In 1943, all Lincoln cents struck at three mints and released into circulation were legally required to be made of zinc-coated steel. While some off-metal cent errors dated 1943 are worth far beyond face value and have received a great deal of publicity, many collectors do not know about the more than 150 regular 1943, 1943-D and 1943-S steel cents that are each worth thousands of dollars. This includes a sizable portion of the hundreds of 1943, 1943-D and 1943-S steel cents that are Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS) or Numismatic Guaranty Company (NGC) graded MS-68 or -68+.
From the middle of 1864 to 1942, all U.S. one-cent coins were required to be 95% copper, with the remaining 5% usually being tin and zinc, a metal mix called “French Bronze.” Lincoln cents struck in 1943, however, were not supposed to contain any copper, which was needed for purposes relating to World War II.
Those Lincoln cents dated 1943 that were accidentally, experimentally or mischievously struck in a 95% copper alloy, bronze or brass are rare and popular. While it is unsurprising that the 95% copper 1943, 1943-D and 1943-S cents are worth five or six-figure prices, the values of some regular 1943, 1943-D and 1943-S zinc-coated steel cents are shocking.
In 2020, I estimated that 12 to 16 different 1943 copper Philadelphia Mint cents had been certified by PCGS, NGC or ANACS in the past. I am referring to 1943 Lincolns that are 95% copper with the other 5% being zinc and tin (French Bronze,) or with the other 5% being zinc only (brass). While these off-metal 1943 Lincoln cents are rare, more than 684 million 1943 Philadelphia Mint steel cents were released, and tens of millions of them are still around today.
Saving Steel Cents
They look peculiar among regular Lincoln cents, so people instinctively saved 1943 steel cents as souvenirs or relics relating to World War II. A lot of people thought that 1943 steel cents from any mint in any condition would be valuable someday—and many people still believe they will be.
Only one 1943-Denver Mint bronze or copper Lincoln cent has ever been traced in the coin business—the Simpson Collection coin that Heritage auctioned on January 20, 2021, for $840,000. More than 217 million 1943-D steel cents were produced in Denver, so many millions of them are still in circulation.
Approximately six to eight 1943 San Francisco Mint copper or “French Bronze” Lincoln cents are accounted for to date.
The Simpson Collection 1943-S that was originally graded MS-61 by NGC is the best. In February 2000, the Goldbergs auctioned it for $115,000. It was graded MS-62 by PCGS before Simpson bought it and was later upgraded to MS-63 by PCGS. On November 19, 2020, Heritage auctioned the piece for $504,000.
In a Different Category
Keep in mind, the six to eight 1943-S copper or bronze cents are in a different category than the millions of 1943-S steel cents around today. The San Francisco Mint released more than 191 million 1943-S steel cents, and people saved them, but those who thought their steel cents were valuable are likely disappointed to learn the contrary.
The 1943-S is worth a premium over 1943-D and 1943 plain steel cents. As of December 3, 2021, the CDN-Greysheet listed the leading wholesale bid for Good to Fine condition 1943 or 1943-D steel cents as $0.13 each. The 1943-S was worth two cents more at $0.15.
The CDN-CPG estimate of how much dealers charge collectors for a Good to Fine condition 1943 or 1943-D steel cent was $0.28 and $0.30 for a 1943-S.
An Extremely Fine condition 1943 or 1943-D steel cent has a retail value of around thirty cents. Nonetheless, on November 13, 2020, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a 1943 steel cent for $33,600!
This $33,600 1943 steel cent was not a pattern, an error or any kind of an off-metal striking. This was a superb quality, but otherwise regular 1943 steel cent. It was PCGS graded MS-68+ and verified by Certified Acceptance Corporation (CAC) as being solid for an MS-68.
On March 24, 2020, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a set of PCGS graded MS-66 1943, 1943-D and 1943-S cents for $144 in total. The 1943-S is worth a premium over the other two, so the value of the 1943 in this auction lot could be appropriately calculated to be around $45. In other words, in 2020, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS-graded MS-68+ 1943 steel cent for $33,600 and a PCGS-graded MS-66 1943 steel cent for $45. On March 29, 2020, David Lawrence Rare Coins sold a PCGS-graded MS-66 1943 steel cent for this same amount, $45. Therefore, a 1943 steel cent that was graded two to three points higher realized a premium of about 74,500%!
Even a 5,000% premium for a PCGS-graded MS-68+ grade over a PCGS-graded MS-66 1943 would have been remarkable. A 74,000% premium is tremendous, especially since there might be more than thirty million 1943 steel cents around today.
On September 26, 2021, David Lawrence Rare Coins sold a PCGS graded MS-68, CAC verified 1943-D steel cent for $3,100. On April 18, 2021, this same firm sold a PCGS-graded MS-66 1943-D for $85.
On multiple occasions from 2018 to 2020, David Lawrence Rare Coins sold PCGS-graded MS-65 1943-D steel cents for less than $27 each. Does it make more sense to pay $25 for a PCGS-graded MS-65 1943-D steel cent rather than thousands of dollars for a PCGS-graded MS-68 coin of the same issue? At local coin shows, a collector could probably find a nice Almost Uncirculated condition 1943-D steel cent for a price in the range of $0.25 to $0.50, maybe even for only $0.20. However, the 1943-S is worth a premium, so a collector might have to pay as much as $0.75 for an AU-50 grade 1943-S steel cent.
On March 25, 2021, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS-graded, CAC-verified MS-68+ 1943-S steel cent for $19,200.
In 2018, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS-graded, CAC-verified MS-66 1943-S steel cent for $70. This coin might have realized $100 if it had been auctioned by Stack’s-Bowers in March 2021. The just mentioned 1943-S that brought $19,200 realized a premium of more than 19,000% over a CAC-verified MS-66 grade 1943-S steel cent. On November 21, 2021, the company GreatCollections.com sold a PCGS-graded MS-65 1943-S steel cent for $17. The steel cent type is an important part of the history of the U.S. Mint and coin-collecting traditions. Steel cents are more likely than copper or “French Bronze” cents to corrode over time. It is a good idea to inspect steel cents with high magnification before buying them.
It should be repeated that an AU-50 grade 1943 or 1943-D steel cent may be purchased for less than $0.50 at many coin shows. Sometimes, a collector should spend a small amount of money and learn about the subject matter before deciding whether to spend a much larger amount on similar coins.
This article about 1943 steel Lincoln cents previously appeared in COINage magazine. To subscribe click here. Article by Greg Reynolds.