Metro

Rare penny found in Pittsfield in 1940s sells for $204,000 at auction

Don Lutes Jr. found this rare penny in 1947.
Heritage Auctions
Don Lutes Jr. found this rare penny in 1947.

A rare penny that a Pittsfield teenager found in his lunch money more than 70 years ago was auctioned off for more than $200,000 on Thursday to a Concord coin dealer.

Don Lutes Jr. was 16 when he found the copper-colored penny in change he received from his school cafeteria in 1947, according to Heritage Auctions, which is offering the coin for sale. The bronze penny was accidentally minted in 1943 and is one of only a handful known to exist.

“This is the most famous error coin in American numismatics and that’s what makes this so exciting: No one really knows what it’s going to sell for,” said Sarah Miller, a director of numismatics at Heritage Auctions.

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It was minted in 1943, at a time when the US government was trying to conserve copper for wartime needs, and the US Mint was using zinc-coated steel planchets to produce white-colored pennies known as “steelies.”

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Lutes knew what those steel pennies looked like, and that’s why the copper-colored 1943 coin caught his eye.

Lutes’s friend, Pittsfield resident Peter Karpenski, 71, said Lutes was an avid coin collector, and the 1943 penny was his favorite. “He was very proud of the fact he owned it,” he said.

The coin sold for $204,000 in Orlando Thursday, said an auction spokesman in an e-mail. It attracted more than 30 bids, according to the auction.

The winning bid came from Tom Caldwell, who owns Northeast Numismatics. Caldwell said the coin is one of 19 known bronze pennies minted in 1943.

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“It’s a piece that’s very important in numismatics,” Caldwell, 66, said by telephone later Thursday evening.

Caldwell said he was prepared to pay more for the coin. The penny is something “that every coin collector is aware of,” he said.

He eventually plans to sell the prized penny, but first will display it at various coin shows he attends.

“I’m in no rush to sell it,” he said.

Eric Bradley, a spokesman for Heritage Auctions, said the coin far exceeded its pre-auction estimate of $170,000. “All of the proceeds of the sale of the coin will be donated to the famous Berkshire Athenaeum, Pittsfield’s Public Library, where Don was active for so many years before his death in September,” Bradley said.

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Karpenski said he met Lutes in 1970 when he joined the Berkshire Coin Club. Lutes served as the treasurer for many years. After Lutes’s health started to decline, he moved to a nursing home. Karpenski said that when he visited Lutes last March, he expressed his desire to sell the penny.

“It was kind of sad,” he said.

Karpenski said Lutes did not have any immediate family when he died, so he made sure his wish was carried out.

Lutes had asked the Treasury Department about the penny he found. According to the Heritage Auctions website, Lutes received the following response: “In regard to your recent inquiry, please be informed that copper pennies were not struck in 1943. All pennies struck in 1943 were zinc coated steel.”

That turned out to be wrong.

A few bronze blanks were caught in the trap doors of the mobile tote bins that were used to feed the coin presses, and they were fed into the coin press along with the steel wartime blanks, auction officials said. “The few resulting ‘copper’ cents were lost in the flood of millions of ‘steel’ cents and escaped detection by the Mint,” Heritage officials said in a press release. “They quietly slipped into circulation, to amaze collectors and confound Mint officials for years to come.”

Danny McDonald of Globe staff contributed. Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com.