Guide to Mint Errors and Varieties, a book that was published in 2001.

Today, with 1913 nickels selling for several million dollars each, the figure for the aluminum cent is likely to go much higher – that is if the Treasury Dept. doesn’t step in.

For the public, a warning: There are thousands upon thousands of plated coins in circulation that might look like aluminum. The genuine aluminum cents weigh about a third (0.93 grams) of the 3.11-gram weight of the normal brass cents of that era, so if your coin is full weight, don’t bother to call. If you have one of the genuine 1974 aluminum cents, your call will be welcome and of course confidential.


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