Copper Penny Hand Sorting: Sounds Odd, But It’s Growing

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One sure sign of inflation’s ravages pops up when the smallest coin denominations are no longer minted. Due to inflation, their value is too small to be of any use anymore. The United States is approaching that point. There’s already talk and even proposals to demonetize the penny and even the nickel.

Another sign is older coins becoming more intrinsically valuable than their face value. When that point is reached, the mint switches to a cheaper metal because the old metal is too expensive to mint anymore.

For more than forty years, since 1965 for the U.S., this has been the case for silver coins. Up until 1964, all American dimes, quarters and halves were 90% silver. With inflation taking its toll, the silver value of these coins became more than their face value and they disappeared from circulation. The halves kept going with 40% silver until 1970, but even they were switched over to the present copper-nickel sandwich combo. Silver coins becoming more valuable than face value tipped off a lot of people about the cumulative effects of inflation.

Not many people know it, but the same threshold has been breached for the humble penny. When copper prices rose at the end of the ’70s, the U.S. Mint switched from copper to copper-plated zinc. The change was effected in the middle of 1982. The Royal Canadian Mint managed to hang on by shrinking the size of Canadian pennies, but they also threw in their hand starting in 1997. Nowadays, all the pennies of the world are copper-plated zinc or copper-plated steel. Canada’s coppers were the last to go.

Because of copper rising, coppers are now worth more than their face value. Although specific values for them vary, largely depending on their country of origin and always due to their weights, a copper penny is worth about twice face.

That’s given rise to a whole subculture devoted to sorting out coppers from the zinc and steel varieties. The hope of copper penny hoarders is that copper will continue to rise in price, making coppers akin to the silver coins of old. Although copper pennies are much more bulky per unit of value than silver coins, penny sorters continue to stockpile to chase that intrinsic value.

There’s even a machine, called the Ryedale, which sorts copper pennies from zincs automatically. A copper penny sorter with a Ryedale can sort through a lot of pennies! Someone willing to put in a full day with that machine can get through as many as fifty thousand pennies.

Others, mostly for sentimental reasons, prefer hand-sorting. Hand-sorting allows the sorter to look at each penny, and gives a greater chance of noticing one that’s scarce or even rare. That’s why some machine sorters take a look at their pennies rather than leave it all to the Ryedale.

Sound eccentric? Back in the mid-1960s, people who hoarded silver coins were also though eccentric – but they proved to be ahead of the curve. Although the market for copper pennies is far less developed than that for bulk silver coins, copper prices have made the copper penny hoarders prescient too.

If you’re interested in copper penny sorting, the place to go is the Realcent forum. It’s run by the proprietor of the Portland Mint, which sells copper pennies in bulk, and its members are avid copper penny sorters and hoarders. Many of them are veterans of the hobby. A few make a living from it. All of them are passionate about copper penny bullion, and they’re all friendly to newbies.

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