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    1792 Half Disme, Judd-7, MS64
    America's First Regular Issue Coin
    The Eliasberg Example

    1792 H10C Half Disme, Judd-7, Pollock-7, R.4, MS64 PCGS. All coins of 1792 are national treasures, and the 1792 half disme represents the best opportunity for a collector to hold in their own hands a coin traced directly to an American President. Thomas Jefferson received the coins from the Mint on July 13, 1792, and, in his account book of the same day, recorded the receipt of "1,500 half dismes of the new coinage." Over the next few days, as Jefferson began to distribute the coins, the account book records an unusual number of transactions denominated in half dismes. Children and servants are frequently mentioned as recipients, an ironic situation, as the least members of society received bright, Uncirculated coins without the slightest notion that these would someday be extraordinary jewels.

    Early American Numismatic Treasures and the Founding Fathers
    There are few similar instances in American numismatics where such a visceral connection with a Founding Father can be made. Benjamin Franklin handled the Libertas Americana medals produced in Paris in 1783, and David Rittenhouse deposited the bullion used to strike the 1794 silver dollars. All three of these issues are today highly prized, and balance nicely the measures needed to ensure simultaneous scarcity, availability, and popularity. A census of 1794 dollars based on research by Jack Collins and Martin Logies identified 125 distinct specimens. John Adams and Anne Bentley, in Comitia America and Related Medals, estimated an original mintage of 257 Libertas medals. This number was based on payments made by Franklin in 1783, which in some cases did not specify the exact breakdown between the silver and copper pieces. In any case, probably half or more of these survive. The half disme is today represented by about 250 specimens.

    The population profiles of each of these foundational treasures are indicative of their reception at the time of issue. The Libertas Americana medal was personally distributed by Franklin to European and American dignitaries. Adams and Bentley counted 41 letters of acknowledgement to Franklin, and noted that "Franklin was too frugal to waste his masterpiece on the insignificant." It is no surprise that the medal was highly valued and survives in significant proportion, with almost all examples grading Extremely Fine or higher. The 1794 dollars, on the other hand, were a workhorse of commerce and are well-distributed across the grading spectrum. A small number of very high-grade specimens exist, most notably the SP66 PCGS piece currently held by Legend Numismatics. From the original mintage of 1,758 pieces, Logies identified 125 examples, or a 7.1% survival rate. Of the 125 known pieces, Logies identified eight Uncirculated examples, or 6.4% of the surviving population.

    Survival Rates of the 1792 Half Disme
    The 1792 half disme has a somewhat different profile from that of the 1794 silver dollar. Although they have not been traced to the same extent, the survival rate appears to be much higher. The current estimate of 250 coins indicates a survival rate of 16.7% of the original mintage, more than twice that of the 1794 dollar. The grading profile is similarly revealing. At the 2013 World's Fair of Money, researcher Pete Smith presented data on 144 distinctly different specimens and identified 27 pieces, or 18.8%, that grade MS60 or higher. Clearly, the 1792 half disme was saved in higher proportion, and today the coin is well-represented in all levels of condition.

    Several factors assured the survival of 1792 half dismes as a souvenir. Jefferson personally handled many of the coins in normal commerce, and, as the lustrous coins passed from hand to hand, they were perhaps accompanied by Jefferson describing some of the struggles of the new Mint, or explaining the difficulty in working through the political process leading to the Mint Act of April 2, 1792. Then too, they were small coins. Five cents represented less than an hour of work for an average laborer. A silver dollar was more likely an entire day's pay, and, in the days before widespread coin collecting, setting aside a 1794 dollar as a souvenir would have been considered impractical for an ordinary American. Finally, 1792 half dismes were possibly distributed by George Washington as well. Adam Eckfeldt, the Chief Coiner from 1814 to 1839, related to the Philadelphia antiquarian John McAllister in 1844 that George Washington passed out these coins "as presents." The chain of transmittal from Jefferson to Washington is unclear, but what is certain is that the half dismes were recognized as special at the time of their striking and were preserved as such. Whether received from Jefferson, or Washington, any recipient surely recognized the gravitas of the giver, and this could have only led to greater attempts to preserve these specimens of the first Mint.

    19th Century Perceptions: Pattern vs. Regular Issue
    While the half dismes were saved in large proportion as souvenirs of the nation's first coinage, numismatists in the 19th century came to regard these as patterns rather than regular issue coins. Washington's annual address in 1792 is the most important source. The section on coinage was authored by Jefferson on October 15 and delivered by Washington on November 6. "There has also been a small beginning in the coinage of half dimes," Washington stated, "the want of small coins in circulation calling the first attention to them." These coins were clearly intended to circulate.

