Steve Benson lets other coin collectors fight over ancient Greek silver and solid gold ducats. He focuses instead on old American pennies, rare and valuable coins that look like pocket change to the average eye.
Last month, the retired Lemon Heights entrepreneur sold a 1943 copper penny at an auction in Beverly Hills for $50,000. The penny is one of only 17 or so made of copper in 1943, when wartime rationing required the U.S. Treasury to mint the coins from zinc.
“It’s not just a penny. It’s like a Rembrandt painting; it has charisma . . . ,” Benson said Monday. “Pennies have always appealed to me. It’s the idea of reaching into a coffee can or a dresser table and finding that rare coin. It’s like finding nirvana.”
The 1943 copper pennies became celebrated pieces of American pop culture after the war, appearing in advertisements for automobiles and other products and prompting children to scrutinize the contents of their piggy banks.
In one famous ad, Henry Ford offered a new car in exchange for a 1943 copper penny. Housing developers promised a fully furnished tract home for one.
Coin experts said the rare pennies still hold a nostalgic attraction with some baby boomers.
“Every kid collected Lincoln pennies when they were young, but they could never afford the 1943,” said Larry Goldberg, head of auctions for Superior Stamp and Coin Co., which auctioned Benson’s coin. “Now some of them are doctors and lawyers. They remember their penny collections and take it up again.”
Benson’s coin was one of four 1943 copper pennies known to have been produced at the U.S. Mint in San Francisco. About a dozen were made at the Philadelphia mint. Goldberg said the Denver mint produced just one, which sold last year for $82,500.
The copper pennies are distinctive in part because they have sprinkles of bluish white zinc.
Benson, 53, said he bought the coin 1 1/2 years ago. He declined to say how much he paid, but indicated he had made a profit.
A coin collector since childhood, Benson said he has become more interested in the investment side of the hobby in recent years, especially since his retirement. He is one of a small group of collectors who focus specifically on American pennies, from the Indian-head antiques of the 19th century to the modern Lincoln pennies.
Only exceedingly rare pennies like the 1943 copper have much value.
“One can only guess why it was struck with copper” instead of zinc, Goldberg said. “It was probably a mistake. Somehow, it just got out.”
Benson said his collection once included a 1959 Lincoln penny with a wheat design on the back. The coin was worth $26,000 because the U.S. Treasury had replaced the wheat design with an image of the Lincoln Memorial the year before.