Enticing 1792 Half Disme, Judd-7, Choice AU1792 H10C Half Disme, Judd-7, Pollock-7, R.4, AU55 PCGS. The Mint Act of April 2, 1792, established a Mint at Philadelphia--the nation's capital at the time--mandated a decimal coinage system, set the silver:gold ratio in the U.S. dollar at 15:1, and prescribed a silver fineness standard for coinage in the awkward ratio of 1485/1664, or 0.8924+. The Act was largely the vision of Alexander Hamilton, first Treasury secretary, based on his "Report on the Establishment of a Mint" presented to the House of Representatives on Jan. 28, 1791. Hamilton recommended a decimal standard with ten dollar ("eagle") and one dollar gold coins, one dollar and ten cent ("disme") silver coins, and copper one cent and half-cent pieces. However, the final Act as adopted also comprised gold five dollar ("half eagle") and two and a half dollar ("quarter eagle") coins, and silver half dollars, quarter dollars, and half dismes.
On July 1, 1792, President George Washington appointed David Rittenhouse to be the nation's first Mint director. Rittenhouse bought two lots for the Mint (Nos. 37 and 39 North Seventh Street at Sugar Alley [Filbert Street] in Philadelphia), demolished the existing buildings, and had the first new structure ready for operations by September. Congress contemplated putting a portrait of President Washington on coinage, a concept he dismissed as "monarchical." The final Act accordingly specified a "portrait emblematic of liberty." The issues of 1792 were mostly patterns, but many numismatists, including the present cataloger (GH), consider the Liberty Head, Flowing Hair half dismes to be a circulation issue. President Washington referred to making "a small beginning in the coinage of half-dismes" in his address to Congress on Nov. 6. In that same year, Adam Eckfeldt was hired as a workman--the first of generations of Eckfeldt family Mint employees--and was present at the striking of the half dismes, in the basement of sawmaker John Harper.
Hamilton's decimal coinage proposals were predated by a more general recommendation, "A Plan for Establishing Uniformity in the Coinage, Weights, and Measures of the United States," which Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson submitted to the House of Representatives on July 13, 1790. The Continental Congress in 1785 had agreed in principle to a decimal dollar, but the task fell to Hamilton and Jefferson to propose which measures, monetary and otherwise, should be adopted. The First Continental Congress, meeting in 1789, could also have adopted a decimal (or other) standard of weights and measures, as Jefferson proposed, but up to the present day Congress has never done so, although it still maintains the right to do so. Jefferson was instrumental in establishment of the U.S. Mint at Philadelphia, trying unsuccessfully in its early days to hire an engraver.
Today it is little appreciated, but in the late 18th century, the United States' adoption of a decimal coinage system radically departed from the way in which major nations of the world enumerated, denominated, and accounted for their coinage and currency. From the ninth through the 18th centuries, most countries used the Carolingian currency measures begun by King Pepin, Charlemagne's father, under which one pound comprised 12 shillings, and one shilling comprised 20 pence, pennies, or denarii. One pound in silver, a livre, was the equivalent of 240 pennies.
With the Norman Conquest in 1066, the Carolingian system pervaded Great Britain, where it survived until 1971. The single exception to the Carolingian measures was Russia, which had used a decimal system since the 1500s, and under Peter the Great in 1710 introduced a system of 100 kopecks to the ruble. The United States' decimalization of its currency--and its eventual refusal to portray President Washington thereon--were yet other ways that the enterprising young nation could assert its sovereign right to mint coinage, yet distinguish itself from the nondecimal crowns, sovereigns, and portrait-bearing coinage of its British ancestors.
Much evidence in addition to Washington's address to Congress points to the 1792 half dismes' role as circulating coinage. For example, the existence of a unique pattern half disme in copper leads directly to the conclusion that the silver half dismes are not patterns. Most survivors show extensive wear, but it is also recorded that President Washington handed out numerous examples as souvenirs, which he is unlikely to have done save for a commercial coinage. The certified population (undoubtedly the top rung of surviving examples) contains quite a few Mint State pieces, evidence that the original recipients mostly cherished those historic numismatic presents from our nation's first president.
As of (6/08) PCGS has certified nine pieces in AU55, eight pieces in AU58, and 14 Mint State pieces, ranging from MS63 through MS67. In AU55, this coin should see spirited bidding, occupying as it does a niche in the couple of dozen-plus Heritage offerings of half dismes, most of which are either XF40 or below, or MS63 or above. At first glance the coin gives an impression of remarkable quality, a function of its relatively unmarked surfaces that display only light high point wear. The piece appears to be a uniform, deep olive-brown, but under a light the toning resolves into glints of gold and pink around the devices. A few light planchet adjustment marks appear on Liberty's cheek, and on the reverse through the eagle's breast. A couple of small marks around E in AMERICA are possibly Mint-caused planchet defects. The piece is struck in perfect medal turn. A pair of crisscrossing light scrapes in the crook of the eagle's neck will serve as pedigree markers, but overall the surfaces are remarkably smooth and distraction-free.
In summary, this enticing and historic piece is a problem-free example of our nation's first circulating coinage, close to Mint State, yet at a potential price that likely will be considerably less than an Uncirculated piece would bring. As such, it represents a significant opportunity--one unlikely soon to repeat--for specialists and collectors of Colonial and early Federal coinage. Population: 9 in 55, 22 finer (6/08).(Registry values: P9) (NGC ID# 946T, PCGS# 11020)
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