1944 Steel Wheat Penny: The Rare Million-Dollar Coin

The 1944 steel wheat penny is one of the most famous and valuable coins in American numismatics. Highly coveted by collectors, a pristine example sold for a staggering $1.1 million at auction in 2021, according to PCGS. But what makes this humble one-cent piece worth a fortune? The answer lies in its fascinating origin story and extreme rarity.

An Accident of History: Why 1944 Steel Pennies Exist

To understand how the 1944 steel cent came to be, we need to go back to World War II. In 1943, copper was a vital material for ammunition and other military equipment. To conserve copper for the war effort, the U.S. Mint began striking pennies from zinc-plated steel.

Over a billion of these silver-colored 1943 steel cents were produced. However, they proved unpopular with the public who complained the coins were ugly and easily mistaken for dimes. Vending machines also had trouble accepting the lightweight steel pennies.

When copper became available again in 1944, the Mint eagerly switched back to the traditional bronze composition (95% copper, 5% tin and zinc) for cents. The steel cents were recalled and almost all were melted down and recycled.

However, a small number of steel planchets (coin blanks) from 1943 managed to escape destruction. Hiding in the bins, they accidentally got mixed in with the bronze blanks being fed into the presses at the Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco Mints.

The few resulting coins, known as 1944 steel wheat pennies, are some of the rarest U.S. coins in existence, especially in high grade. PCGS estimates perhaps only 30 exist from the Philadelphia mint, 7-10 from Denver, and just 2 from San Francisco.

How to Identify a Genuine 1944 Steel Wheat Penny

With such astronomical values at stake, authentication is critical. Here‘s a detailed guide on how to determine if you‘ve found the real McCoy.


Genuine 1944 steel cents are made of zinc-coated steel like the 1943 cents. Copper cents will not stick to a magnet, while steel cents are strongly magnetic.

Design Details

The 1944 steel penny features the same iconic wheat penny design used on cents from 1909 to 1958:

  • Obverse: Abraham Lincoln portrait with "IN GOD WE TRUST" above, "LIBERTY" on the left, and the date 1944 on the right.
  • Reverse: "ONE CENT" and "UNITED STATES OF AMERICA" inscriptions, along with the motto "E PLURIBUS UNUM" centered between two stylized wheat stalks.

Look for crisp details in the lettering, dates, and Lincoln portrait. Blurry or bubbled surfaces can indicate a counterfeit.

Mint Marks

Genuine 1944 steel cents were struck at all three active U.S. Mints that year:

  • No mint mark: Philadelphia
  • "D" mintmark: Denver
  • "S" mintmark: San Francisco

The mint mark, when present, appears below the date. Note that Philadelphia did not use a mintmark until 1980.


An authentic 1944 steel wheat penny should match the standard specs:

  • Weight: 2.7 grams
  • Diameter: 19 mm (0.75 in)
  • Edge: Plain

Use a scale that measures to at least a tenth of a gram and calipers for the most accurate measurements.

Spotting Counterfeits

With such immense value, 1944 steel cents have unfortunately attracted counterfeiters. Some key warning signs of a fake:

  • Incorrect composition: Using a steel core from another common coin like a dime.
  • Altered dates: Removing the "3" from a 1943 cent and restamping a "4", or adding a "4" to a dateless zinc cent.
  • Added mint marks: Carefully check mintmarks under 5-10x magnification. Altered coins may show tooling marks or a different luster.
  • Blurred details: Dies made from spark erosion can leave a telltale hazy or pitted look to the surfaces of fakes.

If in doubt, consider sending your coin in for professional authentication by a reputable third-party grader like PCGS or NGC. They have the expertise and scientific equipment to detect even the most sophisticated fakes.

1944 Steel Wheat Penny Value

With so few surviving, a genuine 1944 steel wheat penny is worth a pretty penny indeed. Values are based on two main factors:


As with all coins, condition is king when it comes to value. The standard grading scale used in the U.S. ranges from 1 (poor) to 70 (perfect mint state). At the high end, you‘ll see descriptors like:

  • Good (G-4): Heavily worn, but date and major details still visible
  • Fine (F-12): Moderate even wear, all features clear
  • Extremely Fine (EF-40): Lightly circulated with nearly full details
  • About Uncirculated (AU-50): Only slight wear on the high points
  • Mint State (MS-60+): Uncirculated with varying degrees of luster, no wear

Values rise exponentially in the higher mint state grades. Here are some approximate price ranges:

Grade Value Range
Good $10,000+
Fine $50,000+
Extremely Fine $100,000+
MS-60 $200,000+
MS-63 $500,000+
MS-65+ $1,000,000+

Keep in mind, there are only a couple known uncirculated examples, so values can easily exceed price guides when an especially rare coin hits the market.

Mint Marks

Among the already rare 1944 steel cents, the mintmark can mean the difference between a five-figure and a seven-figure coin. Approximate values for average circulated examples:

Mint Percent of Total Avg Value
Philadelphia (no mark) 75% $28,000
Denver (D) 20% $34,000
San Francisco (S) 5% $400,000

The ultra-rare 1944-S is the key to the series. The record holder, one of only two known, is the pristine MS-66 example that sold for $1.1 million in 2008.

How to Buy a 1944 Steel Wheat Penny

Ready to add this remarkable rarity to your collection? Here are some tips for buying with confidence:

  1. Set a budget. Decide how much you‘re willing to spend and stick to it, as emotions can run high in the pursuit of a "dream coin."

  2. Buy certified. For expensive key dates like the 1944 steel cent, always buy coins authenticated and graded by a trusted third-party service like PCGS or NGC.

  3. Check references. Whether buying from a dealer or auction house, look into their professional reputation. How long have they been in business? Are they members of the ANA or PNG? Do they have positive reviews from previous clients?

  4. Ask questions. Don‘t be afraid to ask for additional photos or information about a coin‘s history and grade. Reputable sellers will be happy to provide more details.

  5. Consider set registries. For the ultimate in 1944 steel cent prestige, look into the PCGS and NGC registry sets. These certified "finest known" collections can bring a premium when they come on the market.

If you‘re not quite ready to shell out five or six figures, consider starting with a high-grade 1943 steel cent instead. They have a similar look and historical appeal at a much lower price point.

Of course, you can always try your luck at searching pocket change, but the odds of finding a genuine 1944 steel wheat penny in circulation are astronomically low. Still, half the fun of collecting is "the thrill of the hunt"!

Whether you‘re an experienced collector or just starting out, the 1944 steel wheat penny is a fascinating piece of American history that captures the imagination. With its captivating story, stunning rarity, and eye-popping prices realized, it‘s no wonder this humble cent has become the stuff of numismatic legend. Happy hunting!


– PCGS CoinFacts: https://www.pcgs.com/coinfacts/coin/1944-1c-steel/2733

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