This is the story of a man who found something so valuable, he was afraid to let it out of his sight, afraid that by trying to cash it in, he would lose it altogether.

The man is 74-year-old Jesse Watson, and his treasure is a steel penny he's been saving for 48 years. This month, Watson let the steel cent out of his hands long enough for an Anne Arundel County coin dealer to examine it and estimate its worth at "at least $1 million." Coin specialists say the number is probably closer to $50,000.

Either way, Watson is flabbergasted.

"I knew it was valuable, but I didn't realize it was that valuable," said Watson, a retired Hyattsville drywall contractor who now lives in Bedford, Pa.

It's not as though Watson didn't know the little silver-gray coin was rare. But his one attempt to get it appraised back in 1967 spooked him so badly that he put it back into his safe and left it there.

"I took it to this Baltimore coin dealer fella, and he wanted to scratch it to see if it was real," Watson recalled. "I grabbed it back out of his hand, and I never let anybody fool with it again."

The coin had its origins in the effort to save copper during World War II. In 1943, pennies were made out of zinc-coated steel. But, through a fluke, a few steel pennies accidentally were struck in 1944. While the 1943 steel pennies are each worth, at most, $50 (nearly a billion of them were made), the rare 1944 steels fetch considerably more, according to Mark Salzberg, president of Numismatic Guarantee Corp., of Parsippany, N.J.

"A similar penny made at the Denver mint sold for $20,000," Salzberg said. Although several Denver-made 1944 steel pennies have been found, Watson's penny apparently is the first 1944 steel from the Philadelphia mint to surface, several coin specialists said. Watson's coin has no minting mark (such as the "D" found on Denver-mint coins), which means it was minted in Philadelphia.

Salzberg estimated that Watson's coin could bring at most "a sum in the mid five figures." A New York coin specialist who declined to be identified estimated its worth at $20,000 to $50,000.

Back in 1945, when he was living in Cumberland, Md., Watson foresaw that the coins might be valuable someday. He collected steel pennies, saved them in 13 paper rolls and stored them away. When he heard in 1967 about the 1944 mistakes, he ran down to his basement safe and went through all 13 of his rolls before he found what he was looking for.

"I got to the last roll, and I had four pennies left in my hand, and I remember noticing, just before I threw it back in, that one had that little tail hanging down under the three and it was really a four," he said, still marveling.

He took the penny to officials at the U.S. Treasury, who examined it and pronounced it a bona fide 1944 steel, Watson said. But as time went on, he couldn't figure out who to trust with his big find or how he could safely get it appraised and maybe sold.

"I just kept getting older, and it seemed like I was never going to do anything with it," he said.

Enter the Anne Arundel coin dealer. Ronald Dimarzo; his wife, Maha Dimarzo; and her partner, Rita Wayson, had not been in business long when they went to the Cumberland coin show in November. They had been operating the Coin Shop, also known as "Coins Are Us," in Edgewater only since September, said 38-year-old Ronald Dimarzo, "but we'd both been collecting since we were kids."

Watson went to the coin show and can't for the life of him figure out why he trusted his precious penny to Ronald Dimarzo: "It was almost like I was led to him."

"I talked to several dealers there," Watson said, "but something about his voice, something he was saying to a guy who had a $10 gold piece -- maybe it was just the way he said it -- made me take the penny out and show him."

Watson handed the penny over to Dimarzo, who said he would have it analyzed. "When I thought of it later, I couldn't sleep that night," Watson recalled, noting that Dimarzo gave him no money, only a handwritten receipt.

Watson said he is satisfied with the deal he struck with Ronald Dimarzo -- to split the proceeds of the sale of the penny 50-50 with the Coin Shop. "I don't begrudge him anything he gets out of it; he worked hard to get it tested and all," Watson said.

Dimarzo said he was surprised when Watson offered to split the money equally with the shop. "It wasn't our idea. We would have done it for nothing," Dimarzo said.

A spokesman for Christie's auction house in New York said that Christie's customarily takes about 10 percent when it auctions rare coins.

Ronald Dimarzo said he believes the coin will sell for much higher than the specialists say -- perhaps $1 million or more -- "because it's one of a kind. It's the only Philadelphia steel cent to be authenticated, and it's in great shape."

He said the Coin Shop will reinvest whatever money the penny brings in new coins for the store. "This is great. It's like hitting the lottery."

Watson, meanwhile, plans to use whatever money he makes to help his family, which includes six children. He doubts that the windfall will change his life much.

"I'm not a rich man. I still like to work. I like physical stuff -- splitting and cutting wood, being outside," he said. "I just like telling this story. When you think of it -- something that started in 1945 -- it's a story in itself."