In 2016, after a successful legal confrontation, the U.S. Mint confiscated a 1974-D aluminum cent from Randall Lawrence, of San Diego, California. Tonight (January 23) at 9 p.m. EST, Fox Business Network’s series “Strange Inheritance” will focus on the case.
In 1973, due to the increasing cost of copper, the Mint experimented with cheaper metals for the bronze (95% copper) Lincoln cent. The Mint settled on an aluminum composition that included a few trace elements for stability, and struck more than 1.5 million 1974-dated cents in the metal for circulation. Around 35 to 40 examples were handed out to congress-people and Treasury officials, as part of a campaign to have the coins accepted. The Mint failed to keep careful records of the coins, and didn’t caution their recipients that the aluminum cents remained Mint property and might need to be returned.
It turned out that, because their radiodensity is similar to that of soft tissue, the coins would be difficult to detect on x-rays if swallowed; this naturally brought up objections from the medical community. (The Centers for Disease Control’s toxicological profile of aluminum suggests that an aluminum cent would not be toxic if swallowed and that it would simply “pass on through.” However, a coin lodged in the esophagus or elsewhere in the digestive tract could cause other issues.) The vending-machine industry resisted the change, as the coins were lighter than the current cents and could cause mechanical problems with any machines that handled the coins. The copper-mining industry objected, as well, and Congress ultimately rejected the plan.
The Mint recalled the samples it had handed out, but not all were returned, and about a dozen remain unaccounted for. One was donated to the Smithsonian Institution for its National Numismatic Collection, and one turned up in a plastic bag of coins left to Randall Lawrence after the death of his father, Harry Lawrence, a former deputy superintendent of the Denver Mint. The elder Lawrence had reported that the coin was a retirement gift from his employer. Although he was reportedly a straightforward, honest individual, no documentation could be found confirming his story.
As government property, the missing aluminum cents have been subject to confiscation by the Secret Service. When Randall Lawrence and coin dealer Michael McConnell announced their plans to sell the penny at auction, the government stepped in, and the Mint won the ensuing tussle over the coin.
The case will be discussed this evening at 9; check your local listings for station information. ❑