The Unique Specimen 1792 Half Disme, The Floyd Starr Example, PCGS Certified Specimen 67; Probably the Finest Known Half Disme, and the Only Specimen1792 H10C Judd-7, Pollock-7, R.4. SP67 PCGS. Ex: Starr. Regardless of grade, the ownership of a 1792 half disme clearly indicates that the numismatist is a connoisseur of American coinage. Despite opinions to the contrary, this issue is the first circulating American coin struck under authority of the Mint Act of April 1792.
The Orosz-Herkowitz Study
A simple memorandum, in three different versions, provides much of what we know about the 1792 half dismes, and yet, it has also been the source of much confusion. The first copy of this memo was discovered by Edward Haden early in 1943, and was brought to the attention of the numismatic world a few weeks later. Shortly after this announcement, Philadelphia numismatist Charles McSorley, Jr., incorrectly identified the author as Jonas R. McClintock. A second and slightly altered copy of the same memo came into the possession of Walter Breen in the early 1960s, and a third copy was acquired by Carl Herkowitz in 1995. It was this third copy of the memo, also slightly revised, that allowed a positive identification of the author, Mr. John A. McAllister, Jr. The earlier attribution of this memo to Jonas McClintock has been continually repeated over the last 60 years, and even today, the misattribution still appears in print.
Herkowitz and co-author Joel J. Orosz prepared a detailed article around this document, solved its authorship, and answered questions about the history of this famous coinage issue. Their article, "George Washington and America's 'Small Beginning' in Coinage: The Fabled 1792 Half Dismes," appeared in the 2003 edition of American Journal of Numismatics, Second Series, published by the American Numismatic Society in 2004.
The text of the final version of the McAllister memo reads:
"Description of Half Dismes coined in 1792"
"On one side = a Head = 1792 = Lib. Par. of Science and Industry --
"On the other side = an Eagle Flying = Half Disme = United States of America --
"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 study by Orosz and Herkowitz provides an in-depth examination of this memorandum, and also looks at much of the history of this issue. In the past, many false and unsubstantiated claims have appeared in print about this coinage issue. Among such claims is one that suggests Martha Washington posed as "Miss Liberty" for the engraver. Another claim that remains unsupported is that the Washingtons provided their family table service for the coinage. Both of these claims date back to 1860, when James Ross Snowden wrote: "The bust of Liberty is popularly supposed to represent the features of Martha Washington who is said to have sat for the artist while he was designing it ... This piece is said to have been struck from the private plate of Washington, which is not unlikely, considering the great interest which he took in the operations of the infant mint, visiting it frequently, and personally superintending many of its affairs." Today, the numismatic world is indebted to the efforts of Orosz and Herkowitz for correcting many past claims.
Unfortunately, these authors allowed a new and unsubstantiated claim to be introduced. While an entry in Thomas Jefferson's "household account book" dated July 13, 1792, has been known for many years, a related entry dated July 11, 1792 was first published in the Orosz-Herkowitz study. The two entries read:
July 11, 1792: "Delivd. 75 D. at the Mint to be coined."
July 13, 1792: "Recd. From the Mint 1500 half dimes of the new coinage."
These two statements clearly indicated that the coins were struck on July 12 or July 13, 1792, probably the latter day. While the combination of these statements positively identify when the coins were struck, they also leave us with another question. How was it possible for the Mint to receive $75 in bullion and provide finished coins two days later? The authors quoted a comment by Eric Newman, asking this very question: "it would have been literally impossible for the new Mint to have received $75 in bullion or coin on 11 July and melt it, refine it, roll it into strips, wash the strips, anneal them, punch out the planchets once more, run all of the planchets through the Castaing machine to reed their edges, and then strike the coins, all in time to deliver 1,500 half dismes to Jefferson on 13 July."
