The most valuable penny on Earth was sold to a private collector in September of 2010. The price tag? $1.7 million.
That penny was a rare, 1943 wheat penny that, unlike the other pennies minted that year, was accidentally cast in bronze. In that year, the U.S. Mint opted to switch from a bronze-copper alloy cast to a more resilient zinc-plated steel. The materials changed in order to funnel copper to the war effort.
However, a handful of the 1943 pennies–less than twenty in all–were inadvertently cast in bronze. The most valuable of these minting accidents is the only one to come from Denver. That’s the million-dollar penny.
While most rare pennies won’t fetch seven figures, there are still some unique, less-than-common wheat pennies worth adding to a collection. First, let’s unpack the history of wheat pennies, and what makes them so intriguing to numismatists. Then, we’ll investigate the six best wheat pennies to aim to add to your collection.
The wheat penny was the official one-cent coin in United States currency from 1909 to 1958. It is also called the “Lincoln Cent.”
The wheat penny was originally designed by Victor David Brenner.
Prior to commissioning Brenner, President Theodore Roosevelt contracted with Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Saint-Gaudens was a popular and noteworthy sculptor. His initial design for the cent was an eagle, but Roosevelt dismissed this proposal. Not just for style preferences, but for legal reasons: it was actually unlawful to print an eagle on a cent coin.
Saint-Gaudens attempted to create a new, eagle-free design for the cent coin, but he passed away in 1907 before he got the chance to complete it.
After Saint-Gaudens’ death, President Theodore Roosevelt decided to break with tradition. Up until that point, US coinage portrayed symbolic representations of concepts, like “liberty” or “freedom.”
Roosevelt chose to commission a portrait of Lincoln as the face of the cent. The 100-year anniversary of Lincoln’s birth was coming up, and many commemorative products were being made for the centennial celebration.
Roosevelt opted to create and release the new Lincoln cent in time for the centennial celebration in 1909.
Victor David Brenner was chosen to design the new penny. To create his portrait of Lincoln, he used a famous photograph of Lincoln in profile with his son as a reference.
Brenner chose to include two sheaves of durum wheat on the tail side of the coin, visually underscoring the words “ONE CENT” and “United States of America.” The wheat formed an arc at the top of the coin where it met the words “E. Pluribus Unum.”
Brenner’s design for the cent was widely lauded. However, he did hit upon a point of controversy. Critics at the Mint argued that Brenner’s signature was too large, and took up too much space in the design.
Brenner tried to alter the design to include only his initials. However, even that attempt at compromise was dismissed. The U.S. Mint removed Brenner’s initials altogether for the final design.
The Lincoln Cent successfully launched on August 2nd, 1909. Americans were so excited about the new one-cent coin that they lined up down the block just to go to the bank.
Due to the excitement, Lincoln Cent coins were initially limited to only 100 per person at the New York Sub-Treasure. In Philadelphia, rationing was more extreme, allowing only two pennies per person.
The popularity of the coins only increased, although, by the end of 1909, supply was finally able to catch up with demand.
Ultimately, the wheat cent was an artistic and popular success. But which wheat pennies are worth owning today? What are the rarest wheat pennies? Which types of wheat pennies are likely to increase in value over time?
The following guide will highlight the best wheat pennies to add to your collection, and why they are valuable. We will also look into common under- and over-valuations, and the best way to hunt down rare wheat pennies to add to your collection.
While we will touch on some valuable, early 20th-Century coins, this guide primarily uncovers the value of wheat pennies minted from 1940 to 1946.
In the initial run of the Lincoln cent, the U.S. Mint printed artist Victor David Brenner’s initials on the penny, as per his original design.
The minting process was quickly halted after his initials caused some controversy. The minting was resumed soon after, printing a version of the wheat penny without Brenner’s initials.
As the U.S. Mint stamped so few 1909 wheat pennies with Brenner’s initials, the coins marked with “VDB” are relatively rare today. Only 484,000 were ever released for circulation.
Due to their rarity, 1909-S VDB wheat pennies have been valued at $400 – $1800, depending on the penny’s condition and how much the coin has circulated.
