USA Coin Album: More Scrapbook Gold

Posted on 3/18/2014

Several months ago, I combed through the series of scrapbooks I’ve been assembling for the past 30+ years to find forgotten gems of numismatic ephemera. I'm revisiting those scrapbooks this month to find even more numismatic nuggets.

My first bit of forgotten numismatic lore is literally from the scrapbook—Numismatic Scrapbook Magazine. This publication ran from 1935 to 1976 before being absorbed into Coin World, and it included a wealth of solid numismatic information, as well as nostalgic trivia. In addition to NGC’s bound set in my office, I have my own unbound collection at home that’s handy for scanning ads and articles.

In 1969 collectors were delighted to be able to purchase partially defaced US Mint dies that had been used for the 1968-S proof coinage. These were sold as scrap metal after having their faces almost completed destroyed with a welding torch, yet I own and have seen a number of dies that retained distinct bits of the legends or partial dates. Some 4,000 such dies were disposed of legally by the General Services Administration (GSA), the same agency that sold the Treasury’s hoard of vintage silver dollars in the 1970s.

This harvest of dies was purchased from a local scrap dealer by Wayne Pratali and David Silverman, who operated a coin shop called Little Mint of San Francisco located in that city. All five denominations of 1968-S proof dies were available, both obverses and reverses. In the February 1969 issue of NSM, a complete set of five was offered at $50, though the ad didn’t specify whether one would receive obverse or reverse dies. These dies were commonplace during the 1970s, and I purchased my first one, a quarter dollar obverse, from Jim Halperin’s New England Rare Coins. It came with a plaque into which was embedded a 1968-S proof quarter, and this was accompanied by a metal plate relating how the dies were legally discarded. I’ve since acquired from other sources a nickel obverse, as well as a complete trio of half dollar obverse, reverse and collar. This last piece is the rarest of the bunch, and the three together make excellent teaching tools.

What made for a newsworthy story, however, is that one of the dies sold by the GSA as scrap was not defaced. Though it was for a 1967 Philippine coin series struck at the San Francisco Assay Office (as it was called at that time), this still concerned the US Mint when informed of its existence in private hands by a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. The article in NSM included a Chronicle photo of the die. Regarding the entire episode, US Mint Deputy Director Frederick Tate stated, “We’ve been disposing of dies in this same way for years. This is the first time we’ve run into this sort of resale promotion.” My colleague at NGC, David Camire, collects used dies, collars and other Mint relics, so I asked him if he knew about this uncancelled Philippine die, whereupon he went into his office and produced the very item in question!

This episode may have ended the Mint’s practice of selling dies as scrap metal for some time, because I’ve never heard of dies from later years being offered in the marketplace until the US Mint itself sought to profit from collector interest. With the great variety of coin designs issued for the Atlanta Olympiad in 1996, the Mint sold partially defaced dies directly to customers on its mailing list. Instead of being nearly obliterated with a blow torch, these dies had simple cross cancellations. While this may have seemed alarming to some, the Mint evidently felt that because the dies were for non-circulating coins they posed little threat. Mint error collectors, however, pointed out that each unmolested quadrant of the die face provided an opportunity to create fake off-center strikes. I’ve not heard of any such coins surfacing, but it’s significant that the Mint did not repeat this promotion after that time. Though used dies are still offered by the Mint, these are always fully defaced.

My next nugget comes from the September 4, 2001 issue of Numismatic News. The hobby still mourns the recent passing of longtime columnist Alan Herbert, and in his Coin Clinic entry of that date he addressed a reader question about how our current clad coinage is made. He recounted his interview with a “top Mint official” in which it was revealed that the first year or two of clad coinage utilized planchet strip that was explosive bonded. In this process, a thin layer of explosive chemical was detonated to drive the three layer of clad strip together. In 1967 this technique, which was used in many industries, was abandoned as being too expensive for coinage.

Instead, the Mint experimented with pressure bonding, in which the two outer layers of copper-nickel were compressed onto the pure copper center strip. A “bonding process line” was incorporated into the new Philadelphia Mint then under construction. This was done at great expense, yet the Mint ultimately determined that it was more cost effective to purchase clad strip from outside vendors that was already formed and ready for planchet punching. This practice of outsourcing strip supplies remains in effect to the present day.

David W. Lange's column, “USA Coin Album,” appears monthly in the Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.

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