How Nickels Got So Heavy

Why stealing 45,000 pounds of them is a bad deal.

Not wooden, but not worth much, either

Police officers discovered 3 million nickels buried in the back yard of a Florida home on Friday; the coins were part of a 45,000-pound shipment of nickels that was stolen in December. According to police estimates, the missing truckload was worth about $180,000. Wouldn’t it have been more efficient to steal another kind of coin?

Yep. Dimes, quarters, half-dollars, and dollar coins are all worth more per pound than the nickel. Forty-five thousand pounds of Susan B. Anthony or Sacagawea dollars, for example, would be worth around $2.5 million. Dimes, quarters, and half-dollars are sized proportionally; 45,000 pounds of each would be worth about $900,000. A comparable penny heist, on the other hand, would be even less lucrative than this nickel theft: Forty-five thousand pounds of pennies would amount to just over $80,000.

Why is stealing nickels and pennies such a bad deal? In the 1790s, the first U.S. coins were produced in proportion to a silver dollar (which was in turn based on the Spanish 8 Reales—the first dollars contained the same amount of silver as the then-common Spanish coin). The 50-cent piece had half as much silver as the dollar by weight, the quarter had one-fourth, the dime had one-tenth, and the tiny half-dime (or 5-cent piece), had one-twentieth. Only the copper penny was fiduciary—its worth was not tied to the value of the metal it was made of.

Thanks to the lobbying efforts of nickel-industry magnate and business-school founder Joseph Wharton, the composition of fiduciary coins changed in the mid-19th century. In 1857, the old, large copper pennies were replaced with smaller “1-cent nickels” made of a nickel alloy. Soon after, the U.S. Mint issued 3-cent nickels of similar material. And in 1866, the small and impractical half-dime was made fiduciary too, and the mint released a 5-cent nickel. Around the same time, the 1-cent nickel was converted to bronze, and a new, bronze 2-cent piece was created. * These bronze pieces were heavier than their nickel counterparts, so from the very beginning, 45,000 pounds of 5-cent nickels would have been more valuable than 45,000 pounds of pennies.

The last silver coins were minted with the date 1964. Since then, all circulating coins have been fiduciary. Dimes, quarters, and half-dollars have retained their relative weights, but starting with the Susan B. Anthony dollars first released in 1979 (and continuing with the newer Sacagawea golden dollars), the dollar coin has lost some heft.

Right now, stealing dollar coins is far more efficient on a pound-by-pound basis than stealing any other American coin in circulation. Perhaps the canniest heist, though, would have been of the “Double Eagle” $20 gold coin, which weighed only 33.4 grams (as much as about seven modern nickels or four Sacagawea dollars). These coins were abolished in 1933, and only three of the Double Eagles from that year are known to exist—two were given to the Smithsonian by the U.S. Mint, and the third was stolen and then sold to the king of Egypt in 1944. Fifty years later, the coin was seized by Secret Service agents from a British coin dealer, and subsequently sold at auction for almost $8 million.

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Explainer thanks Robert Wilson Hoge of the American Numismatic Society. * Correction, July 26, 2005: This piece initially suggested that the U.S. Mint started making the 1-cent coin out of bronze in 1866. That happened in 1864. Click here to return to the corrected sentence.