The authors spent considerable space to answer this question with "logical explanations" developed by Newman. While logical explanations are fine and dandy, they can eventually become "numismatic facts" for a future generation to resolve. Newman suggested that the Mint had prepared the silver for striking at an earlier date, then placed it in the care of Jefferson (who was head of the Department of State, then in charge of the Mint) until the presses were ready. Once that took place, Jefferson delivered 1,500 finished planchets to the Mint, ready to be coined. Two days later, Jefferson took delivery of the new half dismes, and personally delivered them to Washington, who was then at Mount Vernon. At the end of their article, Orosz and Herkowitz included Eric Newman's logical explanation in their conclusions, as if to suggest that this is now a known fact.
It is generally accepted that the 1792 half dismes were not struck within the physical confines of the new Mint, but rather, in John Harper's cellar. While some have more recently translated "cellar" to "basement," the term cellar could mean any separate structure, although usually referred to a room or enclosed place under a building. It is also generally accepted that George Washington did, in fact, provide the silver for these pieces, as related by Adam Eckfeldt (although the Moulton research discussed below disputes this). The mintage is variously estimated at 1,500 to 2,000 coins, based on documentary evidence left by Thomas Jefferson, who stated that he received $75 value, or Adam Eckfeldt, who stated that Washington provided $100 in silver for these coins.
While Adam Eckfeldt claimed that these pieces were never designed as currency, George Washington suggested otherwise in his November 6, 1792 National address. The President stated: "In execution of 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 dimes, the want of small coins in circulation calling the first attention to them." The entirety of this final sentence clearly tells us that these coins were intended for circulation, especially the second part of this sentence.
The Moulton Research
Numismatic researcher Karl Moulton takes exception to the currently recorded history of the 1792 half disme that is based on the McAllister memo. Moulton considers this memo to be an unsubstantiated tale that should be completely disregarded. Since neither Eckfeldt nor McAllister signed the Mint visitor log for the date recorded in the memo, Moulton believes that neither man was there, and that the meeting never took place.
Based on original letters and documents in the Library of Congress, Moulton contends that the silver used for the half dismes was supplied by the government, and not by Washington or Jefferson. His version of the history of this issue suggests that David Rittenhouse made arrangements for the purchase of silver for these coins. Further, the coins were struck in mid-July from dies prepared by Jacob Perkins, copied in part from the other 1792 dies by Robert Birch and Joseph Wright. The die sinker was John Harper, and the planchet adjuster and coiner was Henry Voigt. According to Moulton's research, Adam Eckfeldt was not present when these coins were produced. Currently, Karl Moulton is preparing a history of the first Mint, to be published under the title Henry Voigt and Others Involved with America's Early Coinage.
The Starr Specimen
This is probably the finest known example, and it is certified by PCGS as a Specimen strike, the only such piece to receive this designation. A roster of more than two dozen high quality pieces, below, shows the position of the Starr coin as the only Specimen strike, and the probable finest known. It is a spectacular, fully struck coin. All of Liberty's hair details are fully defined, and the eagle's plumage is equally well brought up. From the details on this piece, it is obvious that special care was taken to strike this coin at least twice. The design features on both sides are nicely centered with full obverse and reverse border details. Care was also taken to polish the surfaces as each side displays light die striations in the fields and across the central device on the obverse. Both obverse and reverse display a multitude of speckled colors with bright reflectivity around the peripheral lettering on the obverse. The toning has been variously described as orange-crimson and lilac, and as blue, gray, and light gold. There is only one surface flaw that we see: a shallow, vertical scratch in the left obverse field. The reverse has two faint vertical die cracks, approximately parallel, through the right field. One extends from the right base of A(M) to the eagle's wing and F in HALF. The other begins at the left base of the adjacent M, also through the eagle's wing, and on to the right side of E in DISME.
Additional material from our consignor discusses the stature of this coin: "This specimen striking of the 1792 silver half disme is truly a coin that transcends numismatics. It occupies a place in our Nation's history unequaled by any other coin. For centuries, the coinage of silver was a royal prerogative. For a young nation, the coining of these half dismes was of enormous political significance and an expression of national sovereignty understood around the world. Numismatic scholar Walter Breen wrote, 'Their historic context has for over 120 years made these half dismes among the most prized American silver coins.' Today, as a unique specimen striking, this coin must be considered America's most important numismatic coin and a priceless historical treasure."
An accompanying letter from David Hall, president and founder of PCGS, seems to affirm this statement from our consignor. Hall briefly reviews the history of the 1792 half disme, then discusses this specific coin:
"Today approximately 250 to 400 1792 half dismes survive, most of them in well worn condition. Miraculously, there are a handful of Mint State examples known. The finest of these is the coin from the Floyd Starr collection.
"When the Starr collection was auctioned in October of 1992, his 1792 half disme was described thusly, 'Choice Uncirculated, semi-prooflike ... Both sides, brightly reflective, especially around the letters. Possible Specimen: exceptional sharpness of strike seen on no other specimen, save this one.'
"Earlier, the pioneering and extremely influential coin dealer, Wayte Raymond, had described the Starr 1792 half disme as, 'Perfect Mint State with brilliant proof surface. Probably the finest specimen known.'
"The Starr 1792 half disme is so extraordinary in the sharpness of its strike and the reflectiveness of its surface that PCGS has designated the coin as a Specimen striking. It is the only 1792 half disme to receive this designation from PCGS. The coin is so exceptional that I believe it could very well be the first 1792 half disme struck, and thereby the first U.S. coin ever struck. It is certainly one of the most important coins PCGS has ever handled."
The cataloger for the Starr Collection noted that this was an early strike: "Some reverse letters soft, particularly A and M in HALF DISME and M in AMERICA, as seen on most specimens from the earliest run struck with medal turn reverse orientation."
It is this cataloger's (Mark Borckardt) opinion that the coin, while certainly very special and deserving of a Specimen designation, is not, nor could it be, the first 1792 half disme struck. The reverse has faint but clearly visible die cracks. Earlier die state examples are known without the die cracks, proving that this example is a later die state and was among the final examples produced in July 1792. However, given its obvious specimen status, it might well have been the very first United States coin actually released by the State Department, perhaps a special gift to a friend of the U.S. or even to George Washington himself.
Ex: "Great American" Sale--Virgil Brand (J.C. Morgenthau, 10/18/1933); via J.G. Macallister to Floyd Starr on October 26, 1933; Floyd Starr Collection (Stack's, 10/1992), lot 4; Baltimore '93 Auction (Superior, 7/1993), lot 138.
Roster of High Grade 1792 Half Dismes
We believe the following roster represents distinct individual specimens, although it is possible that some duplication may exist. This roster is based primarily on a comparison of plates in the various catalogs. Plate matching of older, poor quality photographs can be quite difficult.
Specimen-67 PCGS. The example offered here. J.C. Morgenthau (10/1933), lot 77; Floyd T. Starr (Stack's, 10/1992), lot 4; Superior (7/1993), lot 137.
Gem Unc. Malcolm O.E. Chell-Frost (1948 ANA $100); John Jay Pittman Collection; David Akers (10/1997), lot 423; Clifford Mishler.
Gem Unc. Dr. J. Hewitt Judd; Paramount (Auction '80, 8/1980), lot 592; Jimmy Hayes (Stack's, 10/1985), lot 3. Judd and Red Book plate coin. Dr. Judd reportedly traced the pedigree of this example back to David Rittenhouse.
MS66 NGC. Col. James W. Ellsworth (3/1923); John Work Garrett; Johns Hopkins University (Bowers and Ruddy, 3/1981), lot 2351; Superior (10/1989), lot 891; Superior (5/1990), lot 3550; Stack's (10/1995), lot 267; Bowers and Merena (8/2004), lot 1383. Note: This coin was graded Choice AU by Bowers and Ruddy in the Garrett sale, later certified by PCGS as MS63, and most recently graded MS66 by NGC.
