The 16-year-old boy looked down at the coin he held in his hand. For some reason, he couldn’t shake the feeling that there was more to it than met the eye. If he was wrong, he was a fool. But if he was right, what he had found was immensely valuable.
But at that moment, Don Lutes Jr. never imagined that it would take 70 years to make them believe him.
Don Lutes Jr. was 16 years old and attending Pittsfield High School. One day, he was standing in line at the school cafeteria when he found an unusual-looking coin among the pennies in his lunch money. Trusting his gut-feeling, he decided to hold onto it.
He excitedly showed the coin to his classmates, parents, and teachers… but, to his dismay, everyone dismissed Don’s find. But he would become accustomed to being dismissed.
Born on March 1, 1931, Don Lutes Jr. knew in his heart that he could achieve anything if he put his mind to it. After graduating with flying colors from Pittsfield High School in 1948, he went on to earn a degree in business admin from Babson College.
But Don never forgot where his passion truly lay.
Ever since he was a boy, Don’s favorite pastime was collecting rare and unusual coins. He was obsessed with them. He was fascinated with both foreign and American coins and his love for collecting them prompted him to join the Berkshire Coin Club — of which he was a prominent member for 60 years. His roles at the club included treasurer, historian, and president, and indeed his dedication to the club is one of the reasons it is still going strong today.
But his greatest find also happened to be his first…
Waiting In Line
There was no doubt in Don’s mind that the mysterious coin he had found in 1947 was his most historic find. Don was only 16 years old at the time — patiently waiting in line at the school cafeteria in Pittsfield High School.
He had his lunch money in his hand and was ready to order his food when he noticed the odd-looking penny. But what was it about this particular coin that made it so special?
Ordinary On The Surface
The coin, to the untrained eye, looked just like every other coin that was in circulation at the time. One side depicted Abraham Lincoln, and the other side had the words “One Cent, United States Of America” etched into the metal. It didn’t look like anything special.
So, why had young Don gotten so excited about it?
Serving His Country
Although Don knew that the coin was special, it wasn’t long before his attention was needed elsewhere. The coin was almost forgotten when Don signed up for the United States Army. He was one of the many men who were forced to leave their friends and family behind to serve his country in the Korean War.
But, years later, experts needed to understand just where that mysterious coin had come from in order to unravel its secrets.
During the Second World War, militaries used copper strategically. Copper was reserved for telephone wires, shell casings, and many other essential items during the war. And, as a result, the Lincoln steel pennies that were minted in 1943 were coated in zinc.
However, mints were still using a small amount of copper for certain coins. Then, the rumors began to fly…
To a collector, errors in the minting process are just as valuable as flawless coins that are rare. Due to these “error” coins’ anomalies and flaws, they are a rare commodity. As soon as a coin with an error leaves the mint undetected and goes into circulation, its value increases.
So, when an error coin remains in circulation for a long period of time, its value increases exponentially.
Soon, legends began to grow about the mythical copper pennies that had gone into circulation in error. “Stories appeared in newspapers, comic books, and magazines and a number of fake copper-plated steel cents were passed off as fabulous rarities to unsuspecting purchasers,” Heritage Auctions wrote.
“Despite the mounting number of reported finds, the Mint steadfastly denied any copper specimens had been struck in 1943.” However, the rumors had gotten the attention of Don Lutes Jr.
Keeping It Safe
Decades after Don had found the coin, he still hung onto it tightly. Even though there were many opportunities for him to let it go, he remained firm in his belief. Many coin collectors made him offers for the coin, but he refused.
At one point, Don even contacted the U.S. Treasury to evaluate the Lincoln penny — but they gave him some bad news.
Labeled A Fraud
The U.S. Treasury refused to believe that Don had found a rare copper penny and dismissed it as a fraud. They held onto their familiar refrain: “All pennies struck in 1943 were zinc-coated steel.”
And so, the penny remained in Don’s collection. Until, one day, he was finally vindicated.
The Truth Comes Out
Despite the U.S. Treasury declaring Don’s coin a fraud, it would eventually come to pass that the Lincoln penny was confirmed as a true “Holy Grail of mint errors.” Researchers made a breakthrough discovery when they realized that copper planchets had gotten stuck in tote bin doors.
