Coin Collectors Rack Up Newly Minted Pennies

Each numismatist could buy only six rolls of the special pennies.
Each numismatist could buy only six rolls of the special pennies. (By Bob Gwaltney -- Evansville Courier & Press Via Ap)
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By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 15, 2009

Among the small triumphs allowed the modern human spirit (winning computer solitaire, having exactly 12 items for the express lane), the most glorious of all is the weightlessness of becoming temporarily penny-free. $12.04, you say? I just might have exactly -- CUE ANGELIC CHOIR.

But yesterday morning at Union Station, a long, clumpy line of coin aficionados steadily snaked its way around velvet ropes to a U.S. Mint kiosk, as customers patiently awaited their turn to acquire pennies. Rolls and rolls of pennies.

"Today is important for a number of reasons," said line-stander Matt Lerner, a coin collector from Frederick. This year "is the hundredth anniversary of the Lincoln cent -- the longest-standing coin ever made by the U.S. government." In celebration, the Mint is introducing four new designs throughout 2009. The pennies released yesterday feature a virile, rail-splitting Lincoln on the tail side, instead of the customary Lincoln Memorial.

Lerner came prepared. Customers were limited to six rolls of 50 coins -- at 50 cents each -- per person, so the 23-year-old hired day laborers to help him beat the system. After collecting some 120 rolls in his sagging backpack, he dashed to the post office to have each roll time-stamped for proof of purchase.

Other collectors looked on at Lerner's haul with admiration, and talked shop.

They talked about the first Lincoln, the 1909 S-VDB, the one minted in San Francisco with designer Victor David Brenner's initials.

They talked about the 1857 pennies, some of the first pennies made in the current smaller size. "The flying eagle," Lowell Lima said wistfully. He's got a few of those babies.

"Trade my log cabin rolls for your log splitters," read a sign pinned to one man's T-shirt.

Ah, the modest, stalwart penny. We use them to un-wobble table legs, to weigh down blowing drapes, as impromptu screwdrivers. We use them as everything but money. Who picks up pennies in the street anymore? Even in production they seem like antiques; they cost more to make than they're worth, so every few years, some analytical thinker starts to question the sense of cents. Movements begin. Abolish the penny!

"Hogwash!" said Jim Fletcher. "I love a good penny. I spend my whole life looking for a good penny." Fletcher, a builder with a booming voice, took a train up from North Carolina just for this occasion, armed with a fanny pack to store his treasures in. For example, Fletcher said, take the 14-D penny.

"Ohhh," said Lowell Rollins, a retired Floridian standing behind Fletcher in line. "The 14-D."

That 1914 beaut from the Denver Mint has a broken letter D. Coin collectors adore a good defect.

Many of the pennies snapped up yesterday won't ever reach circulation. Collectors will hoard their shiny new objects, or sell rolls to one another for $3 to $4.

Unless the recession drags on, or gets worse. Earlier this year, the Mint temporarily halted production on all nickels and dimes, in part because of a sudden influx of recirculated coins. It turns out that in a financial downturn, people develop a new appreciation for loose change. They stop saving it in jars and start taking it into banks to supplement depleted checking accounts. Suddenly small coins are less nuisance, more godsend.

Is there hope for the penny yet?

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