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    Description

    1792 Half Disme, Judd-8, AU55
    Unique Copper Example

    1792 DTH10C Half Disme, Judd-8, Pollock-8 AU55 NGC. CAC. 18.2 grains. One of the most discussed pieces in the entire United States series, the 1792 half disme is a perennial collector favorite. There are approximately 250 extant silver half dismes, but only one in copper. This is that coin. Of the 12 coins in the Partrick 1792 pattern set, three are unique, and two more represent the only examples available to the collecting public. The present coin combines the highest rarity with the history of the first coin struck for circulation by the nascent Mint.

    The 1792 Half Disme
    The 1792 half disme is the best chronicled of the 1792 coinage. The week of July 9, 1792, brought a flurry of activity to the Mint. Rittenhouse summarized the current situation in correspondence to George Washington on Monday, July 9:

    "On consulting the Secretary of State I find that some of the Officers for the Mint are still expected from Europe. This will occasion further delay, at least as to going generally into coining. But as small money is very much wanted we think proper, in the mean time, if your Excellency approves it, to coin some copper cents and half cents, and likewise some small silver, at least dimes and half dimes. I have purchased on account of the United States, a House & Lot which I hope will be found convenient for the Mint, but considerable alterations must be made, and some small new buildings erected. I have likewise engaged Mr. Voight to act as Coiner, and he has several workmen now employed in making the necessary engines, and preparing the dies..."



    Rittenhouse was ready to get to work. All that remained was the President's authorization. There was no email in 1792, but Washington nonetheless responded the same day:

    "Having had under consideration the letter of the Director of the Mint of this day's date, I hereby declare my approbation of the purchase he had made of the house and lot for the Mint, of the employment of Mr. Voight as Coiner [Washington formally commissioned Voight as Chief Coiner on January 29, 1793], of the procuring fifteen tons of copper, and proceeding to coin the cents and half cents of copper and dismes and half dismes of silver..."



    On Wednesday, July 11, the Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson made a deposit at the Mint. Jefferson's account book reads "Delivd. 75 D. at the mint to be coined." Precisely what Jefferson delivered is a matter of debate. Speculation has suggested Spanish dollars, George Washington's household silver plate, or finished planchets ready to be coined immediately. The salient point is that Jefferson delivered something and expected coins in return. Two days later, they were ready. On Friday, July 13, Jefferson noted in his account book "Recd. from the mint 1500 half dismes of the new coinage." The very next entry is "Set out for Monticello." Over the next nine days, during Jefferson's journey, he recorded more than 20 small transactions denominated in multiples of half dismes. The entries mentioning children are the most charming. Among these are "A child .05," or "[at] Adams's a child .05." Elsewhere, servants received 15, 30, 35, 40, 50, or 60 cents, barbers 15 or 20 cents, and, on July 19, Jefferson purchased "grog" for 15 cents. Quartered pistareens also passed at 5 cents, but it seems much more likely that Jefferson was distributing half dismes, and it is not hard to imagine that he remarked upon the new coinage as it was dispensed here and there.

    In Washington's fourth annual message to Congress, delivered November 6, 1792, he stated:

    "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 for 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-dismes; the want of small coins in circulation calling the first attention to them."



    The intentions of the principals are clear. Rittenhouse and Washington both referred to half dismes in the context of addressing the need for small, circulating coin. Jefferson called it "the new coinage" in writing, and then proceeded to use the half dismes in everyday commerce. The three most important individuals in the formation of the Mint thus thought of these coins as circulating money - and yet, numismatic tradition calls them patterns. In analyzing this contradiction, one must consider what numismatists knew, and when they knew it. The Jefferson account book was unknown as a numismatic source until 1966 when Don Taxay first referenced it in The U.S. Mint and Coinage. In 2003, Joel Orosz and Carl Herkowitz mined additional data from the account book in their article "George Washington and America's 'Small Beginning' in Coinage: The Fabled 1792 Half Dismes." Additionally, modern researchers have ready access to the papers of many early American political figures, as this material has come online in recent years.

