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    1792 Half Disme, Judd-7, MS64
    First Federal Coinage Issue
    Exceptionally Sharp Strike

    1792 H10C Half Disme, Judd-7, Pollock-7, R.4, MS64 PCGS Secure. "Firsts" are noteworthy events often associated with groundbreaking, revolutionary, and innovative ideas or actions. Firsts are given historical significance; they are recorded for future generations to admire and appreciate. That is true of science, technology, and philosophy, among countless other areas of specialization.

    Numismatics is no different. First-year issues, the first usage of new techniques, and modern first releases are all of interest to various types of collectors. In the broader sense of American coinage, the 1792 half disme enjoys the distinction of being the first federal issue struck after the passage of the Mint Act of April 2, 1792. The coins not only represent the initial issue authorized by the Constitution, but they are also some of the most important keepsakes from the earliest days of the fledgling United States.

    The Mint Act of April 2, 1792
    Nearing the end of his first term as president in 1792, George Washington had yet to address one component vital to the promotion of national sovereignty -- the creation of a mint and a national coinage system. At the time, a hodgepodge of coins and tokens circulated with little sense of unity or coherence. The provenance of such pieces varied widely, but most came from Britain, the Spanish colonies, various American states, and private individuals. Several proposals for a national coinage had been made by the likes of Robert Morris, Gouverneur Morris, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton, but a national system was only put into effect after the passage of the Mint Act of April 2, 1792.

    The Mint Act included a number of key provisions. It established a mint "for the purpose of national coinage" at the seat of government, which was Philadelphia at the time. The Mint Act further specified the denominations to be struck, including their weights, values, and compositions. Mandatory devices were laid out as well. David Rittenhouse, an acclaimed scientist and philosopher, was appointed Director of the Mint by President Washington and tasked with overseeing all business relating to the newly established facility. Rittenhouse was to employ an assayer, engraver, chief coiner, and treasurer at predetermined salaries plus a number of clerks and workmen as he saw fit.

    A "Small Beginning"
    Things started to fall into place in the months following the passage of the bill. Rittenhouse appointed skilled watchmaker Henry Voigt as chief coiner. Beginning in June 1792, Voigt was working on recruiting able engravers to prepare dies to strike the first coinage issues. To this day the identity of the engraver(s) is not known with absolute certainty. It is believed that Robert Birch was primarily responsible for making the dies, possibly with the help of others.

    While the Mint's institutional framework developed steadily through the spring and summer of 1792, the planning and construction of its physical structure were still in their nascent stages. Without an actual Mint building, the first federal coins -- the half dismes -- had to be struck a few blocks away from the Mint's proposed location in the basement of Trenton saw maker John Harper, who lived at North Sixth and Cherry Streets. Harper was an occasional contractor for the Mint and an associate of Mint Assayer Albion Coxe.

    In 2003, the American Journal of Numismatics published a landmark article by Joel J. Orosz and Carl R. Herkowitz that provides an in-depth examination of the production of 1792 half dismes based on contemporary records and accounts. George Washington authorized the coins' production on July 9 in a letter to David Rittenhouse. On July 11, 1792 Thomas Jefferson delivered either $75 or $100 (the total varies by source) in silver bullion or specie, likely in the form of Spanish-American dollars and possibly from President Washington himself. Two days later on July 13, 1792, Jefferson wrote in his person account book: "Recd. from the mint 1500 half dimes of the new coinage." The authors explain that the deposit discrepancy could merely be a reflection of spoilage. In other words, $100 in silver may very well have been deposited, leaving just $75 after the bullion was refined and converted into planchets. Whether or not Washington actually provided the silver used to coin the half dismes is not incontrovertibly known, but Orosz and Herkowitz note that much of the evidence suggests Washington was the silver provider. The authors also note that the obverse portrait is almost certainly a generic depiction of Liberty rather than a rendering of Martha Washington.

    By autumn 1792, federal coins had been struck and distributed, and the Mint building on North Seventh Street was well underway. Washington commented on the Mint's progress in his fourth annual address on November 6, 1792:

    "In execution of the authority given by the Legislature 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 dimes, the want of small coins in circulation calling the first attention to them."

    The half dismes of 1792 can be considered small only in terms of their physical stature. Their production may have been regarded as a minor step forward at the time, but today it is arguably one of the most important events in the history of American coinage. The issue ranks 12th in the fourth edition of Garrett and Guth's 100 Greatest U.S. Coins, and the ever-strong prices coins realize at public auction are incontestable indications of their perceived significance in today's marketplace.

    Survivorship and Current Population
    The certified population and average certified grade for the 1792 half disme are telling. Survivors, of which approximately 300 pieces are known, can be located in heavily circulated grades through the upper levels of Mint State. Washington and Jefferson distributed many of the coins as gifts and others like David Rittenhouse kept multiple examples as remembrances, likely accounting for the 35 grading events in Uncirculated condition at PCGS and NGC combined. However, per Washington's fourth annual address, the coins were intended for circulation -- and circulate they did. 80% of coins reported at PCGS survive in circulated grades with most grading from AG through VF condition.

    Much has been made about whether or not the 1792 half disme ought to be considered a pattern or a regular issue. Most numismatists today believe the coins were struck for circulation. The current survivorship, as well as George Washington's own words from November 1792, all point to such a conclusion.

    The Present Example
    This Choice representative was clearly set aside early on and cherished as a souvenir of America's first coinage. Through which hands this coin passed is a matter of speculation, but the possibilities are nevertheless intriguing. Could it have been a gift from Washington or Jefferson? Unfortunately, such details will likely remain a mystery. What is certain, however, is that this Condition Census example is among an elite group of survivors.

    Gunmetal-blue and golden tan shadings prevail over each side with lavender elements complementing the dominant hues. Breen's Encyclopedia remarks that even mint condition pieces "will not show full breast or leg feathers," but this coin is exceptional in that regard. The eagle's feathers on both the breast and leg are as sharply defined as one could hope to find for the issue. Liberty's portrait is equally bold. The obverse is well-centered, while the reverse is struck slightly off-center toward 6 o'clock. Light adjustment marks occur on each side, but they are mostly confined to the dentils. This MS64 coin last appeared as lot 2025 in Stack's Bowers Baltimore Auction (3/2013), where it was described as follows:

    "The surfaces are satin smooth, with lustrous fields that flash with some reflectivity when examined ... There are no surface marks worthy of note, and the eye appeal is high for this distinctive coin."

    Given this coin's historical significance, outstanding technical quality, and superb eye appeal, we expect it to generate strong competition among advanced specialists seeking an extraordinary example of this important federal issue. Population: 8 in 64, 5 finer (3/15).
    Ex: Bartlett Collection (Bowers and Ruddy, 11/1979), lot 2359; Greenwald-Jackson Collections (Bowers and Merena, 9/1995), lot 1177; Rarities Sale (Bowers and Merena, 1/2005), lot 327; Baltimore Auction (Stack's Bowers, 3/2013), lot 2025, which realized $470,000.(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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    Auction Dates
    June, 2015
    4th-7th Thursday-Sunday
    Bids + Registered Phone Bidders: 16
    Lot Tracking Activity: N/A
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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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