MS65. Mid America (5/1987), lot 721; Superior (1/1990), lot 2354.
MS64 PCGS. Goldberg (1/2004), lot 1271.
MS64 PCGS. Bartlett Collection (Bowers and Ruddy, 11/1979), lot 2359; Bowers and Merena (9/1995), lot 1177; Bowers and Merena (1/2005), lot 327.
MS64 PCGS. Stack's (1/1992), lot 477; MS64 PCGS. Bowers and Merena (1/2002), lot 345; Bowers and Merena (7/2003), lot 565. Graded Gem Unc by Stack's, and AU58 PCGS when sold by Bowers and Merena in January 2002.
MS63 PCGS. Heritage (8/1995) lot 5941.
MS63 NGC. Pacific Coast (6/1988), lot 25; Heritage (11/2005), lot 2055.
MS63 NGC. Bowers and Merena (8/1987), lot 1498; RARCOA (7/1988), lot 1592; Heritage (6/2005), lot 5684. In 1987, Bowers and Merena graded this coin AU50.
MS63 NGC. Heritage (7/2005), lot 10144.
Gem Unc. Stack's (10/1988), lot 536.
Mint State. Elliot Landau Collection (New Netherlands, 12/1958), lot 344.
Mint State. Stearns Collection (Mayflower, 12/1966), lot 277.
AU58 PCGS. A.H. Baldwin & Sons (London, 1945); Pennsylvania Cabinet (James O. Sloss); Bowers and Merena (1/1999), lot 1010; American Numismatic Rarities (11/2004), lot 469.
AU58 PCGS. Bowers and Merena (3/1987), lot 582; Bowers and Merena (5/1992), lot 1708; Stack's (1/1993), lot 356; Superior (7/1993), lot 138.
AU58 PCGS. Superior (6/1997), lot 300; ANR (3/2005), lot 1551.
AU55. Abe Kosoff (5/1953); Norweb Collection (Bowers and Merena 11/1988), lot 3389; RARCOA (5/1992), lot 3.
AU55. Richard B. Winsor (S.H. & H. Chapman, 12/1895); J.M Clapp; Clapp Estate (1942); Louis E. Eliasberg, Sr.; Eliasberg Estate (Bowers and Merena, 5/1996), lot 883.
AU50. Henry Chapman; J.A. Beck (Kreisberg, 2/1976), lot 759; Bowers and Merena (9/1984), lot 1116.
AU50. Kagin's (8/1983), lot 283; Bowers and Merena (8/1987), lot 223; Stack's (11/1995), lot 1152; Goldberg (6/2000), lot 34.
AU50. Bowers and Merena (8/1989), lot 132.
AU50 PCGS. Bowers and Merena (11/1999), lot 253.
AU. Stack's (11/1989), lot 351.
AU. Stack's (4/1962), lot 876; Stack's (11/1974), lot 34; Stack's (7/1985), lot 1594.
AU. Laird U. Park Collection (Stack's, 5/1976), lot 202; Stack's (1/1989), lot 931.
VF35. Superior (6/1977), lot 282. This coin would probably grade AU in today's marketplace.
The following citations are for coins which may or may not be included in the roster above.
Metro Sale (Stack's, 5/1956), lot 215.
Wolfson Collection (Stack's, 5/1963), lot 415.
DiBello Collection (Stack's, 5/1970), lot 90.
Thomas Cleneay; John Story Jenks (Henry Chapman, 12/1921), lot 5568.
J.C. Morgenthau (6/1942) lot 26; Stack's (4/1978), lot 417.
Butterfield (1/1995), lot 2185.
Mickley Collection (W.E. Woodward, 10/1867), lot 2133; S.S. Crosby.
Roach Collection (B. Max Mehl, 2/1944), lot 2661.
Atwater Collection (B. Max Mehl, 6/1946), lot 1115. (PCGS# 11024)
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