The 1974 aluminum cent was a one-cent coin proposed by the United States Mint in 1973. It was composed of an alloy of aluminum and trace metals, and intended to replace the predominantly copper–zinc cent due to the rising costs of coin production in the traditional bronze alloy. 1,571,167 were struck in anticipation of release, but none were released into circulation. Examples were passed out to US Congressmen in a bid to win favor in switching to the new alloy. When the proposed aluminum cent was rejected, the Mint recalled and destroyed the examples. A few aluminum cents not returned to the Mint are believed to remain in existence. One example was donated to the Smithsonian Institution, while another was alleged to have been found by a US Capitol Police Officer. A 1974-D specimen was found in January 2014 by Randall Lawrence, who said it was a retirement gift to his father, who worked at the Mint in Denver. Randall planned on selling it in a public auction, but the Mint demanded its return, saying that the coin was never authorized for release and therefore remains U.S. Government property. Lawrence (and his business partner at their coin store, Michael McConnell) ultimately surrendered the coin when the Mint showed that the aluminum penny had never been authorized to be struck in Denver, and there was no evidence that the coin had been a gift of any kind.
In late 1973, the price of copper on world markets rose to a point where the metallic value of the cent was almost equal to its face value. The U.S. Mint, which produces billions of cents annually, was faced with a potentially catastrophic operating deficit, due to issues of seigniorage. As a result, the Mint tested alternate metals, including aluminum and bronze-clad steel. A composition of 96% aluminum (with trace elements for stability) was chosen. The composition was chosen due to its longevity on coin die use, and aluminum's high resistance to tarnishing. 1,571,167 examples of the new cents were struck. Although they were produced in 1973, they were struck using 1974 dated dies in anticipation of release into circulation in that year.
In an effort to gain acceptance for the new composition, the Mint distributed approximately three dozen examples to various members of the House Banking and Currency Committee and the Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee. Nine congressmen and four senators received examples, along with some Treasury officials. Additional specimens were given out by then Mint Director Mary Brooks. Ultimately, the proposal was rejected in Congress, due mainly to the efforts of the copper-mining and vending machine industries, which felt the coins would cause mechanical problems. Opposition also came from pediatricians and pediatric radiologists who pointed out the radiodensity of the metal inside the respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts was close to that of soft tissue, and therefore would be difficult to detect in X-ray imaging. In addition, the price of copper declined enough that making copper cents would again be economically viable, and conversely made hoarding pointless. The idea of changing the composition of the cent would not be explored again until the 1980s. In 1982, the composition of the coin was changed to the current 99.2% zinc and 0.8% copper core alloy with a plating of pure copper, resulting in a 20% weight reduction.
After the setback, the US Mint recalled the coins, but about 12 to 14 aluminum cents were never returned to the mint. No oversight, record keeping, or statement that the coins had to be returned was made by the US Mint as examples were handed out. When Federal Bureau of Investigation and other government law enforcement agencies were called in to investigate, however, some congressmen either feigned ignorance or completely denied getting examples. The coins, which are considered government property, have been subject to seizure by the Secret Service, although the legality of the cent is questioned by numismatists. One aluminum cent was donated to the Smithsonian Institution for the National Numismatic Collection. Since no examples have been put up for public or known private sale, it has been difficult to estimate their value.
While there are no Mint records of the 1974-D aluminum cent being struck at the Denver Mint, in an interview with Coin World, Benito Martinez, a die setter at the Denver Mint in 1974, stated he struck fewer than 12 of the experimental 1974-D Lincoln cents under the supervision of Harry Bobay, a Denver Mint production foreman. The strikes were made using regular production dies on aluminum blanks supplied from the Philadelphia Mint.
The coin is considered by a few numismatists not as a pattern coin, but rather a rejected or cancelled regular issue, despite being listed in pattern books.
In the February 20, 2001, edition of Numismatic News, Alan Herbert reported the existence of an aluminum cent. It was attributed to US Capitol Police Officer Albert Toven, who had found the coin dropped by an unnamed US Congressman on the floor of the Rayburn Office Building. When the officer attempted to return the coin to the congressman, thinking it was a dime, the congressman told him to keep it. This example was graded and certified by the Independent Coin Grading Company as “About Uncirculated-58” in 2005, but later certified as Mint State 62 two months later by the Professional Coin Grading Service.
In January 2014, San Diego resident Randy Lawrence discovered the only specimen of the 1974-D aluminum cent currently known to exist. The coin had been in the possession of his father, Harry Edmond Lawrence, a former deputy superintendent of the Denver Mint, who kept it in a sandwich bag along with other coins. Lawrence brought the coin to La Jolla coin dealer Michael McConnell, who estimated its value at a minimum of US$250,000, up to $2 million or possibly more. On January 28, 2014, PCGS announced that it had certified the coin as authentic with the grade PCGS MS63 and certification number 28544237. Lawrence and McConnell planned to auction the coin in April 2014 after it toured the United States and split the proceeds; Lawrence planned to donate as much as $100,000 of his share to homeless programs. However, the coin had to be withdrawn from the auction pending the outcome of a request by the United States Mint to return the coin. The case proceeded after Judge William Q. Hayes denied the government's motion to dismiss March 26, 2015, stating “it is plausible that a Mint official, with proper authority and in an authorized manner, allowed Harry Lawrence to keep the 1974-D aluminum cent. Drawing reasonable inferences, it is plausible that Harry Lawrence lawfully obtained possession of the aluminum cent, giving Plaintiffs superior claim of title to the aluminum cent.” On March 17, 2016, Lawrence and McConnell surrendered the penny to the U.S. Mint to settle the terms of their lawsuit which was dropped. The Mint has reported their intention to display the penny as a part of U.S. Mint history.
Several other related examples are alleged to have existed at some point or another, including10 examples of a 1974-D aluminum cent, produced at the Denver Mint.
Examples produced in bronze-clad steel.
66 Aluminum cents made in 1975 as trial strikings.
Nonsense description trial strikings of various compositions.