While the 1909-S VDB wheat penny isn’t breaking records at auction, it is worth pursuing.
Because the 1909-S VDB has a visible, unique trait, this coin is a target for counterfeiters. If you find a 1909-S VDB wheat penny, make sure you get it professionally evaluated.
The 1909 wheat penny is rare due to its low mintage. Mint engravers in Philadelphia created new reverse coin proofs, to update the 1909 wheat penny with the correct design.
However, the San Francisco Mint did not get the new die until late in the year. As a result, the Mint produced far fewer of these pennies. Therefore, the 1909-S wheat penny is rarer than other 1909 pennies.
The estimated value of a typical, circulated 1909-S wheat penny is $50. Typical uncirculated wheat pennies are approximately $210.
The average sale price for these pennies ranges from $80 for circulated pennies and $320 for uncirculated pennies.
Mints strike reverse-proof coins entirely in a frosty glaze called a cameo finish. Proofs are specially made coins that are not meant for circulation. Instead, they showcase the artistry and refinement of the coin’s design.
These reverse proofs tend to have a higher value at auction than circulated coins.
The 1940 1C CAM Proof wheat penny is one of the rarest Lincoln coins. There are less than five of these coins known to exist.
The rarity of the 1940 1C CAM-proof penny comes from its cameo-frosted surface finish. From 1936 to 1942, it was incredibly rare to forge and engrave any coins from the dies and planchets used in the cameo polished process.
Instead, most proof coins of this era have a mirror-like finish. As a result, coins struck in cameo finish are highly coveted. It is unclear why any 1940 Proof Lincoln cents were engraved in the finish.
1940 1C CAM Proof wheat pennies have a numismatic rarity rating of 8.5.
The estimated value of this cent coin is $2500.
In addition to the cameo-finish pennies, there are other valuable 1940 wheat pennies. The 1940 1C brown, red-and-brown, and red proofs are also valuable.
These 1940 Lincoln cent proofs have an estimated value range of $20 – $140.
The 1941 wheat penny is common and typically not worth a lot. Even in near-mint condition, appraisers value a 1941 wheat penny at approximately $6.
However, a much more valuable penny exists as the result of an error.
1941 doubled-die pennies are worth more than the typical 1941 pennies. These pennies were forged as the result of an accident where the minting stamp struck the faces of the pennies twice.
The double-strike left the part of the design duplicated.
Variants on the double-strike accident produced 1941 pennies with obverse traits (replicated design elements). The most valuable 1941 1C doubled-die obverse penny sold for $9200 at auction.
The accidental replication resulted in a visible misalignment of Lincoln’s shoulder.
Currently, appraisers value the typical doubled-die 1941 penny at approximately $1200.
There are no know rare variants of the 1942 wheat penny. None of these pennies are worth very much. At most, a highly-rated, uncirculated 1942 wheat penny will net around $5.50.
During WWII, the government had to funnel copper the front lines. As a result, the U.S. Treasury stopped minting pennies in copper.
In December of 1942, the U.S. Mint changed the composition of the penny, with the approval of Congress. They produced a new coin made of zinc-coated steel.
This proved to be an unwise choice of materials. Zinc is electromagnetically attracted to iron, and it begins to corrode when it touches that metal.
More frustratingly to the average person, zinc oxidizes quickly. When zinc is exposed to air, it quickly turns a blackish green. Many Americans also disliked how similar in shape, size, and color the 1942 steel penny was to a dime.
Due to all the complaints, the U.S. Treasury attempted to discontinue the penny as soon as possible, halting production in 1943. The Treasure also attempted to remove as many steel cents from circulation as they were able to.
This attempt at rapid discontinuation makes 1943 steel pennies slightly rarer than other cents. Likewise, the quick rate of degradation also led to fewer steel cents remaining in circulation.
However, rareness is relative. 1943 steel wheat pennies are still common enough that they won’t garner a high price at an auction. An uncirculated 1943 steel penny may be worth $5.
There is one exception. Mint-State-68 quality 1943 steel pennies do sometimes see higher valuation. These wheat pennies can be sought-after by WWII memorabilia collectors.
