Die Variety: A single set of dies was used to complete the entire mintage of approximately 1,500 pieces for the 1792 half disme. The obverse features a bust of Liberty with short, curly hair, the date 1792 in small digits immediately below the curved truncation of the bust. The legend LIB. PAR. OF SCIENCE & INDUSTRY is around the border, an abbreviation of "Liberty, parent of science and industry." On the reverse, a small eagle with spread wings faces to the left with the denomination HALF DISME and a single star below. The legend UNI. STATES OF AMERICA encircles most of the reverse periphery. All 1792 half dimes except for the unique copper impression (Judd-8) are struck in silver with a diagonally reeded edge.
Strike: The obverse is nicely centered within a boldly, near-evenly denticulated border. The detail is equally sharp both in the center and around the periphery. Most of Liberty's hair curls are fully delineated, and those that are not still display emerging to bold definition. The reverse is struck slightly off center and, being drawn toward the lower border, the denticles are not present in that area. This is a minor feature, to be sure, and one that we mention solely for accuracy, especially since most extant 1792 half dismes are also struck off center on the reverse in this manner. The detail throughout the rest of the reverse design ranges from bold to full, with most devices razor sharp and only a trace of softness to the detail of the eagle's breast in the center, with the breast itself raised in bold relief, but the feather detail indistinct at only the highest point.
Surfaces: This is the single finest certified 1792 half disme known to the major grading services, edging out the famous Floyd T. Starr specimen graded Specimen-67 by PCGS (which earlier had been graded Specimen-66 by PCGS and exhibits a noticeable vertical scratch in the left obverse field in front of Liberty's face). Both sides present a picture of numismatic beauty that combines expert striking quality and equally careful surface preservation. The luster quality on both sides is equally remarkable, the surfaces shimmering with a bright, satin to semi-prooflike texture as the coin rotates under a light. Much of the reflectivity is concentrated in the fields, and then again in the more protected areas around the peripheral lettering. There is not even a single distracting abrasion in evidence, and the surfaces even retain their pristine appearance when examined with the aid of a strong loupe. Closer inspection, however, does reveal several interesting features that are as struck, including faint traces of die rust in the reverse field and a few short, shallow planchet striations, also on the reverse. The most significant striations are present on the eagle's breast, a function of the aforementioned striking softness in this area, and features that will serve as useful pedigree markers as this coin changes hands through future transactions.
The vivid, multicolored toning that adorns both sides of this coin complements and accentuates its impressive technical aspects. In short, this is a beautiful coin with tremendous eye appeal. The dominant toning is a light, even, dove gray that quickly yields to target-like undertones of bright pink, gold and electric blue that flash into view as the surfaces rotate under a light. The pattern of toning and vividness of color suggest that this coin was stored in a Wayte Raymond album for many years, almost certainly during the early to mid-20th century by one or more of the previous owners.
Pedigree: David Rittenhouse, first director of the United States Mint; Rittenhouse family, kept within the family by Rittenhouse's descendants from July 1792 until sold in the following sale; Henry Chapman's October 1919 ANA Convention Auction, lot 249, where it realized $56; George L. Tilden; Thomas Lindsay Elder's sale of the George L. Tilden Collection, June 1921, lot 2029, where it realized $62; private collector, who apparently stored the coin in a Wayte Raymond album; unnamed museum in New England, sold in the following sale; our (Stack's) sale of October 1988, lot 536, where it realized $68,750; unknown intermediaries; dealer Jay Parrino, early 1990s, as agent for the following; the anonymous "Knoxville Collection," early 1990s to 2003; private collector, 2003 to January 2007; dealer Steve Contursi; January-July 2007; Cardinal Collection, acquired for $1,500,000.
