On his way home from work after a long day, a reader in New York stopped in a Subway sandwich shop in Penn Station to buy dinner. It was about 1 a.m.
While waiting for his order, my reader noticed that the shop had a "take a penny, leave a penny" container on its counter. Among the handful of Lincoln cents in the container, he saw an older Indian-head penny, "clearly worth much more than one cent."
On closer inspection he found it to be "fairly worn," with a mint date of either 1893 or 1898. Though in good condition for a coin that had been around for more than a century, it was clearly not a misplaced item from someone's collection.
He took it and replaced it with the three pennies he had received as change when buying his sandwich.
"Was it legitimate to take the penny, which the signs tell you to do, even though the implied purpose is limited to giving it to the cashier?," he asks. "Does it matter if that penny is worth 6 cents or $600?"
He writes that he has no idea of its value, given that he is not a coin collector. For the record, it was closer to 6 cents: As I started writing this column, two well-worn Indian-head pennies - which happened to be dated 1893 and 1898 - were up for sale on eBay at a starting price of 99 cents, with a couple of hours left to go on the auction.
My reader is not sure if he left the three pennies out of a sense of fairness, out of a sense of embarrassment at been seen taking something out of the container and walking off with it or out of some combination of the two.
Regardless of their age and the willingness of collectors to pay more than one cent for them, Indian-head pennies remain legal tender in the United States, with a value of one cent. If my reader had received the coin as part of his change, therefore, he could rightfully have pocketed it without concern. If the shop had accidentally given him a quarter instead of a nickel, though, it would clearly be the shop's - even if it were a century-old quarter now worth $100.
The penny container is a middle ground, however. It is provided as a courtesy to customers, but presumably it's stocked both by customers and by the shop. The penny in question might well have been dropped into the bin by someone who had received it in change and was therefore its rightful owner.
My reader adds that a contributing factor to his not telling the cashier about the coin was his assumption that, if he did, the cashier - who had no possible claim on it - would simply pocket the coin for himself. There was little likelihood that it would find its way back to Subway, even if the corporation were the rightful owner.
"If it's going to go to someone who doesn't own it," my reader figures, "it might as well be me."
If the shop been a family-owned business with the owner on the premises, he says, he would have considered drawing the owner's attention to the Indian-head cent.
The actual question, though, is whether my reader was right to keep the coin. The answer, yes or no, doesn't depend on who owns the store or whether the owner is on hand.
My answer: yes. There was nothing illegitimate about my reader's actions. The penny bin is not the store's property, per se, and customers are specifically invited to help themselves to a penny if they see fit. What they do with it may be assumed, but it is not specifically limited in any way.
The right thing for him to do was to leave at least one penny in place of the one he was taking, so that he did not diminish the container's usefulness to other customers. Since he actually left two extra pennies, he's in the clear.
While it might have been a nice gesture to report the discovery to the owner, if it was a family business or otherwise, my reader was under no obligation to do so. Kindness is an estimable value, but so is fairness - and fairness says that the penny was his, to keep or give away as he saw fit.
So he can enjoy his find with a clear conscience, knowing that, while I was writing this column, two coins similar to the one he found sold on eBay for $4.44.c.2010 The New York Times Syndicate (Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate)