This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
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To specialize in large cents is a task that intimidates many a collector. One glance at the scope of this series, from 1793-1857, shows you what a challenge you have ahead.
The rarities in the set can stop a determined collector. Although all large cents were struck at Philadelphia, and you won’t have to worry about mintmarks, the collecting of large cents can keep a collector busy, searching, and studying for many years, even with a hefty collecting budget.
What to do? Build a partial set. The large cent series can be collected in many ways that are fun and interesting. A nice set can be put together while avoiding some of the expensive rarities.
Large cents are split into three areas: early, middle and later years. Look at the later years (1840-1857) for a collection to get a taste of the series. Don’t check out the many varieties available in this set, just see what it takes to build a set of the later dated cents. Look at the prices, too. Copper coins over 150 years old can be found for decent prices.
These old coppers don’t have the allure of precious metal coins of silver and gold. They lack the high mintages of modern coins. Large cents, a bit larger than a quarter, are not as large and impressive as a silver dollar or double eagle would be. The design, with a Liberty head on the obverse and a wreath on the reverse, is not especially beautiful. But these coins have unmistakable charm and historical value. If you get involved in collecting these coins, you may learn a lesson that all large cent collectors learn: going against the crowd and staying away from collecting fads can yield a wonderful numismatic experience.
The only cent that costs a bit more is the 1857, the final year of issue. By 1857, the small-sized Flying Eagle cents were being minted and were popular due to their size and convenience. But even this date is not an impossible rarity.
Middle date large cents, from 1816-1840, can make a nice set. Mint State coins are more expensive than the later year cents, but prices for high grade circulated specimens are not that bad. Again, concentrate on building a date set, without worrying about varieties.
Want a little more challenge? Try the early dates, from 1793-1814. If pursuing the early years seems too daunting, this set can be broken down into smaller sets, too.
Classic Head large cents, from 1808-1814, were struck from an inferior grade of copper, making these coins softer and more prone to quick wear. Look for better quality coins of these dates. Prices jump with each higher grade, but if you find nice, sharp cents of these years, you have a great little set that not many other collectors own.
The Draped Bust design was used on every copper and silver coin of the era, from half cents to silver dollars. Try building a set of Draped Bust large cents from 1796-1807. High grade circulated cents are not cheap, but not too painful, considering these are copper cents over two hundred years old that got out into circulation and did the job they were created to do. The 1799, long recognized as a rarity, may be a stopper, but most of the others are reasonably priced.
Large cents provide many more sets-within-a-set for the numismatist who enjoys varieties, likes research, and owns a good magnifier. Pick one decade of cents, and collect as many varieties as you can find, or can afford. Even a glance at the latest Red Book can give a collector some idea of the vast number of varieties within this series. Look at the large cents of the 1830s. So many different large and small numbers, medium and small letters, and the famous “silly head” and “booby head.” What other series in American numismatics offers these options?
Draped Bust cents offer such fun varieties as the meaningless fraction, 1/000, and the stemless wreath. One variety of 1801 contains three errors: the fraction, one stem and “united” misspelled as “iinited.”
One enterprising collector built a collection of 1794 large cents, all the different varieties. Pick your favorite year of large cents, and collect the varieties. Study carefully. You may discover a new variety. You may even find a scarce coin while browsing through a junk box. A rare 1794 starred reverse cent was recently found this way. Look through lots of large cents, worn and slightly damaged. You never know what you might find, and that’s one of the fun parts of collecting large cents.
The edge is the third side of the coin, and looking at the edges of early large cents can provide a neat collection. The 1797 cents have a plain edge and a gripped edge. 1793 cents have a lettered edge (one hundred for a dollar) or a vine and bars edge. And one vary rare 1795 variety has a reeded edge.
Find every large cent with an overdate. Build sets of dates with large and small letters. Try to build a basic type set. Put together a grading set, one large cent in each grade, any type you wish. Find large cents with its copper surfaces toned, red and brown, a lovely chocolate brown, an unattractive black. From a stunning proof cent, to a red Mint State cent, to a worn dull brown cent with tinges of green, old coppers can come in many colors. Collecting large cents in the different shades that copper can turn makes a very unusual, and interesting, collection.
Large cent collectors enjoy one of the most historical and interesting series in American numismatics. If you think you may like large cents but are intimidated by the size, varieties and prices of the rarities, consider building a short set or partial set of these early coins. Once you get a taste of large cent collecting, you may find you want to pursue this series further, and it will keep you busy and involved for many years to come.