By Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez for PCGS ……
Early American Large Cents are some of the most popular and yet most challenging collectibles in numismatics. These hulking copper “pennies”, struck for commerce at a time when the United States was in its infancy, are well regarded by collectors and have been studied throughout the ages. They are found in the richest United States type collections and they offer a vast number of varieties, keeping collectors searching for many years to find even just one suitable example for their cabinets.
Among these intrepid collectors is Walter J. Husak, a high-flying philanthropist and aerospace industrialist whose top-flight collection of large cents is among the finest and most complete of any ever assembled.
He began his numismatic journey in 1955, collecting a variety of coins that he encountered in circulation as a young collector. In June 1980, he bought his first Large Cent, a rare 1804 Draped Bust, for $600 USD – a fateful purchase that eventually led to a multi-decade journey building one of the finest Large Cent collections of all time.
Over the course of the next quarter-century, Husak built a virtually complete collection of Large Cents from 1793 through 1814, incorporating 301 different varieties catalogued by Large Cent expert Dr. William Herbert Sheldon. Many of these Sheldon varieties offer just one or two known specimens, yet Husak painstakingly acquired all but three of the most esoteric pieces. When he sold this collection in 2008, it realized some $10.7 million, with two of his rare cents fetching $632,500 apiece.
More than a decade later, Husak is rebuilding his famous collection. What drives him to pursue such a feat?
“The thrill of the chase,” he remarks.
Many of the specimens he owns were at one time or another essentially “non-collectible” because they were the best-known examples of varieties that in some cases may yield just one known example and were long held in multigenerational private collections.
“The varieties of these coins – the Sheldons – they are nothing but the best. I want to collect them all, and I hope this display inspires other collectors to go out and pursue what the coins they want, whether they be Large Cents, Standing Liberty quarters, Morgan dollars, or something else.”
His Liberty Cap Foundation serves as a stunning museum of early American coins.
The Walter J. Husak Collection of Large Cents, 1793-1814 is the culmination of indescribable patience and effort. The collection was displayed at the Long Beach Expo from September 30 through October 2, 2021, during which 87 remarkable specimens totaling more than $7 million in value greeted countless awestruck visitors. These large, heavy coppers, approximately the size of a modern-day U.S. half dollar, were among the very first coins ever struck by the United States Mint for mass circulation, predating the silver and gold coinage that came along in the mid-1790s.
Large cents have long been collected by American numismatists and were already widely pursued by the small fraternity of coin collectors active in the United States during the 1840s, ‘50s, and ‘60s. A century later, the large cent’s popularity was further enlivened by Dr. Sheldon. His authoritative 1949 book (eventually titled Penny Whimsy) is a pivotal survey of the myriad large cent varieties created from 1793 through 1814. This colorful period during the Large Cent’s formative years is the purview of Husak, who has spent more than 40 years collecting these rare copper coins.
Having built and sold a nearly complete collection of large cents dating from 1793 through 1814, Husak has discovered building this second set of early American coppers is different from completing his first.
“It’s harder the second time around,” remarks Husak. “More people know about these varieties now and how rare so many of them are.”
But that hasn’t stopped him from acquiring some of the rarest and most beautiful large cents known.
“Some of these coins have pedigrees going back to 1843, when American numismatics was in its infancy,” says Husak, whose collection boasts many single-finest specimens.
All of these specimens are the finest of their varieties and hearken to a period when the U.S. Mint handcrafted each of its working dies, a painstaking feat for even the most advanced of engravers. Working dies by hand was a laborious endeavor that inevitably led to numerous minor and major varieties that are now the coveted objects of desire for Husak and so many dedicated Large Cent specialists. Collectors vying for these prizes today must reach deep into their pockets when raising their bidding paddles high, for connoisseurs like Husak know all too well that the opportunities to purchase any such rarity are, like the coppers themselves, precious and few.
* * *