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    Description

    1792 Half Disme, Judd-7, MS63+
    Historic Example of America's First Federal Coinage
    Unseen at Auction in 60 Years

    1792 H10C Half Disme, Judd-7, Pollock-7, R.4, MS63+ PCGS Secure. Ex: Landau-Wild-Weinberg. In many ways, the 1792 half disme stands alone within the list of five historic patterns that define the formative year of the Philadelphia Mint. It is not the rarest issue (by far) of the 1792 proposed coinage, which includes other legendary and ultra-rare patterns such as the Silver Center cent, Birch cent, disme, and 1792 quarter dollar. Still, the half disme is perhaps the most significant of the five 1792 issues, because it is the only 1792 denomination struck in large enough quantity to claim status as a circulation strike. It alone was chosen to test public acceptance in a large forum, and it was clearly a "trial balloon" in the politically charged business of minting federal coinage.

    As suggested in 1792: Birth of a Nation's Coinage by Pete Smith, Joel Orosz, and Leonard Augsburger, the half disme was "a coinage orphan before its parents were born." It was intended as a small change denomination in a system built around dismes, quarters, half dollars, and dollars. But the child preceded its parents, and the nature of its existence has been questioned ever since. Is it a pattern, a trial piece, or America's first coin struck for circulation?

    Rapid-Fire Events
    The fact that only five days passed from the initial written proposal for mintage by Mint Director David Rittenhouse until the first 1,500 coins exited the primitive screw press in John Harper's basement is nothing short of amazing. The 1792 events authorizing the issue's mintage moved at lightning speed. On July 9, Rittenhouse hired Henry Voigt and other workmen to perform mint operations. He also purchased (on account) the land to house a new mint. The same day, he wrote George Washington, requesting permission to "Coin some Copper Cents & half Cents, and likewise small Silver, at least Dismes & half Dismes." Washington responded immediately that day, giving his approval.

    A day later, funds were approved for the proposed Mint building and lot, as well as for the purchase of 15 tons of copper, plus the necessary funds to pay for building repairs and workmen's wages. The rapidity of events suggests that the highest levels of the government (i.e. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton) already had a detailed plan with David Rittenhouse to expedite what was, in effect, the nation's first federal coinage.

    Thomas Jefferson's personal records confirm he delivered $75 in silver bullion (most likely Spanish colonial coins) to the Mint on July 11, 1792, and received 1,500 freshly struck half dismes on July 13. It is still a matter of debate whether that deposit was indeed used to produce actual planchets for the inaugural mintage of half dismes. If so, the silver would have required melting, formation into bars, rolling, and punching into blank flans within a two-day period, without any allowance for spoilage. Specialized equipment was required to apply the edge device. We wonder if finished planchets were already on hand and ready for the first striking of 1792 half dismes. Certainly, the dies were prepared beforehand and poised for the event. All in all, the initial mintage of 1792 half dismes has the feel of a carefully orchestrated covert operation. It was carried out with little fanfare, away from the prying eyes of Congress, and without scrutiny from political and private interests that may have delayed things.

    Patterns or Circulation Strikes
    The initial production of 1,500 pieces hardly qualifies as a meaningful mintage in terms of having any impact on the nation's commerce -- even in 1792. Still, it is too large a mintage to be a normal pattern. More importantly, the half disme was the Mint's first official coinage with documented distribution to the public. That fact is confirmed by the careful "income and expense" financial records kept by Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson had the entire 1,500-piece first mintage of 1792 half dismes in his possession, most of which he placed into circulation through normal day-to-day transactions and gifts. As such, the prototype mintage must be considered as coins struck for circulation, which is how the coins are described by Thomas Jefferson and George Washington in public comments several months after the coins were struck.

    Current research suggests a second half disme striking period (and possibly a third) in October 1792 or later, when new coin presses were installed at the newly opened Philadelphia Mint on North Seventh Street. Struck from a later die state with rusted dies and associated roughness in the fields, these later striking-period coins may have functioned more like patterns, distributed to dignitaries and government officials -- a theory substantiated by the late die state's greater survival rate in high grades. The present coin is clearly one of the later strikes (October 9, 1792 or later).

    Alan Weinberg's Commentary:
    "Called a 'Gem' by Walter Breen and John Ford in their New Netherlands 1958 auction of the Elliott Landau Collection and occupying half a catalogue page, Landau was described as the first collector who recognized and paid a premium for superb condition coins. Back then, there was simply Uncirculated and one Unc coin sold at the same price as another Unc until Landau ... Bill Wild of NYC, all 6' 5" and 175 lbs of him, bought this and put it up as loan collateral several times as his taste in top quality coins always surpassed his wallet. He later bought the superb finest known prooflike 1796 quarter out of the Stacks Philip Holmes 1960 auction for an unprecedented $3K when the market was $2K. I acquired this from Bill's widow Mary along with many of his other colonial coins."

    Physical Description
    Plus-graded by PCGS for its high-end quality and outstanding eye appeal, this Select Uncirculated half disme is richly toned in iridescent shades that range from gunmetal-blue to antique-gold, supported by soft mint luster that glows beneath the attractive toning on both sides. Struck in medal turn, we note brief softness of strike on the eagle's breast and over the central portrait. Some parallel roller marks exist at the chin and neck, often seen on other 1792 half dimes, where the screw press strike was incomplete. According to 1792: Birth of a Nation's Coinage, these lines are not adjustment marks, but striations imparted to the unstruck planchet that were not fully eliminated by strike. Two or three light abrasions intersect with some of the lines at a different angle on Liberty's cheek, visible with a loupe. There are no other marks of note. The coin's late strike is confirmed by isolated evidence of die rust and light pitting, with a network of faint die cracks on the right reverse that indicate an advanced die state. We gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Pete Smith, Len Augsburger, and Joel Orosz, who have confirmed the coin is struck from Die State 5.

    One of the most interesting features of this coin is the "third side" -- the edge -- which is difficult to view in the three-pronged holder. It may be an anomaly among other examples of the issue, associated with its late striking period. Typically, 1792 half dismes are described as having a diagonally reeded edge, resembling the edge pattern created by a series of backslash-like lines [\\\\\\\\\\\\]. Under magnification, this example shows vertical milling (reeding), perhaps struck over a diagonally reeded edge.

    The diagonal edge device was most likely done by a Castaing machine, applied to the blank planchets before they were struck. Possibly, extra planchets were carried over to a later striking period, with the edge overstruck with vertical reeding. The plastic PCGS holder distorts viewing of the edge with accuracy, and we encourage the fortunate purchaser of this coin to ask PCGS to remove it from the slab and photograph the edge before re-slabbing, which will confirm its important edge design.

    According to our unofficial roster of highly graded 1792 half dismes, the Weinberg specimen ranks well within the top two dozen pieces known, most of which are closely held in advanced collections. Its appeal transcends many collecting interests, and we expect spirited bidding when the lot is called.
    Ex: Elliot Landau Collection (New Netherlands, 12/1958), lot 344; William Wild Collection; Mary Wild to Alan Weinberg (1/31/1981).
    From The Alan V. Weinberg Collection, Part I.(Registry values: P9)

    Coin Index Numbers: (NGC ID# 22ZS, PCGS# 11020)


    View all of [The Alan V. Weinberg Collection, Part I ]

    View Certification Details from PCGS

    Auction Info

    Auction Dates
    January, 2019
    9th-14th Wednesday-Monday
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    Numismatic Background and Census of 1802 Half Dimes: A Classic American Rarity
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