These tote bins were used to feed coins that didn’t make the final press back into the machine…
These coins from the early 1940s had slipped through the net and “became dislodged and were fed into the coin press, along with the wartime steel blanks,” according to Heritage Auctions.
And collectors have dedicated their entire lives to finding these elusive “error coins.”
Searching For A Lifetime
“Despite relentless searching by eager collectors over a period of more than 70 years, only a handful of legitimate specimens have ever been discovered,” Heritage Auctions wrote.
“PCGS CoinFacts estimates the surviving population at no more than 10-15 examples in all grades. We have compiled a roster of all specimens certified by the two leading grading services below, including an unknown number of resubmissions and crossovers.” So, how much was Don’s coin worth?
When Don Lutes Jr. was admitted to the Fairview Rehabilitation Center in Great Barrington, MA, he knew it was finally time to finally let go of his prized coin collection. His health had been deteriorating and his wife had passed many years before. He had no relatives to pass his beloved coins onto.
But Don still had unfinished business with the Lincoln coin…
Sadly, Don passed away on September 3, 2018. But not before receiving some news about his prized penny. A major grading company had evaluated his 1943 Lincoln coin and had found it to be a genuine “error coin.” They provided him with official documentation, and due to his determination, listed it as the “Don Lutes Discovery Coin.”
And, in recognition of his achievement, Don Lutes Jr.’s name became a legend in the coin collecting world.
More Copper Coins
Over time, more of the legendary copper coins were found scattered across the United States. 10-15 of the mysterious error coins were found in a mint in Philadelphia, 6 were found in a mint in San Francisco, and one was found in a mint in Denver.
So, what happened to the one Don had found all those years ago?
A Dear Friend
It turns out that Don’s good friend, Peter Karpenski, had traveled from Massachusetts to visit him at Fairview Rehabilitation Center. But Peter wasn’t expecting to become the consignor of the rare 1943 Lincoln penny that day.
Peter said: “When he was in the nursing home, I asked him… would you like some notoriety?’ And he said, ‘Sure.’ And so here we are.”
In Don’s lifetime, many rumors captured his imagination. But there was one particular rumor that prompted Don to hang onto that penny that he had found so many years ago.
Many coin collectors spread the rumor that Henry Ford himself had promised to give a new car to anyone who was lucky enough to find one of the legendary copper coins. At the time, Don desperately wanted a car from Ford. And, even though the rumor was debunked, Don still held onto his coin. And now, 70 years later, the coin was finally on auction.
The auction for Don Lutes Jr.’s penny took place at the Florida United Numismatics Convention in Orlando, Florida, on January 10, 2019. Bob Merrill from Heritage Auctions opened the bidding floor.
Sarah Miller, who also works at Heritage Auctions, said: “This is the most famous error coin in American numismatics and that’s what makes this so exciting.” Then, the bidding war began.
The opening bid starts and Peter Karpenski holds his breath. Suddenly, the bid climbs to $130,000 and a battle ensues. Two famous coin collectors bid fiercely against one another – neither backing down as the price of the Lincoln coin skyrockets.
A pause. Then, one man steps up to the plate, raising the winning bid to take the penny home. His name was Tom Caldwell, and he had been collecting coins for most of his life…
Tom Caldwell had founded Northeast Numismatics more than 50 years ago, and he had his eye on the prize. Bob Merrill confirms that he is the winner and the hall erupts in applause. But how much was the Lincoln penny worth to him?
The winning bid was a staggering $170,000, and Tom Caldwell had to put in a 20 percent buyer’s premium. So, Don’s 1943 Lincoln penny ultimately sold for a whopping $204,000.
“I’m glad to bring it back to Massachusetts,” Tom Caldwell said. “We’ll keep it for a while. We’ll eventually sell it.”
But Peter Karpenski, Don’s dear friend, was excited for another reason. “The proceeds are going to a local library in Pittsfield, Massachusetts,” he said happily. “That was Don’s wish.”