What to Do With a Million Pennies?
by Daniel Baumbach, translated by Maike Meßmann
9 months ago, a man discovered a highly unusual find in Los Angeles. The 41-year-old real estate agent was cleaning out his long-deceased father-in-law’s house when he stumbled across a forgotten treasure in a crawl space in the basement. In front of him was a pile of boxes and bags from various US banks, many of them still sealed. The contents: pennies with a weight of several tons. Based on the labels on the containers and their weight, the man estimated that there were about 1 million pieces. Not a very practical way of storing your savings. But his father-in-law will certainly have had his reasons.
Metal for a Rainy Day
As the man told the New York Times, his father-in-law, called Fritz, had come to the US with his brother from Germany in the 1960s. His childhood was characterised by the misery of the years during and after the Second World War. The family assumes that, like many others, these experiences led him to build up an emergency stockpile of metals. After all, metal usually retains its value even in severe crises and can be exchanged for food, so he would have been able to feed his family. But while others mostly rely on gold and silver for such purposes, it appears that Fritz speculated on the copper price.
Copper and Its Value
We must keep one thing in mind: prior to 1982, US pennies contained 95% of copper. But since the copper prise continued to rise, copper-coated zinc has been used since 1982 to prevent the metal value from exceeding the coins’ face value. Even then, many people started to hoard old copper pennies, hoping that the value of copper would increase even further. Indeed, copper pennies are worth much more than a cent: about 2.5 cents right now. Some believe that they will continue to appreciate. Should the US decide to abolish pennies at some point – they have been considered uneconomic for a long time – it would eventually be legal to melt down the pieces. If you have a lot of them, you could make a decent profit. Therefore, hoarding copper coins has been popular in the US from time to time. It seems like Fritz followed just that line of thought. After all, all the coins were minted before 1982 and are made of copper.
What to Do with It?
Fritz’s son-in-law gradually learned all this as he and his wife desperately wondered what on earth they should do with these impractical tons of copper money. At first, they did what anyone would do who does not know anything about coins and their potential value: they tried to take them to the bank. After all, the about 1,000,000 pennies are still legal tender and have a total face value of 10,000 US dollars. However, they were not successful. Coinstar fees were too high and banks refused to take such a large amount for storage reasons.
Golden Needles in a Haystack?
Finally, the manager of a bank pointed out to the family that they should not simply bring the pennies to a bank. Those who are familiar with the market for rare US coins know that even among pennies there are numerous rarities – provided they are of great quality, a single one of these pieces can be worth more than $10,000. The rarest pennies can even reach auction results of more than a million dollars. The manager seems to have informed the real estate agent about this. According to the New York Times, the sentence that stuck with him was: “You might have a million-dollar penny.”
Although coin enthusiasts will have immediately thought of this, the owner was baffled. The New York Times quotes him saying: “That was one of the first times I had heard about pennies being worth more than a penny.”
Not Worth the Effort?
So, what to do? Going through a million coins to look for treasures? A first attempt was quickly brought to an end. According to The Independent, the man said: “We started going through the arduous process of looking at the pennies and that quickly turned into, ‘We don’t know what we are doing.’ And then we decided to pop open a couple of beers and have those instead.”
Apparently, the family mainly wants to finally get rid of this unmanageable pile of cash instead of sifting through it for rare coins, even though this means that they could miss out on making a lot of money – an attitude that makes most collectors want to tear their hair. The real estate agent recently listed the entire batch on an online marketplace – obviously indicating that the buyers must pick the pennies up by themselves. The price: 25,000 dollars, apparently roughly based on the copper price.
Since this story has been going through the media, numerous interested parties came forward. Some people offered to help the family sift through the coins for rare pieces, but it does not look like the owners are going for it. Who will end up buying the copper pig in a poke? And will they find coveted rarities? I, for one, am sure that the buyer would not regret this 25,000 dollar gamble. The owners should have stuck to this adage – which never seemed more appropriate: take care of the pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves.