1792 Half Disme, Judd-7, MS66
1792 H10C Half Disme, Judd-7, Pollock-7, R.4, MS66 PCGS
Secure. Ownership of a 1792 half disme in any grade is among
the top accomplishments that any advanced collector of numismatic
Americana can hope to achieve. It is not a stretch to say that the
1792 half disme is probably the single most important American coin
issue, if not the most famed or celebrated. Fame and celebrity are
reserved for 1933 double eagles, 1913 Liberty nickels, 1894-S
dimes, 1804 dollars, and the like. Nonetheless, these doughty
little silver pieces possess immense historical importance.
First Circulating U.S. Mint Coinage
Condition Census Example
They are, simply put, the first national coinage issue of a fledgling America. They are the first coins struck under the auspices of the United States Mint (although not yet in the Mint facilities, which were unready for coinage until March 1793), and the first coins to circulate as American national coinage. Their preeminence is such that President George Washington called attention to them in his address to Congress 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. Provisions have been made for the requisite buildings, and these are now putting into proper condition for the purposes of the establishment. There has been a small beginning in the coinage of half dismes, the want of small coins in circulation calling the first attention to them."
This passage not only points up the immense historicity of the 1792 half dismes, but also establishes that they were, in fact, circulation coinage, not patterns for a coinage. At the time, the Mint was administered by the State Department, not the Treasury Department as it is today. As Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson seems to have been the man most responsible for the initial distribution of these historic pieces. His role in placing the coins into circulation has been somewhat overshadowed until now, but his private account book provides much information on the subject. For instance, Jefferson recorded in his account book for July 11, 1792, that he: "Delivd. 75 D. at the mint to be coined." A few days later, on July 13, the account book noted: "Recd. from the mint 1500. half-dismes of the new coinage." The coins were now available for distribution, and Jefferson lost no time in placing the new coinage into circulation.
The middle of July, 1792 was a busy time for Thomas Jefferson, as he was preparing to leave Philadelphia for his home in Virginia. In the days preceding July 13, Jefferson's account book records many transactions, almost all of which are in odd amounts and frequently denominated in English units, like pounds, shillings, and pence, rather than the American dollars and cents. In short, he was paying bills with the hodge-podge of foreign currency that was available to the average American citizen at the time. On his journey from Philadelphia to Monticello, however, Jefferson recorded many transactions that were denominated in half dismes, which he obviously paid with the coins he picked up at the Mint, just before he left. These exchanges probably mark the first time any coins from the U.S. Mint were used in circulation and show decisively that the 1792 half dismes were not produced as patterns.
Many numismatic myths have grown up about the 1792 half dismes over the years, including the 19th century story that the coins were struck from George Washington's sterling silver table service, which he donated for that purpose. Another account relates Martha Washington was the model for Liberty on the obverse. These old chestnuts have been largely debunked by researchers in recent years, but they linger in the literature and make interesting, if historically inaccurate, reading. Perhaps the most telling research on the subject is included in the 2003 American Journal of Numismatics article by Joel Orosz and Carl Herkowitz entitled, "The Fabled 1792 Half Dismes." Analysis of a 19th century note found placed in a European coin book in 1943 occupies much of the article. The note reads as follows:
"In conversation with Mr. Adam Eckfeldt (Apr 9, 1844) at the Mint, he informed me that the Half Dismes above described, were struck, expressly for Gen. Washington, to the extent of One Hundred Dollars, which sum he deposited in Bullion or Coin, for the purpose. Mr. E. thinks that Gen. W. distributed them as presents. Some were sent to Europe, but the greater number, he believes, were given to friends of Gen. W. in Virginia. No more of them were ever coined. They were never designed as Currency. The Mint was not, at the time, fully ready for being put into operation. The Coining Machinery was in the cellar of Mr. Harper, saw maker, at the corner of Cherry and 6th Sts, at which place these pieces were struck."
