Illegally Destroying Pennies

Just look at this work of art: Robert Wechsler designed many different pieces of art for The New Yorker earlier this year, each made from actual, valuable coins:

Whenever something like this comes out, people develop hives and stutters:  ”WAIT — HE CAN’T DO THAT! That’s destroying money, and that’s illegal!”

18 USC Chapter 17 of the US Code has a section called “Mutilation, Diminution, and Falsification of Coins” — ‘Mutilation’ is about the only thing going on in the art above, and it continues on to say:

Whoever fraudulently alters, defaces, mutilates, impairs, diminishes, falsifies, scales, or lightens any of the coins coined at the mints of the United States…Shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.

The word fraudulently appears in both paragraphs, and is the key to this:  the reason this law exists is a layover from the days of coins being made from precious metals.   Like the reeded edges on coins, this is meant to prevent people from altering their coins to be more valuable.  Let’s say you go to the bank and get a thousand dollars in gold coins.  Now, you take each coin and you put it against the bench grinder, taking off a thin layer around the circumference.  You do this to all 50 double-eagles, and then you take them back to the back and deposit them.   Now you’ve got a grand in the bank — and a pile of gold dust underneath your bench grinder.

So, you got $20 for $19.99 worth of gold,  plus it introduces “more” gold into the system, which potentially affects the value of the dollar.

Taking some pennies out of circulation for the purpose of art, or a cute memento of Disneyland, isn’t illegal because you’re not doing to fraudulently alter the value of the coin.  Try melting nickels and pennies for profit, that’s gonna get you a visit from federal agents.  So, intent is all part of the game: make art of pennies and sell it for hundreds, but don’t try to squeeze copper out of your pocket change.   They might feel the same, but the rules view the two very differently.

 Note: I’m not a lawyer, nor am I your lawyer, so this post isn’t a legal defense.  So, don’t print this out to show the judge when somebody arrests you for skirting the law.