A 16-Year-Old Found a Rare Penny in His Lunch Money. Then It Sold for $204,000 at Auction

The one-cent coin is one of 20 pennies minted by accident by the US government.

The penny! It's worth a bundle. Photo: Heritage Auctions.

They say there’s no such thing as a free lunch. But what about a lunch that ends up making you more than $200,000?

That fantasy became reality for the family of Don Lutes Jr. of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, who received an ultra-rare 1943 Lincoln penny as change from his school cafeteria in 1947. At the time, the 16-year-old knew something was special about the coin: the copper coloring was distinctly different from the silvery steel variety in circulation at the time. So Lutes decided to hold onto it. 

Seventy-two years later, it sold for $204,000 at Heritage Auctions.

As it turns out, the penny is one of only 20 copper coins accidentally produced during World War II as part of a manufacturing error. At a time, the US Mint began pressing coins made of zinc-plated steel instead of copper because the latter metal was strictly rationed for strategic wartime materials such as shell casings and telephone wire.

The accidental copper coins, described as “the Holy Grail of mint errors” by Heritage Auctions, have become a sought-after prize for coin collectors. Only a handful of legitimate specimens have been discovered and it is believed that only 10 to 15 still exist.

Photo: Heritage Auctions.

After he made his discovery, Lutes wrote to the Treasury Department to ask about the unusual coin. The department replied that no copper one cent coins were pressed in 1943. Unaware of the mistake that led to its production, the Treasury denied the existence and legitimacy of these pennies for decades. But when more and more examples turned up, Lutes had the coin authenticated in 1958 by leading coin expert Walter Breen.

The collector died in September and his descendants decided to put the coin up for sale. On January 10, it sold for $204,000, surpassing its $170,000 presale estimate. It attracted a total of 30 bids. The proceeds of the sale will be donated to the Berkshire Athenaeum at Pittsfield’s Public Library, where Lutes was active for years. 

“This is the most famous error coin in American numismatics,” Sarah Miller of Heritage Auctions told Fox News.

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