The 1959-D wheat penny is a very famous mule coin — one of the best known and most valuable mule coins around.
What is a mule coin? A mule coin is a type of error coin that has an obverse (heads side) and reverse (tails side) not typically seen on the same piece. A mule coins consists of 2 coins that wouldn’t ordinarily go together.
This rare penny is worth a whopping $50,000 — that’s a pretty penny indeed for this unique wheat cent!
Just one of these old wheat pennies is known to exist.
Making things even more complicated is the fact that some numismatists don’t even know if this is a real coin. You see, there’s absolutely no record that the United States Mint made it — even though the Secret Service has provided written documentation that it’s genuine.
There’s a fascinating story behind the 1959-D penny error. Read on to find out more about this unusual coin of unknown origin…
The Mystery Of The 1959-D Wheat Penny
As most coin collectors know, Lincoln wheat pennies were struck from 1909 through 1958. Beginning in 1959, the reverse of the wheat cent was redesigned with the Lincoln Memorial motif to honor the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth in 1809.
Until 1986, it was always assumed the last Lincoln wheat pennies were made in 1958. Or were they?
That’s the question a retired California police officer named Leon Baller wondered after placing an ad in his local newspaper offering to buy rare coins. He received an inquiry from a reader on an odd 1959-D penny with wheat ears instead of the Lincoln Memorial on the reverse.
Baller paid $1,500 for the coin — unsure if it was real or not. He then sent it to the U.S. government for verification of its authenticity.
Here’s what the U.S. government said…
The coin was returned to Baller, along with a note signed by Special Agent for the Department of the Treasury Richard M. McDrew. The note states:
“Enclosed is your United States 1¢ coin, dated 1959-D, with wheat reverse. This coin was microscopically examined by our Forensic Services Division in Washington, D.C. and it is their opinion the coin is genuine.”
Baller sold the coin in 1987. It later turned up in the hands of coin collector Larry Choate, who re-submitted the coin to the U.S. government for further testing. (Choate took a big risk in doing this — because if the coin was counterfeit, it would’ve been confiscated. And if it was illegally made at the Denver Mint, the penny could’ve been confiscated for that reason, too.
The government once again said the 1959-D penny was genuine and deemed it a legal tender Lincoln cent. The coin was returned to Choate with a long letter explaining that multiple tests had been conducted on the mule penny. According to the Secret Service, everything about the coin checked out as genuine — including its weight, metal composition, surface details, and other physical characteristics.
So, Did The US Mint Really Strike The 1959-D Penny Error?
No record is known to exist of the 1959-D wheat penny ever being made. And the big coin grading firms such as Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS) and Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC) can’t find any evidence the US Mint struck this coin. Therefore, neither of these companies has decided to certify or grade this coin.
But does that mean the coin was NOT made at the US Mint? NO!
In fact, many coins have been “unofficially” struck at the US Mint — like these:
- The 1913 Liberty nickel is one of the rarest U.S. coins around. As it turns out, the 1913 Liberty nickel was struck at the US Mint without authorization. It’s now one of the most valuable coins of all time, selling for more than $4 million!
- A unique 1970-S proof Washington quarter struck on a 1941 Canadian quarter was made in much the same way. The unique error, worth about $35,000, was likely struck as a gag by a US Mint employee and escaped the mint facility.
Some believe the 1959-D penny error was also made as a one-off piece — perhaps struck as a prank, a gag, a dare, or even the intentional attempt by a worker to make a unique coin that someday could become very valuable.
How Much Is The 1959-D Wheat Penny Mule Worth?
It’s possible that as time goes on, coin collectors may be able to identify what pair of dies was used in striking the 1959-D penny error. If they can do this, or if one of the slabbing services like PCGS or NGC decides to certify and encapsulate the coin, the 1959-D wheat cent may become worth even more!
This is, after all, one of the most unique, controversial, and colorful mule error coins in the hobby.
The verdict is still out on how this coin was made — but there’s no question any coin collector would be proud to own it. Talk about a conversation piece!
Other Famous Mule Coins
Mule error coins are particularly interesting pieces. They derive their name from the offspring of a donkey and a horse. This creation (a blending of 2 distinctly different species) commonly serves as a working animal.
While mule coins aren’t necessarily beast of burden, they are very much analogous to the mule of the animal kingdom — because they consist of 2 coins that wouldn’t ordinarily go together.
Whether they are accidentally struck or intentionally made, mule coins are quite rare.
One of the most famous is a 2000 Sacagawea dollar Washington State Quarter mule coin — with the obverse of a Washington quarter and the reverse of a Sacagawea dollar, struck on a dollar planchet.
This mule coin, as it happens, is actually a legitimate error that the US Mint confirmed. Mint officials say that a Sacagawea dollar coin die cracked in production, and a Washington quarter die was accidentally used to replace the broken die. The discovery happened after thousands of these mule coins were made. Most of them were destroyed, however a few apparently got out.
There are 18 of these rare error coins known to exist. One of these Sacagawea dollar/Washington quarter mules sold for an astounding $155,250!
Other mule coins that are known to exist:
- A 1967 New Zealand 2 cent coin with the obverse of a Bahama 5 cent coin
- A dateless British 20 pence mule coin incorporating old and new designs from before and after the 2008 redesign of British coins
- Several 2010 Winter Olympic coins from Canada are interesting mule coins
How Can You Find A Mule Coin?
Remember, mules are extremely rare coins, so even if you’re looking through bags, boxes, and rolls of coins for years and years on end, there’s no guarantee you’ll find one.
But there are a few ways you can increase your chances of finding a mule error coin:
- Check bags, boxes, and rolls of NEW coins — Chances are better you’ll find a mule coin this way, rather than looking at bunches of coins that people have already sifted through.
- Visit estate sales and yard sales looking for coin collections — You may find something unusual this way. Be wary though. Many big “discoveries” made this way turn out to be altered coins or coins with post-mint damage.
- Tell people you’re looking for strange coins — And don’t forget to offer payment for these coins, because people probably won’t just give you free coins and tokens! But you might just find what you’re looking for. (Remember the story of how Leon Baller stumbled upon his 1959-D mule penny?)
Good luck… and happy collecting!
My love for coins began when I was 11 years old. I primarily collect and study U.S. coins produced during the 20th century. I'm a member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA) and the Numismatic Literary Guild (NLG) and have won multiple awards from the NLG for my work as a coin journalist. I'm also the editor at CDN Publishing (a trusted source for the price of U.S. rare coins), editor at the Florida United Numismatists Club (FUN Topics magazine), and author of Images of America: The United States Mint in Philadelphia (a book that explores the colorful history of the Philadelphia Mint). I've contributed hundreds of articles for various coin publications including COINage, The Numismatist, Numismatic News, Coin Dealer Newsletter, Coin Values, and CoinWeek. I've also authored nearly 1,000 articles here at The Fun Times Guide to Coins — and I welcome your coin questions in the comments below!