    Nevertheless, Mint Director James Ross Snowden, in his 1860 Mint Manual, presented the coin as a pattern. While acknowledging the Washington address, Snowden claimed that the half disme "partakes of an experimental character," and was further concerned that the half dismes had not been officially delivered by a Chief Coiner. He was technically correct, for while Henry Voigt was employed as acting Chief Coiner beginning in June 1792, he did not receive the official appointment until January 1793. But this is superseded by Washington's letter to Mint Director Rittenhouse on July 9, 1792, which explicitly authorized the half disme coinage that Jefferson received on July 13. If Washington himself could not authorize regular coinage, who could?

    Snowden seems to have rethought the situation in his 1861 work A Description of the Medals of Washington. In relating early Mint history, Snowden states of the half dismes that "they were of the legal weight and fineness, and evidently intended for circulation." But later in the same book, ambiguity creeps in. Snowden writes "... a small amount of half dismes was issued, but they were not, it is believed, of the regular coinage as we have stated in an early part of this work." While Snowden waffled, two important writers agreed with the pattern classification. Sylvester S. Crosby's The Early Coins of America (1875) called the half disme a pattern, and Robert Coulton Davis, who authored the first comprehensive listing of the pattern series in the Coin Collector's Journal in 1885, agreed. Harold P. Newlin, in A Classification of Early Half-Dimes of the United States (1883), politely argued against pattern status, "without desiring to place myself in direct opposition to this accepted opinion," and the debate has been active ever since. The current Guide Book falls firmly into the pattern camp, while the Judd pattern reference states the half disme "is most assuredly a coin made for general circulation." The cataloger of the Louis E. Eliasberg, Sr. collection noted in 1996 that "we have elected to place this listing with the early half dimes, perhaps following tradition in this regard, as pioneer half dime scholar Harold P. Newlin eloquently suggested in 1883 ... ."

    Regardless of whether one considers the 1792 half disme a pattern or a regular issue, it remains a tangible connection to the earliest days of the Mint, and embodies all the mystery and mythology associated with that era. The engraver of the coin is not known with certainty, and the popular legend that Washington personally supplied the bullion for coinage is at best based on oral history first transcribed in the 1840s, and at worst directly contradicted by Jefferson's account book as quoted above. What is certain is that Washington, Jefferson, and Rittenhouse were all closely associated with the production of the half disme, and there is no question that Jefferson personally handled many of the pieces. The current example captures not only this history, but when combined with the high level of preservation and the subsequent pedigree, the occasion is particularly memorable.

    The Distinguished Eliasberg Example
    The present coin, from the Louis E. Eliasberg, Sr. collection, has the distinction of being the first 1792 half disme for which a color photograph exists. Following the completion of the Eliasberg, Sr. collection in 1950, with the acquisition of the 1873-CC No Arrows dime, Eliasberg began inviting the media to examine the cabinet. The April 27, 1953 issue of Life magazine featured a three-page color spread of the Eliasberg collection, including most of the American rarities. The first page alone displayed an 1804 dollar, a 1913 Liberty nickel, the unique 1870-S three dollar gold piece, and an 1894-S dime. The half disme is also present, and, while the photography does not approach modern standards, the toning within the obverse lettering serves to plate-match the present coin with the Life magazine image. As coin collecting blossomed in the 1960s, popular treatments of numismatics made good copy, and Look magazine likewise featured the Eliasberg Collection on December 29, 1964. The Baltimore newspapers took similar interest in their hometown collector and reported on the Eliasberg Collection on multiple occasions.

    Physical Appearance
    Liberty faces left and is a near mirror image of the Birch cent of the same year, leading many to ascribe a common engraver to both coins. As with the 1792 Birch cent, a curl extends around Liberty's head and reveals itself at the base of the neck. Both sides are medium gray with lilac highlights especially seen at the peripheries. Liberty's central curls are a touch soft, and there are adjustments marks, as made, in the center. The die state is advanced, with a reverse crack running downward from M in AMERICA to E is DISME. There is a rectangular defect in the die at the left foot of A in HALF. The eagle's legs, as well as the letters L and M show evidence of die polishing. Unpublished research by Pete Smith indicates that the highest-graded specimens are more often found in advanced die states, and the present coin is typical in that regard. This lustrous example, from the famed Eliasberg Collection, is the complete package, combining historicity, pedigree, and high technical grade. Population: 8 in 64, 5 finer (2/15).
    Ex: Richard B. Winsor Collection (Samuel and Henry Chapman, 12/1895), lot 733; J. M. Clapp; Clapp estate (1942) to Louis E. Eliasberg, Sr.; Eliasberg Collection (Bowers and Merena, 5/1996), lot 883, realized $38,500.
    From The Music City 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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