The note was signed simply J--Mc--. This missive was published in The Numismatist and the author was subsequently misidentified as Jonas R. McClintock, an officer and refiner at the Mint. Thanks to Orosz and Herkowitz, we now know the real author of the note was John McAllister, Jr., a close personal friend of Adam Eckfeldt. It is believed Eckfeldt was present at the actual striking of the 1792 half dimes, so his memories carry substantial weight. This note establishes the 1792 half dismes were not struck from tableware, but from bullion or coin, as Eckfeldt clearly states. Martha Washington was not the model for Liberty and she was not present at the striking of the coins. Although the note plays up Washington's role as the prime mover behind the coinage of the 1792 half disme, Orosz and Herkowitz note Jefferson personally delivered the planchets to the Mint, as recorded in his account book, and the struck coins were returned to his care. Undoubtedly, some coins were used as presentation pieces and have been impeccably preserved by their owners down to the present day, but the private records in Jefferson's account book establish the coins were primarily struck for circulation. The difference between the $100 Eckfeldt reported as the amount of the original deposit, and the $75 Jefferson indicates he turned over to the Mint in the form of planchets may have been due to wastage.
Many advanced collectors will be interested in capturing the present example, certified MS66 PCGS Secure. This piece should be positioned in the middle of the Condition Census for the issue. It is tied numerically with two other pieces at PCGS, and trails only two other business-strike survivors, the Pittman coin, which has traditionally been considered the second finest, and the MS68 PCGS Rittenhouse-Knoxville Collection-Cardinal Collection coin. Note: the Pittman coin has often been misidentified as the MS67 PCGS specimen in the PCGS Population Report, but recent research by Pete Smith, Len Augsburger, and Joel Orosz indicates this citation actually represents a prior grading event of the now-MS68 Cardinal Collection coin that has not been removed from the data. It is possible that the Pittman coin remains uncertified, but its place in the Condition Census is probably secure. The NGC Census shows no coin graded finer than MS65 (10/16). There is also the J.C. Morgenthau-Floyd T. Starr-Greensboro Collection example graded Specimen 67 by PCGS, the only such certified.
This piece is struck in medal turn. The surface colors are spectacular but perhaps a bit less blatant than the photographs would lead one to believe, gray the predominant color with some intermingled red, and blue-gray in the central portion of the obverse. The fields are bright on both sides beneath the overlying patina, the surfaces satiny and nearly semiprooflike from the apparent die polishing. This die preparation has also effaced some of the tail feathers on the eagle's lower tail area, a phenomenon seen to one degree or another on many other examples. A small, near-vertical die crack in the lower-right reverse proceeds from the top corner of the E in DISME to the underside of the eagle's right (facing) lower wing feathers. The dies are slightly misaligned, so that there is full dentilation on the obverse, yet the dentils are absent at the right and lower reverse from 2:30 to 7 o'clock. (This phenomenon also appears frequently on these pieces.) Some minor planchet adjustment marks appear on the lower obverse, crisscrossing the lower bust diagonally and into the left field area. Planchet adjustment marks occur on the reverse on the eagle's breast, between LF in HALF, and overlapping the E of DISME.
The strike on this piece is remarkably strong amid Liberty's hair details throughout the obverse, atop, in back of, in front of, and at the rear of the profile. The eagle's wing and neck feathers, save for the aforementioned areas affected by die lapping, are equally bold and sculpted. Some of the peripheral letter tops are weak on each side, although these features are likely due to the die state as well as the strike. There are simply no mentionable abrasions or post-Mint distractions on either side; the grade seems completely appropriate, given the excellent near-semiprooflike luster, extremely attractive coloration, and lack of drawbacks.
Numismatic researchers Joel Orosz, Len Augsburger, and Pete Smith recently penned a guest column in Coin World (September 6, 2013), calling for numismatists to send in their examples of 1792 half dismes for study. The gist of the small article was that they are working on a hypothesis that the coins were struck not in either July or October, but rather in July and October, two different striking periods with a sufficient interval between to allow some rust to form on the reverse die, producing tiny pits of die rust on the coins. The authors write that they have identified four different die states for the reverse, with substates for states 1 through 3 and a single state for 4. They intend, after further testing their hypothesis, to write a book titled 1792: Birth of a Nation's Coinage, under the auspices of Heritage Auctions.
It goes without saying that any advanced numismatist, particularly potential bidders for this lot, will anticipate their findings with great eagerness.(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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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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