The mint state is rare, as the oxidizing and corrosive properties of the metals make the state hard to maintain. So, some MS-68 quality steel pennies have sold for about $1000 at auction.
The 1943-D/D Lincoln cent is a valuable penny due to a rare error in its production.
The Denver mint inadvertently double-stamped this steel wheat penny. It is easy to notice the double-mintmark (RPM) on the 1943-D/D Lincoln Cent. There are two “D’s” on the bottom of the face-side of the steel coin.
Appraisers estimate a range of values for the 1943-D/D wheat penny, depending on its condition. Valuations begin at $16 and increase to $1,671.
One 1943-D/D Lincoln cent sold for $6,250 at auction in 2020.
The 1943 wheat pennies punched in copper or bronze are, by far, the highest-value wheat pennies available.
In 1943, the U.S. Treasury minted cents in steel and zinc, not copper. WWII made it mandatory for the United States to divert all heavy-duty metals to the front. As a result, the U.S. Mint composed the new cent coin primarily of steel and zinc.
However, there were some rare errors in the minting process in 1943. Despite clearing out the copper and bronze metals, and refitting the minting operation with zinc and steel planchette, not every single shred of copper and bronze was effectively moved.
A handful of bronze and copper planchettes were left behind. These round, raw materials were accidentally shuffled into the minting process in 1943. So, rather than stamping the 1943 wheat penny on zinc and steel across the board, some of the coins were engraved on the leftover bronze and copper disks.
These 1943 bronze and copper cast cents are, easily, the rarest and most valuable wheat pennies.
There are three varieties of the 1943 bronze and copper wheat pennies:
>The 1943 Bronze
>The 1943-S Bronze
>The 1943-D Bronze
The circulated 1943 bronze wheat penny has an estimated value of $28,000. One uncirculated 1943 bronze wheat penny sold for $1.4 million at an auction–the highest valuation of a penny of all time.
A lower-grade version of the 1943 Bronze wheat penny sold at Heritage Auctions for $218, 500 in September 2010.
The circulated 1943-S bronze wheat pennies have an estimated value of $72,000. The uncirculated 1943-S bronze pennies are projected to sell for approximately $1.1 million.
The 1943-D bronze wheat penny has an estimated value of $48,000 if it has been circulated, and $1.4 million for the uncirculated version.
The inadvertent bronze cast may have been the most lucrative minting error of all time.
In 1944, the U.S. mint was once again producing cent coins in copper. Most 1944 wheat pennies aren’t worth more than $6. However, there are a few exceptions that dramatically increase the value of any 1944 wheat penny.
The 1944 steel wheat penny is another rare, high-value penny. These steel pennies were created due to the inverse error of the mistake the created the 1943 bronze wheat pennies.
By 1943, the public was so dissatisfied with steel and zinc pennies that the U.S. Mint halted production. Steel and zinc pennies oxidized quickly, corroded easily, and people often confused them with dimes.
To fix the design problem, the U.S. Treasury reformulated the cent. Halting zinc and steel penny production in 1942, only copper alloy pennies were to be minted from then on.
However, a similar mix-up happened during the transition back to copper cents. Some remnant steel and zinc planchets were minted during the 1944 wheat penny production.
These 1944 steel wheat pennies are rare and valuable. Currently, a circulated 1944 steel wheat penny has an estimated value of $30,000, and one such penny sold at Heritage Auction for $45,000 in 2019.
An uncirculated 1944 steel wheat penny sold at auction for $33,000 in 2018. The estimated value ranges widely depending on the condition of the coin, but it is rarely lower than five figures.
As of 2021, the current typical estimated value of a 1944 steel wheat penny is $77,234.
Other metal planchets were also inadvertently stamped into pennies in 1943 and 1944. While there is no listed valuation, we know there were tin pennies and aluminum pennies accidentally minted in that same period.
While it’s not nearly as rare as the 1944 steel wheat penny, there’s another 1944 wheat penny that’s higher value than the average.
In 1944, some of the regular, copper wheat pennies minted in Denver were stamped with an error. These pennies were overpunched.
