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38th President's Letter by Chris Pilliod

In my last President's letter I inserted a rather cryptic note about an unusual observation I had during a tour of the Mint buildings in Philadelphia and stated “more about something I noticed in my next President’s letter”. Several of you caught that in passing and emailed or asked what exactly was I talking about?

. That letter detailed a walking tour I recently made when I visited Philadelphia. As you recall the first and second Mint buildings no longer stand, only the third and the fourth ones are still extant. The third Mint building is now part of a Community College. Not much of aura of the third Mint building is left. The central foyer is intact but houses an art exhibit the students have assembled. The only remnant from the mint in the foyer is an old balance beam scale used for weighing silver and gold planchets.

But it was in the hall leading into the foyer where I found myself captivated by a series of old photos from approximately 1900 exhibiting the third mint's workers in action. Then I thought that the Great Earthquake of San Francisco, the Sinking of the Titanic, McKinley's assassination-- none of these had transpired at the time the photos were taken. The quality of the photos is excellent and I found myself mesmerized by the collection. I had seen them all before on several previous visits but they all still captivated me each time I viewed them. Many, if not most appeared to be staged... a few big bruising guys holding a vat of cleaning acid staring at the cameraman, a half-dozen gravely, mustached men working harmoniously elbow-to-elbow, something I haven't observed often in my mill career.

Although I had laid eyes on the photo five or six times before, while I studied it intensely something this time in the annealing department caught the corner of my eye. Of all the photos, and there are about 15 or 20 are hanging at eye-level in the hall, for this one I found myself standing on my tippy-toes jumping up and down trying to figure out what this photo was trying to tell me.

After a few minutes a deep voice startled me from behind, “May I help you sir???” I quickly turned around and faced a Security Guard in full dress uniform. He informed me that they had spotted some unusual activity on the surveillance cameras and were curious what I was up to.

“Ummm,” I stuttered, “ I’m just studying these old Mint photos.” “Is that right? We normally don’t see that.” “Well, I’m a little different. I’m really into old coins,” I explained. “Well, OK,” he replied, “carry on.”

The more I studied the more I became convinced it was something very simple and benign and that I would fully expect to find in a production facility very much like where I toil, but yet also of extremely significant consequence. In the bottom right hand corner of the photo blending in amongst some oil splatters and no more than six feet from one of the employees laid a blank planchet either preparing to be annealed or more likely a blank that simply fell out of an annealing tub coming out of a hot furnace. It appeared that the workers were entirely nonplussed by its existence to the point of it being commonplace, a "we'll get it later" attitude.

But I got to thinking, well if it is an as-annealed blank most likely it is discolored perhaps even lightly charred by the high-temperature annealing operation, and just what is going to happen to that blank? Well with the possible exception of gold I thought most blanks would discolor to the point of being unrecognizable between each other. Gold is extremely noble and may pass through annealing unaffected, resisting any effects of oxidation. But what if nickel, copper and even silver all turn black going through the annealing process? The edge won’t be reeded yet so except for diameter and weight annealed blanks will look pretty much the same. Especially if it dark inside the room, in the evening or nighttime.

And who does the cleanup in the room? The annealing officer? I doubt it. Probably some night watchman who cleans up on the side. And then what does he do with the blanks discovered on the floor? For the most part, surely nine out of ten times maybe 99 out of 100 the lost blanks find their correct home.

But what if a blank finds the wrong tub, what if that gold blank looks coppery after annealing with a quarter eagle blank almost identical to the diameter of a cent? I mean a lot of numismatists think the reason most of the quarter eagle Indian Gold pieces struck in Denver were upset using cent upsetting roller dies. That's the reason they display a ridge near the edge and the Philadelphia Qtr Indian pieces don't, Philly didn't upset the blanks prior to striking. This whole journey reinforced my belief that the wrong-planchet strikings we encounter in US coinage is simply understandable misidentification by an honest hard-working employee at the Mint, perhaps someone in too big of a hurry to clean up and call it a day or a night watchman on his round trying to perform housecleaning. A handful of gold blanks in 1900 that looked coppery after annealing must surely find their proper home and not a scrap bucket. Why weigh them when I'm sure they are copper blanks? In a career he or she may have picked up thousands of blanks laying on the floor, and what if just 1% finds their proper home for subsequent striking? Thus the intrigue and lure of wrong planchet strikings in the Indian Cent series continues to appeal to the collector. Indian cents are known to be struck on the following blanks: -- 3c Nickel -- Half Dime -- Dime -- Qtr. Indian Gold Piece. I'll keep this Pres letter short as we have a great issue with lots of important Indian Cent counterfeit detection information. And hope to see you in Tampa, Florida for the FUN Show. We have a Fly-In Club meeting scheduled for 1:00 p.m. on Friday January 7th, 2011. I have a nice Powerpoint show on how die steels are made—you’ll enjoy it.

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