Commentary: The 1792 half disme as an issue is among the most popular in all of U.S. numismatics, and it has received the impressive ranking of #18 in the important book 100 Greatest U.S. Coins by Jeff Garrett and Ron Guth. This remarkable and eye-catching Superb Gem is one of the finest preserved survivors and, as previously noted, it is the single finest certified example known to PCGS and NGC. With an impressive pedigree that extends directly back to David Rittenhouse, first director of the United States Mint, here is a coin that truly belongs in the finest numismatic cabinet.
Long recognized as one of the most historically significant and numismatically desirable coins associated with the founding of the United States Mint, the events surrounding the transfer of this coin between many of its subsequent owners form an interesting story in their own right. When examined by dealer Jay Parrino in the early 1990s, the coin's link to Mint Director Rittenhouse was unknown. Nevertheless, Parrino was so impressed with the coin's extraordinary condition that he selected it for inclusion as part of the now famous "Knoxville Collection." Specifically, Parrino felt that the coin was distinctly finer than the Starr specimen that was later certified Specimen-66, and then Specimen-67 by PCGS. His choice was vindicated when this coin was certified MS-68 by NGC in the fall of 2002 during preparations for marketing the "Knoxville Collection."
Also while preparing to market the "Knoxville Collection," Parrino made the decision to sell the collection intact. Before he could do so, however, he received an offer for the 1792 half disme from another private collector, a consummate numismatist and historian. Since the collector's offer was too good for Parrino to refuse, he sold the half disme separately, thus breaking up the "Knoxville Collection."
Dealer Steve Contursi eventually acquired the majority of the "Knoxville Collection" in 2003, without the 1792 half disme that had already been sold. In 2007, however, the private collector extended an offer to sell the half disme, allowing Contursi to finally acquire this coin and later place it with the Cardinal Collection Educational Foundation.
Among Cardinal Collection coins this ultra high grade 1792 silver half disme is one of the great highlights. We congratulate in advance the proud buyer of this American numismatic landmark.
THE 1792 HALF DISME
America's Most Distinctive Coin
By: Leonard Augsburger, Joel J. Orosz, and Pete Smith
The 1792 half disme is the most distinctive United States coin. It was the first coin struck under the authority of our federal Constitution, the only federal coin ever struck outside of an official U.S. Mint facility, the first federal coin placed into circulation, and the only one ever to bear a non-English word for its denomination. Struck a little more than three months after the April 2, 1792 Mint Act was passed, and only days after David Rittenhouse officially accepted his appointment as first director, it was literally created before the Mint on Philadelphia's North Seventh Street even existed.
Too busy making coins to appreciate that they were also making history, Rittenhouse and his chief coiner, Henry Voigt, kept no records of its creation, or at least none that have survived. Correspondence during the spring of 1792 between Rittenhouse and his two bosses -- President George Washington and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson -- discusses the purchase of the North Seventh Street property and the hiring of qualified craftsmen, but says nothing on the subject of half dismes beyond granting permission to strike them. Most of what we know about these coins thus comes from only two written sources: a Memorandum created in 1844, and two entries from a Memorandum Book recorded in 1792.
The 1844 Memorandum was authored by John McAllister, Jr., a Philadelphia numismatist, and summarized the reminiscences of Adam Eckfeldt, the retired second chief coiner of the U.S. Mint. In 1792, Eckfeldt was not yet a Mint employee, but was an occasional contractor. Like many other memoirs, this Memorandum is a mixed bag of the accurate and the questionable. Eckfeldt recalled that the half dismes were struck before the North Seventh Street Mint was opened, in the cellar of John Harper, a saw maker and sometime Mint contractor. Silver bullion or coin in the amount of $100 was provided by President Washington, and the half dismes were not struck for circulation, but rather for Washington's use as "presents" for friends in Europe and in his home state of Virginia.
Eckfeldt was certainly right about the timing of the striking, and probably correct about the work being done at Harper's cellar, but no one has found hard evidence that Washington provided the silver or ever presented a half disme to one of his friends. The extensive circulation displayed by the clear majority of the 300 or so surviving examples also belies Eckfeldt's memory that all were struck for presentation.