    In contrast, many of the earliest numismatic sources referencing the 1792 half disme are based on oral history. In 1844, the Philadelphia antiquarian John McAllister visited the retired Chief Coiner Adam Eckfeldt at the Mint and recorded the highlights of their discussion:

    "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 McAllister memorandum was largely echoed in William E. Dubois' Pledges of History (1846), a volume that described the contents of the Mint Cabinet. Dubois was a son-in-law of Eckfeldt, and it is reasonable to assume he received his information from the same source as McAllister. The Philadelphia Dispatch followed suit in 1853 as they published a series of articles on the Mint and credited Edward C. Dale, Franklin Peale, Jacob R. Eckfeldt (son of Adam Eckfeldt) and William E. Dubois for information. Although Adam Eckfeldt died in 1852, these individuals had close ties to him and no doubt simply repeated Eckfeldt's version of the half disme history. Montroville W. Dickeson's American Numismatical Manual (1859) formally classified the half disme as a pattern. The work was influential, and succeeding authors simply agreed. Today, the Judd pattern listing still includes the coin, albeit with the disclaimer:

    "Although the 1792 silver half disme has been called a pattern and designated as J-7, it is most assuredly a coin made for general circulation. This is confirmed by the significant wear of such coins in existence today."



    A Chinese proverb states that the palest ink is better than the strongest memory. Today's researchers struggle to reconcile the documentation from the 1790s with the recollections of Adam Eckfeldt as recorded in the 1840s and 1850s. In some cases this is straightforward. Eckfeldt indicated that many coins were presents. Modern census data tends to corroborate this. The surviving population is disproportionately large, and the grading distribution demonstrates an unusually high number of high-grade examples. For an 18th century coin, this is exceptional. Clearly, many coins were considered special and preserved as such. But Eckfeldt's claim that the half dismes were not intended as "currency" is more difficult to align with the facts. Washington and Rittenhouse thought of the coin in terms of circulation, while Jefferson referred to them as the "new coinage" and almost certainly used them as such. The coins themselves tell us they were well used in commerce.

    Eckfeldt's lack of knowledge concerning the circulation patterns of the half disme can be rationalized, but his claims associating the coins with Washington are a stumbling block. The best documentation points to Jefferson, and Rittenhouse has also been suggested as a possibility for the original source of the bullion used to coin the silver half dismes. This is a mystery that continues to perplex researchers. The current explosion of digitization and online resources will only help to resolve the question, but for now the riddle remains one of the greatest in American numismatics.

    While the silver half disme (Judd-7) is rightly considered a regular issue of the Mint, the copper half disme (Judd-8) is decidedly a pattern, a trial in copper preceding the silver strikes. All of the 1792 designs (with the exception of the G?W.PT. Birch cent reverse) are known in copper. The Mint stayed on course in 1794 and produced five distinct designs as copper patterns. Many of these early patterns are unique or nearly so; indeed, when Frank Stewart discovered, during the demolition of the first United States Mint, a 1795 copper half dime, the known population was doubled. The 1792 copper half disme is one of the unique issues of this early pattern coinage, and, when combined with the mythology of the silver half disme, extraordinarily desirable as such.

    Pedigree of the Unique 1792 Copper Half Disme
    AU55 NGC. Joseph J. Mickley (Mason & Co., 11/1878), lot 348, realized $9; Lorin G. Parmelee (New York Coin and Stamp, 6/1890), lot 4, realized $13; Charles Morris (S.H. and H. Chapman, 4/1905), lot 360, realized $12; Waldo Newcomer; Major Lenox Lohr (Empire Coin Company FPL, c. 1961), offered at $9,750; Hazen B. Hinman (Paramount Century, 4/1965), lot 51, realized $2,800; John L. Roper, 2nd (Stack's, 12/1983), lot 428, realized $20,900; Donald Groves Partrick. The present coin.

    Physical Appearance
    This coin exhibits medium brown color with occasional contrasting highlights in Liberty's lower curls and portions of the obverse lettering. There are no marks of note apart from a small planchet flaw on Liberty's cheek. The extremities of the strike are soft on the left obverse, and cause weakness in the dentils and tops of the letters. The catalogers suggest that the softness of strike, rather than wear, gives the appearance of light circulation. Both the obverse and reverse present smooth surfaces blanketed with even toning. This coin has a plain edge, as opposed to the diagonal reeding used on the silver half dismes. The die orientation is 350 degrees, or close to medal alignment. The allure of the present offering is difficult to overstate. It is a unique pattern, impressed by the same dies used to strike the first coins issued by the United States for circulation. George Washington's "small beginning in the coinage" began with this very coin. The foundering steps of the fledgling Mint, Jefferson's symbol of sovereignty, are embodied in this enchanting piece of copper. History has chosen to preserve this treasure, and history will again be made as it passes under the hammer for the first time in a generation.

    Coin Index Numbers: (PCGS# 11021)


    Learn more at the Newman Numismatic Portal at Washington University in St. Louis.

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