Some guys have all the luck, and then some guys make their own luck by creating the opportunity to be lucky. Teenage collector Kenneth S. Wing, of Long Beach, Ca., created one of his biggest opportunities in the early 1940s when he decided to start checking the dates of all of the pennies he came across in pocket change to see if he could build a complete collection of Lincoln Cents. Wing was ardent in his searching, even going to the extreme length (back then, anyway,) of asking his parents to get rolls of pennies from the bank so he could search them. Wing eventually found a nearly complete collection's worth of Wheat Cents in circulation, including a 1922-plain, but the 1909-S VDB never did show up. However, Wing did find a penny much rarer than the famed S VDB...
As Wing's son tells it today, Wing was 14 years old in 1944 when he made his rarest penny find. The penny was dated 1943-S, but it was made of copper, rather than the expected zinc-coated steel. Wing took the coin to his local coin dealer, who made him a very generous offer for the time, $500, but Wing said he didn't want to sell the coin. Instead, he endeavored to learn more about it, writing to numerous experts and authorities in the succeeding decades.
Is the 1943 Copper Penny Genuine?
When the 1943-S copper cent finally came to light in 2008, the finder's heirs also provided a file of correspondence related to the coin. Among the experts Wing had received replies from, there was a response from the U.S. Mint. In a letter dated August 20, 1946, U.S. Mint Acting Director Leland Howard wrote:
In reference to your letter of August 11th, there were no copper cents struck during the calendar year 1943 at any of the coinage Mints. Only the zinc coated steel cent was struck during that year.
Of course, we know otherwise today, but I can imagine what a letdown that must have been to a teenage boy who was hoping for official confirmation of what he knew had to be true: that the coin was struck by U.S. Mint dies.
Wing didn't give up, though, and his persistence paid off. He showed the 1943 copper penny to the Director of the San Francisco Mint in 1948, who gave him the private opinion that it was genuine. A 1957 attempt by Wing's father to have the coin examined by the U.S. Treasury Department in Washington, D.C., resulted in a referral to the Smithsonian Institution!
More Opinions on the 1943-S Copper Penny
The experts at the Smithsonian felt that the 1943 copper penny was genuine, and this opinion was put in writing in a June 18, 1957 letter from V. Clain-Stefanelli, Curator of the Division of Numismatics at the Smithsonian:
The authenticity of this piece is in my opinion beyond doubt. In fact, as you certainly recall, Mr. Mendel L. Peterson, Acting Head Curator of the Department of History, fully concurred in this opinion.
Well, I think it's great that two experts that the Smithsonian thought the coin was authentic, but I think I would take the opinion of the Numismatics guy over that of the History Curator. Good thing they agreed!
Another letter in the correspondence file relating to the penny is from a leading coin dealer of the time, Abe Kosoff. Unfortunately, I think it typifies the attitude of many coin dealers, who seem to put the love of lucre ahead of their love of numismatics, since by 1958, the date of the letter from Kosoff, several 1943 copper cents had been deemed authentic. Nonetheless, on October 8, Kosoff wrote:
It would be of prime importance to determine, beyond any doubt, that your 1943-S Cent is a genuine one. This would require a number of tests and the outlay of considerable cash.
I don't even want to speculate what this "outlay of considerable cash" might have told Kosoff that the application of a magnet and a simple 10x magnification comparison to a genuine near-year copper cent wouldn't have told him.
The 1943-S Copper Penny is Rediscovered
According to Wing's son, Wing didn't talk about his 1943 copper cent very much. In fact, Wing's son had never even seen the coin until after Wing's death in 1996, when the coin collection was found in a safety-deposit box. The coin has only now come to light in the greater collecting community because Wing's heirs contacted Steven Contursi of Rare Coin Wholesalers, hoping to have the coin authenticated. Contursi says, (in the press release that was the primary source for this article,) that he himself doubted the coin was genuine until he tested it with a magnet. Upon finding that the coin didn't stick (like a copper-plated steel cent would have,) Contursi sent the coin to NGC for authentication.
NGC found the coin to be genuine, and graded it AU-53. Because of the extreme rarity of the type and the fact that the type is a classic, much-heralded mint error, NGC agreed to place unusual designations on the holder. The insert label includes, "Kenneth S. Wing Jr. Coll." (for "Collection.") Contursi points out that the coin collecting community was not previously aware of this specimen, and although only a little over a dozen genuine 1943 copper cents are known, specimens from the San Francisco Mint are the rarest of them all. Contursi paid $72,500 to acquire the coin and related correspondence file, and he plans to exhibit them at future coin shows.