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    1792 Half Disme, Judd-7, MS62
    Ex: Simpson Collection
    America's First Regular-Issue Coinage

    1792 H10C Half Disme, Judd-7, Pollock-7, R.4, MS62 PCGS Secure. Ex: Simpson. The "first coin" of the United States is a matter of some debate, and a number of issues compete for the title. The Fugio cents, dated 1787, and struck to the extent of about 400,000 pieces, are one candidate. The Confederation Congress authorized James Jarvis to execute this coinage on April 21 of that year. Jarvis failed to completely fulfill the terms of the agreement, and Congress rescinded the contract in September 1788. The failure of Jarvis as a private contractor was probably a factor in the subsequent decision of the United States to bring the Mint "in house," thus acquiring more control over its own coining capability. Fugio cents today are eminently collectible, and specialists can pursue a wide array of varieties, as comprehensively published by Eric P. Newman beginning in 1949.

    The Fugios were not the first coinage associated with the Confederation Congress. Robert Morris was the Superintendent of Finance from 1781 to 1784, and in 1783 contracted Benjamin Dudley and Adam Eckfeldt to prepare the Nova Constellatio patterns. Few were produced, and only seven examples survive. One of these, a 100-unit bit, appeared in our presentation of the Eric P. Newman Collection, Part IV (Heritage, 5/2014), lot 30424, which realized $705,000. Predating both the Fugios and Nova Constellatio pieces are the Continental dollar, but the origins of those pieces are less clear. The Continental dollars are thought to have been ordered by the Continental Congress, but despite considerable investigation by Newman and others, documentation remains elusive. The coins themselves are more available, with an estimated survival of 1,000 to 2,000 pieces.

    While other issues present various claims to being the "first coin" of the United States, the 1792 half disme stands above the crowd, with a personal endorsement from George Washington himself. Washington's fourth address to Congress, on November 6, 1792, identified the half disme as the nation's initial coinage. "In execution of the authority given by the Legislature," Washington said, "measures have been taken for engaging some artists from abroad to aid in the establishment of our mint. Others have been employed at home. Provision has been made of the requisite buildings, and these are now putting into proper condition for the purposes of the establishment. There has also been a small beginning in the coinage of half dismes, the want of small coins in circulation calling the first attention to them."

    Washington's imprimatur was more than a throwaway line in a presidential address. The national Mint was an important sign of sovereignty, and none of the issues struck under Congress prior to the 1789 Constitution could claim the United States Mint as their creator. They may have been authorized issues, but they were still outsiders in the sense that they were struck by contractors. Thomas Jefferson recognized the distinction in 1790 when he wrote, "Coinage is peculiarly an attribute of sovereignty." While Jefferson was specifically arguing against the production of copper coinage via contract with the English coiner Matthew Boulton, his intent was for the federal government to maintain control over its coinage manufacture as a mark of independence. The American patriot Thomas Paine expressed similar sentiment in a 1790 report to Congress on the proposed establishment of a Mint. "Whenever Congress goes into this business it will be best to do it on their own account," Paine wrote.

    Congress passed the Mint Act on April 2, 1792, and on April 13 Washington nominated David Rittenhouse to serve as Mint Director. Rittenhouse's appointment document (exhibited at the 2012 American Numismatic Association convention in Philadelphia, to the delight of all) was dated the following day, and the new Mint Director quickly went to work acquiring property and "putting into proper condition" the works necessary to produce coinage. Work was sufficiently advanced by July that the Mint was ready to produce coinage. In only three months, Rittenhouse, assisted by acting Chief Coiner Henry Voigt, had turned the property of an old distillery, at 27-29 North Seventh Street in Philadelphia, into a working Mint.

    Although not specifically noted in any contemporary documentation, it appears that Thomas Jefferson was given "first right" of the new coinage. The Mint at that time operated under the State Department (today it is operated under the Treasury Department), and Jefferson served as Secretary of State from 1790 to 1793 during Washington's first administration. Jefferson had previously acted in a coordination role with respect to the Comitia Americana medal series during his time as Minister to France in the late 1780s. This, combined with his administrative oversight of the Mint, placed him as a suitable figurehead to be associated with the first coinage. Accordingly, Jefferson recorded in his account book for July 11, 1792, that he: "Delivd. 75 D. at the mint to be coined." On July 13, Jefferson noted: "Recd. from the mint 1500. half-dismes of the new coinage."

    Jefferson was busy on July 13, and recorded a large number of transactions prior to the receipt of the half dismes. Jefferson was preparing to leave Philadelphia for his home in Virginia, and, immediately following delivery of the half dismes, Jefferson wrote that he "set out for Monticello." On this journey Jefferson made a good number of exchanges that are denominated in half dismes, and it seems certain that these were from the Mint, for in the days preceding July 13 Jefferson's transactions were typically odd amounts and frequently denominated in pounds, shilling, and pence, rather than dollars and cents. Jefferson's transit from Philadelphia to Monticello marks the consummation of the first United States coinage.

    This wonderful MS62 PCGS 1792 half disme bears additional credentials in being pedigreed to the Bob Simpson Collection, one of the foremost American coin cabinets ever assembled. Lovely patina in coin-gray, blue, and lavender hues complements a notable lack of post-Mint impairments. A few light planchet adjustment marks appear in the center obverse, and the highest points of each side are not absolutely defined, as is typical for the issue. The lower-relief details of the eagle's wing feathers, tail, and the remainder of the hair curls on the obverse, however, are quite sharp. The strike is slightly off-center on both sides. The aesthetic appeal is excellent, and this piece's historic allure is equally compelling. Population: 1 in 62, 16 finer (11/15).
    Selections from The Bob R. Simpson Collection.(Registry values: P9) (NGC ID# D93T, PCGS# 11020)


    Learn more at the Newman Numismatic Portal at Washington University in St. Louis.

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    Numismatic Background and Census of 1802 Half Dimes: A Classic American Rarity
    This 64-page book cites mintage and rarity estimates by prominent numismatists and documents the currently known 1802 half dime appearances. Each of the 32 documented examples includes an enlarged obverse/reverse photograph, the author's assigned grade, the provenance of each coin, auction prices realized or dealer fixed asking price, and a unique serial number for each specimen that will facilitate retrieval for research, cataloging, or price-information purposes. Reserve your copy of this remarkable volume for just $29.95 today.
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