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Collection of rare pennies fetches $10.7 million

Even the untrained eye could tell: This $3.01 in pennies was much more than spare change. By the end of Friday night's auction in Long Beach, Walter Husak's rare American penny collection had fetched a cool $10.7 million.

The Van Nuys man parted with nearly all of his assortment of 301 "large cents," or antique copper coins roughly the size of quarters, as eager buyers pushed the bidding sky high. After investing years and millions in tracking down and acquiring the early American currency, Husak was a little sad to see his pennies sold.

But not too sad.

"It was a stupendous auction," said Husak, 65. "I still can't even believe it."

Officials with the auction house that organized the sale called it a "once-in-a-lifetime event" for coin aficionados.

And the top price tag of $632,500 each for two 18th-century coins broke rare penny sales records. Husak's collection dates from the days of Washington and Jefferson, 1793 to 1814, with rare pieces including cents from 1793 that depict a startled-looking Lady Liberty, her hair blowing wildly behind her.

Leading collectors around the world had known about the sale since last summer. About 200 of them crammed into a meeting room at the Long Beach Convention Center for the auction, said Greg Rohan, president of Heritage Auction Galleries, which held the event. It was standing room only inside, with hundreds more bidding by phone and online. Organizers had scheduled two hours for the auction, but settled in for a long night as coins began fetching 10 times their expected worth.

Four hours later, all but 13 of the 301 pennies had sold, Rohan said. Those are expected to be snatched up this week.

Auction officials said the voracious appetite for the coins was due to the fact that Husak, a star of the coin collecting universe, had been hanging on to them so long. "These coins had been off the market for decades. People had been waiting . . . for the chance to buy some of them," Rohan said. "It was a feeding frenzy."

Rohan said Husak's collection was unmatched not only because of the rarity of the coins, but also because of their quality. "Many of these coins are in as good a shape as the day they came off the press at the mint," Rohan said.

Husak was serious about the excellence of his collection, flying around the country to chase extraordinary items: "I graduated to the point . . . I want nothing but the best."

Husak began squirreling away Buffalo nickels and Indian head pennies as a boy, wheeling and dealing by age 13. After founding an aerospace parts manufacturing company, Husak resumed his hobby in the 1980s, having already sold his coin stash years before for a '54 Cadillac and a down payment on a Chino house. He attributes his show-stopping collection, which was locked away in a bank's triple safe, to luck and timing.

Coin enthusiasts consider early pennies particularly unique, especially as they mellow with age, said Al Boka, 58, a fellow collector and friend of Husak's. Pennies from 1794 are particularly interesting, Boka said, because fragile, handmade dies used to imprint the coins were frequently changed, leaving behind dozens of distinctive coin designs. Boka bought six of Husak's coins from 1794 on Friday, for $30,000 to $58,000 apiece.

"It was the best sale in 150 years," Boka said. He wasn't the only enthusiastic customer. Husak's daughter Trina, 44, also collects antique pennies and paid about $20,000 for two coins -- no father-daughter freebies in this family.

"She can't just be given these things," Husak said of the sought-after items. "These things are very precious; there's not enough of them to go around."

Husak elected to part with his hard-won collection when he realized that acquiring the last few pennies he was looking for would set him back close to $700,000, and their owners weren't interested in selling. Needing to pay off some real estate debt -- Husak owns two homes in the Santa Ynez Valley in addition to his Van Nuys residence -- he was "scared to death" of losing money on the collection.

Husak's wife, Patricia, never really liked to know just how much he was spending on his pennies. But during the bidding frenzy, as "the figures started to climb, he looked as if he was going to hyperventilate," she said.

"I figured I was just happy to get my money back," he said. "Was I wrong." He estimated that he spent a little over $5 million over time to acquire the coins.

Although he likes to spend his time traveling, riding in old Cadillacs, the couple know Husak won't stop hoarding change any time soon.

"I know he's going to start collecting something," Patricia said. "There's just no way he cannot collect."

susannah.rosenblatt@latimes.com

joel.rubin@latimes.com
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