OFF-METAL COINS: DEPARTURES FROM THE NORM

Posted on September 1, 2017 by

Off-metal coins are those struck using a metal alloy different from the originally intended one. One of the most famous (and valuable) examples is the 1943 Bronze Cent (the normal planchets for the 1943 Cents were made of zinc-coated steel). As the story goes, some bronze blanks left over from the previous year hid in an empty hopper that was later filled with steel planchets of the new year. As the hopper was emptied into the coining press, the bronze blanks emerged, went through the normal coining process, and emerged as super-rarities waiting to be discovered by collectors.

1943 Copper Cent
The 1943 Bronze Cent.  Do you see anything wrong with this picture? (hint: it should have been made of zinc-coated steel)

From this example, we see that off-metal coins can occur accidentally, and it happens much more frequently than you might think. Talk to any expert in error coins and they can provide scores of examples of off-metal strikes. In fact, just about every denomination is known on an off-metal planchet: Lincoln Cents on silver Dime planchets; Franklin Half Dollars on copper Cent planchets, Washington Quarters on nickel Five Cent blanks, and so on. For many collectors, this is an exciting and unusual area that is a true departure from the norm.

Off-metal coins can be categorized by the intentions of the people who made them: 1) accidental off-metal strikes (as mentioned above); 2) off-metal strikes to experiment with various alloys in anticipation of a change in the coinage; or 3) off-metal strikes for sale to collectors. Though these categories appear to be distinct and separate, the lines are often blurred and we can only guess at the original intent. Often, the coins themselves give us the clues we need.

Judd 1749
Judd 1749 – it looks like a regular 1885 Morgan Dollar, but it’s made of aluminum

For instance, the U.S. Pattern series is replete with off-metal strikes. Recently, I wrote about Judd 1749, which for all intents and purposes looks just like an 1885 Morgan Dollar, but it is struck in aluminum. While it is true that aluminum was being tested as a coinage metal in the 1860s and 1870s, it was never considered as an alternative for the Morgan Dollar, which was intended to soak up all the silver coming out of Western mines. So, why was Judd-1749 made? The answer: to test a new, three-part collar that imparted raised lettering to the edge of the coin instead of the normal edge reeding. Interestingly enough, this experiment included both copper and aluminum blanks (off-metals) and silver blanks (the intended metal). However, the three-part edge collar was abandoned until it was revived again on the 1907 Saint Gaudens coinage.

What about the aluminum patterns of 1868, which exist in every denomination from the One Cent all the way to the Double Eagle? Was the Mint seriously considering changing the metal of the Double Eagle from gold to aluminum? Absolutely not. The clue to the purpose of the 1868 aluminum patterns rests in a number of complete sets housed in special presentation sets (click here to see what one of the sets looks like – courtesy of www.uspatterns.com). Clearly, these sets were made for sale to collectors at a profit. The same is true of many of the off-metal pattern coins, especially those made in the middle of a design run where there was never any intention to change the coinage.

Silver CWT
Off-metal 1863 Patriotic Civil War Token, struck over an 1853 Dime (notice the words ONE DIME running diagonally across the top of the shield)

Another area where off-metal strikes abound is Civil War Tokens, which are broken down into Storecards and Patriotics. In addition to being a replacement for the U.S. coins that were being pulled from circulation and hoarded, Storecards were a way for merchants to advertise their businesses. Patriotic Civil War Tokens presented no advertising and consisted primarily of patriotic designs. Most Civil War Tokens were the diameter of a U.S. Indian Head Cent and the vast majority of them were made of copper. However, many off-metal variants were made in small quantities in a variety of metals, including brass, white metal, lead, nickel, copper-nickel, and silver. Some Civil War Tokens were intentional overstrikes on copper-nickel U.S. cents, silver Seated Liberty Dimes, and even coins from other countries.

Finding good values in off-metal coins is a real challenge. Sometimes they bring a premium (often huge) over the regular types, sometimes they are priced the same, and other times, they can be purchased for less than the cost of a similar type coin. As a general rule, off-metal error coins and Civil War Tokens command a premium; often, an off-metal pattern coin will sell for less than the price of a corresponding type coin.

What’s your favorite off-metal coin?

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