It’s all thanks to a historical quirk: the penny is one of a few 1943 examples made in copper, at a time when the mint was supposed to only be producing zinc-coated steel to save copper for the war effort.
Spare a thought for the cafeteria workers at the school of Don Lutes, Jr.
In March 1947, they literally let a fortune slip through their fingers, when they handed the then 16-year-old schoolboy a copper penny as part of his change. Made in error by the U.S. Mint, the penny is now going on auction and expected to reach over $2 million.
It’s all thanks to a historical quirk: the penny is one of a few 1943 examples made in copper, at a time when the mint was supposed to only be producing zinc-coated steel to save copper for the war effort. Numismatists theorize that a few left-over copper blanks from 1942 were stuck in coin-making machinery and made it through production and quality control and out into circulation.
Intrigued by his new coin, Lutes asked the U.S. Treasury for guidance and was told it had not made any 1943 copper pennies. Luckily for Lutes, he kept it in his collection.
Over the next few years, a few other examples appeared on the market and dealers began confirming their authenticity. An urban legend arose that Henry Ford would give anyone who found such a coin a new car. Ford representatives told Lutes the legend was false when he wrote, but by 1958, a 1943 copper penny sold for $40,000, the equivalent of over $350,000 today.
As of the morning of January 9th, bidding on the Lutes penny was at $120,000. It’s likely to go much higher, however: a 2010 auction on a similar coin raised $1.7 million, of which only 10-15 are estimated to exist. The Lutes auction closes the 10th.
Earlier this year, Fortune reported on a century-old nickel that sold for $4.5 million.