The rarity of the 1802 half dime is legendary. Few collectors ever have the opportunity to acquire one due to their rarity and cost. The original mintage of 3,060 pieces is suspect, likely much lower as the number of survivors mathematically does not compute with similar half dimes of this era. What is known today is that between 25 and 35 of these likely exist. Noted researcher David J. Davis listed all of the auction and fixed price appearances of 1802 half dimes in the reference work Federal Half Dimes 1792 - 1837 by Russell J. Logan and John W. McCloskey. Based on the known survival rates of 3 to 5 percent of silver coins of this early Federal era, the probable mintage of the 1802 half dime was in the 500 to 1,200 pieces range, with the balance reported struck for the year either dated 1801 or 1803. What is known today is that of the meager number of survivors about half are certified and reasonably wholesome, the other half are coins with varying degrees of problems. Uneven wear is the rule on this issue, with the left side always poorly struck and the obverse is often one or two grades finer in preservation. Thus several have little or no definition on the reverse when seen with more wear than this piece boasts.
The present example was likely a ground recovery at some point in the past. The surfaces are uniformly rough and have been cleaned to removed heavy patina or corrosion and remain bright silver today. For identification there are two pin scratches located over the 180 and below the bust, similar scratches above RTY of LIBERTY. Additionally there is a shallow dull dent behind and above Liberty's ear, a scratch down her cheek below her eye moving from higher on the left at approximately a 30 degree angle down toward her mouth, with another similar scratch at the same angle on her jaw. A dig is noted on the fifth obverse star on the upper right point. On the reverse there are a few shallow dents in the central shield area, another on the right leg of the eagle. Moderate surface scratches and roughness are present. However, despite these various handling marks the devices, date and the entire reverse is rather sharp other than a couple of stars over the eagle, these device features are commonly worn smooth or have significant challenges on most other survivors of this key date. Thus, on balance this is a more than presentable example for the specialist, as there is no question as to the genuineness and date of this coin, as these questions are laid to rest by any knowledgeable numismatist who examines these obvious attributes.
Listed as number 61 in the famous 100 Greatest U. S. Coins by Jeff Garrett and Ron Guth and one of the most important of the regularly issued coins for circulation in this selected reference. Many of these famous coins were restrikes or issued under special conditions, whereas the 1802 half dime was simply a low mintage date that circulated as intended. While the story of the 1802 half dime is less well known to the general public than some other coins, this rarity has been prized for 150 years among collectors. Owning an 1802 half dime has long been considered a hallmark of a great collection and we anticipate its fame to continue to grow as more research is published on this famous regular issue.
Numismatic Reflections by Q. David Bowers
In 1883 Harold P. Newlin, a Philadelphia attorney who was a frequent correspondent with T. Harrison Garrett, published a monograph on half dimes. He devoted extensive space to the 1802, listing and describing the coins known to him, and giving the opinion that it was the most desirable of all American silver rarities. None were restruck, none were made for numismatic purposes, none had any hint of being other than a circulating issue that in time became rare. Elsewhere, the half dime was honored in the pages of The Numismatist as being one of the "silver barons." This is one issue that does not exist in Mint State. The present coin, with its incredible pedigree, will be a showpiece in the cabinet of its next owner. For further appreciation locate a copy of our auction catalog of the Walter H. Childs Collection from 1999 and read about its previous owner.
From our (Bowers and Merena's) sale of the Walter H. Childs Collection, August 1999, lot 157.