The McAllister Memorandum was not published until 1943, but the gist of its contents was recounted in an article appearing in the February 6, 1853 issue of the Philadelphia Dispatch. The story quoted Mint personnel Franklin Peale and William E. Dubois, respectively the successor and the son-in-law of the late Adam Eckfeldt, who had passed away precisely one year before. It was through this newspaper story that Eckfeldt's reminiscences first entered the consciousness of numismatists.
The 1792 Memorandum Book belonged to an authoritative source: Thomas Jefferson, the man responsible for the infant U.S. Mint. In this personal journal, under the date of July 11, 1792, Jefferson wrote: "Delivd. 75 D. at the Mint to be coined." Since the site of the Mint on North Seventh Street had been purchased just a few days before, and dilapidated structures on it were being razed as of July 11, the "Mint" Jefferson mentioned had to be located elsewhere: probably, as Eckfeldt recalled, in John Harper's cellar, located at the intersection of Cherry and North Sixth streets. That intersection no longer exists; it was obliterated late in the 20th century during the construction of the National Constitution Center. The earliest mention of actual Mint operations on North Seventh Street occurred on September 20, 1792, when the Mint solicited for old copper in Dunlap's American Daily Advertiser, using the Seventh Street address.
The second entry is dated July 13, 1792: "Recd. from the mint 1500. half dismes of the new coinage." Shortly after taking possession of nearly the entire mintage of half dismes, Jefferson left Philadelphia (then the nation's capital) to summer at his beloved home, Monticello. Did he take the half dismes with him? Did he give some or all of the 1,500 examples to President Washington when the two men met at Mount Vernon on October 1, 1792? The written record is frustratingly silent on these points.
It appears possible that somewhat more than 1,500 half dismes may have been struck, for Frank H. Stewart, in his 1924 History of the First United States Mint, printed a letter from George S. Gerhard, a great-grandson of David Rittenhouse, stating that the director's grandson, David Rittenhouse Sergeant, had inherited eight or nine Uncirculated half dismes. Stewart personally saw one of them: "Dr. Gerhard showed me an uncirculated…half disme wrapped in tissue paper and told me that it had not been out of the hands of his family since it was coined when David Rittenhouse was the Director of the Mint." Clearly, Rittenhouse reserved a number of half dismes at the time of striking. Perhaps it was actually Rittenhouse, not Washington, who made "presents" of some half dismes to his friends.
Despite all that we know, there remain many mysteries about this first American coin. Who was the designer? Who was the diesinker? Did Washington truly provide the silver? Why did Jefferson record the striking not in official State Department documents, but rather "off the books" in his personal Memorandum Book? The authors of this commentary are currently conducting research seeking to answer these questions, as part of an examination of the entire range of the coinage created by the Mint in 1792. The book, to be titled 1792: Birth of a Nation's Coinage, will examine the cent patterns including the silver center cent, the Birch cent, the half dismes, the dismes, and the Joseph Wright eagle-on-globe quarter patterns, and share those answers, if indeed there are definitive answers to be found.
We will close by adding one other distinction to the long list already possessed by this most distinctive of all U.S. coins, the 1792 half disme. Whether or not it ultimately proves to be true that George Washington provided the silver from which they were struck, the two entries in Thomas Jefferson's Memorandum Book make it clear that the man who was to become the third president personally delivered the bullion to Harper’s cellar on July 11, 1792, and then, two days later, personally took delivery of 1,500 struck coins. It is often said that coins are history that you can hold in your hands. In the case of 1792 half dismes, your hands can hold the same coin that once was held by hands that changed the course of history. If there exists a United States coin endowed with greater historical significance, we have yet to see it.
Combined PCGS and NGC Population: only 1; and none are finer. The highest graded 1792 half disme listed at PCGS is the Specimen-67 pedigreed to the Floyd T. Starr Collection.
From the Cardinal Collection Educational Foundation.