This Thursday -- Feb . 12 -- as every schoolchild should know, is Abe Lincoln's birthday.
This year, the day is even more special: It's the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth, and the 100th anniversary of the Lincoln penny, the first U.S. coin stamped with the image of an actual person.
It's also the date the U.S. Mint -- for the first time in 50 years -- is changing the penny: replacing the image of the Lincoln Memorial that's been on the reverse since 1959 with one of four designs highlighting different stages in our 16th president's life.
Billions of the new pennies will be produced -- at a cost that's been estimated at 1.4 cents each, which may help to explain the financial mess we're in. (It costs seven cents to make a nickel, so eliminating the virtually useless penny, as some have suggested -- Have you tried to buy anything for a penny lately? -- isn't all that's wrong with America's coinage.)
More on the new penny in a moment, but for now we went in search of a more valuable example of the Lincoln cent ... and we found what may be the most valuable penny in Racine, one worth $1,800!
In numismatic terms, it's a 1909-S VDB penny. 1909 was the year it was minted; S stands for the San Francisco Mint where it was made; VDB are the initials of the engraver, Victor David Brenner. We found this penny at American Coin and Jewelry, 4625 Washington Ave., where Bill Spencer presides over a coin collector's heaven.
Spencer, who pulled the 1909-S VDB penny out of the safe for us, said it's been sold ... but is on layaway as the new owner pays a portion of the price weekly, as he can. The penny is in good condition, but the VDB on the reverse is "weak," in the terminology of the American Numismatic Association Certification System -- by which I mean that my old eyes could not make the initials out at all, even with a magnifier, down near the outer edge below the big One Cent and the two wheat sheaves that adorned Lincoln cents until 1959. The S shows up fine on the front, right under the date next to Lincoln's profile.
An "uncirculated" version of the coin would be worth $3,000-$4,000, Spencer says, but good luck trying to find one of those after 100 years. The VDB is rare enough: halfway through the Lincoln cent's first year of issue the VDB was removed (not to return until 1917, when the initials were added to Lincoln's shoulder). There are three other versions of the 1909 cent: There's one with just an S, minted in San Francisco; one with just a VDB, minted in Philadelphia, the U.S.'s main mint, which doesn't use any location initial on its coins; and a "plain" with no other designation on the coin than its year of issue. More than 27 million of these others were produced, compared to only 484,000 of the 1909-S VDB.
Compare those numbers to today's production: In 2007, 2,613,600,000 pennies were minted. And yet, pennies made today may still become valuable someday, Spencer says, because the current copper plated/zinc mixture they are made from "deteriorates so very fast," so any kept in good condition may become rarities. Pennies were all copper until 1857; 95% copper until 1982 (except for the all-zinc ones in 1943 during WWII); but have been 97.5% zinc with a 2.5% copper plating since then. At current copper prices, a pre-1982 penny contains more than 2.5 cents' worth of copper -- but in 2006 it became illegal to melt down nickels and pennies.
Spencer has been a coin collector since he was 12 (he's now 71), starting when he began delivering the old Racine Journal to a route of 110 customers. He'd go through his route receipts and fill up coin collection books with his various "finds." He later became so knowledgeable he contributed articles to "the Red Book," Western Publishing Co.'s bible of numismatic values. But he didn't become a coin dealer until after his time in the service, and 20 years as a quality control inspector for American Motors.
Although American Coin and Jewelry offers a wide variety of coins and paper money for sale, not many folks are buying in these days of high unemployment and vanishing retirement funds. Instead, his business is mostly devoted to buying gold jewelry, so the gold can be melted down into its cash equivalent. Gold this morning was selling for $899.90 per ounce, a far cry from 2002, when it went for $300. (14 karat gold, by the way, is just 50% gold; 18 karat is 75% and 24 karat is pure.)
Asked if there are any coins with value we should look for in our change, Spencer just laughed. "There's nothing left," he said. Pressed, he said dimes, quarters , half-dollars and silver dollars minted before 1964 were made of 90% silver, so if you find any of them, you've found something of value. (A silver dollar has 3/4 ounce of silver and is worth $12.)
OK, back to the new Lincoln penny: There will be four versions of the new penny this year, a different one released every three months, each one celebrating a different aspect of Lincoln's life. The first, due Thursday, shows a log cabin and reflects Lincoln's birth and early childhood in Kentucky. Next will come Lincoln sitting on a log, representing his formative years in Indiana. After that, Lincoln at the state Capitol in Illinois, and finally the half-finished U.S. Capitol dome. Sometime in 2010 a fifth version is promised, but that design hasn't been finalized yet, according to the U.S. mint. Some 5-7 billion of the pennies are expected to be minted this year.
While you wait for each of the new designs -- and also for a new Lincoln commemorative silver dollar due this week -- keep going through your change. Despite Bill Spencer's pessimism, you never know what you might find ...
ONE FINAL NOTE: The Racine Numismatic Society will hold a Coin Show on Sunday, Feb. 22, at South Hills Country Club, East Frontage Road in Franksville, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. There's free admission and free parking.