All mints stamp coins with mint marks. These marks are the last element embossed into the die that strikes the coins during mass production. Mints apply mintmarks to the die in a complex process using a thin steel rod and a mallet.
If the rod shook or moved even slightly between mallet taps, the engraver risked creating a double-punch or overpunch error.
Coin collectors sometimes abbreviate coins made with an overpunch error “OMM” (for “overpunch mint mark”) and a double-punch error “RPM” (for “repunch mint mark”).
Most OMM and RPM errors duplicate a single letter, indicating the mark of a single mint was accidentally double-stamped. However, the error in this 1944 wheat penny was different.
This 1944 wheat penny has an OMM error in which both the “Denver” mintmark and the “San Francisco” mint mark are both visible.
For this coin, the Denver mint engraver was supposed to completely overwrite the San Francisco mint’s “S”-stamp on the die. That way, the die could be reused to produce coins in Denver.
Instead, the die included both the D and S. As a result, some 1944 wheat pennies minted in Denver have both mintmarks. Numismatists call these cents D-over-S error pennies.
As of 2021, the current estimated value range of a 1944-D D-over-S wheat penny is $54 to $734, according to US Coin Book.
That said, some individual 1944-D D/S cents scored high values at auction. These were each highly-rated, MS-66 condition or higher. A 1944-D S/S wheat penny sold for $8,225 at auction in 2017.
Another sold for $4,080 in January 2018, and a bidding war drove up the price of one 1944-D D/S wheat penny to $27,000 in October of that same year.
The latter coin may have been overvalued, but it is possible that the bidders knew something about a potential value increase in time. That 2018 auction was the most recent sale of a 1944-D D/S wheat penny.
The 1945 wheat penny is not particularly rare. There are no noteworthy variants or errors.
Yet, the 1945 wheat penny contains an interesting bit of history. During WWII, the U.S. Trasurey minted pennies in zinc and steel because other metals (like bronze and copper) were needed for ammunition.
Unfortunately, zinc and steel rusted easily. To fix the problem, the U.S. Mint reformulated the wheat penny to incorporate recovered and recycled WWII ammunition shells.
There is some debate among historians about how widespread this recovery and recycling practice was. Nevertheless, it was not merely symbolic. The shell case pennies made for an effective replacement as the steel pennies oxidized or were removed from circulation.
The process of melting down the used ammunition shells created an alloy that was both useful and meaningful. Unlike the zinc and steel alloy, this new allow did not oxidize quickly, and it did not readily corrode when exposed to iron or water.
The U.S. Mint produced 1945 wheat pennies widely, so they have little monetary value. You can expect to next about $0.10 for a 1945 penny.
The 1946 wheat penny is fairly common. This penny is typically worth $0.02 – $0.05, regardless of whether it has been circulated or not.
By 1946, wheat pennies were minted in copper. WWII was over, so there was no longer a need to conserve metals. However, like the 1945 wheat penny, the 1946 cent continued to use recycled ammunition shells to create the copper alloy.
For this reason, 1946 wheat pennies can have sentimental value, if not much monetary value. WWII memorabilia collectors may seek them out more than most numismatists.
There is one variant of the 1946 wheat penny that’s slightly rarer than typical.
Some 1946 wheat pennies have an overpunch mintmark error. This is called the “S over D” error. If you have a 5x magnifying glass, you can place a 1946-S wheat penny underneath it and inspect the details.
These pennies were accidentally punched with the San Francisco mintmark die on top of the Denver mintmark. So, the penny includes both a “D” and an “S” mark in the space to indicate where the coin was minted.
The overpunched “S over D” 1946 pennies are worth slightly more than typical 1946 wheat pennies. These pennies are valued at $10 – $100, depending on the condition of the coin.
Sorting through the wide variety of valuable wheat pennies is a useful exercise for a numismatist. Whether you’re just starting out as a coin collector, or you’re aiming to make a serious investment, the right wheat penny can be worth your while.
It’s fascinating to think about how much value is generated by errors and shaped by history.
If you enjoyed what you read, why not learn more? Read about the complex history of the Kennedy half-dollar, or find out what the most valuable pennies are today.
This content was originally published here.
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