With great pleasure we offer a truly superb, truly memorable example of one of America's most famous, most historic coins. It seems like only yesterday that we handled another Gem, the beautiful Cardinal Collection coin as part of our Americana Sale in January. Here we go again! Indeed, nice things do come in pairs. The offered half disme will be illustrated and featured in a new book by Dave Bowers that is now being written. Publication is scheduled for 2014. The work will give stories, insights, experiences, and more with various American coins, tokens, medals and paper money that Dave has handled or has found to be of special interest. More announcements will be made in due course.
Regarding the 1792 half disme, 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. The coins were struck with medallic alignment.
This is an exquisite example of one of the most famous, historic, and eagerly sought issues produced under the authority of the United States Mint. The technical quality and level of preservation are equally superb, and together they establish this premium Gem as one of the finest 1792 half dismes known to exist. As if this were not enough, in our experience the eye appeal is unsurpassed by any other in existence.
The strike is truly amazing , being sharp to full throughout the design. The central definition is particularly noteworthy, and we stress that virtually all of Liberty's hair curls on the obverse and at least 90% of the eagle's plumage on the reverse are full and crisp. Accuracy alone compels us to mention just a touch of softness to the four hair curls rendered in highest relief in the center of Liberty's portrait, as well as a corresponding (and equally minor) softness of strike in the center of the eagle's breast on the reverse. The eagle's breast itself is raised in full, rounded relief, and only a couple of faint planchet striations remain in that area. Striations are a common feature for 1792 half dismes, and they can be fairly numerous and quite noticeable on the typical softly struck specimen. The present example, however, is so well struck that the few striations present in the center of the reverse are only really discernible when the coin is examined with the aid of a loupe. So well struck is this coin, in fact, that our (Stack's) October 1985 catalog of the the Jimmy Hayes Collection asserts that this piece may have been struck twice as a special presentation piece, possibly for Mint Director David Rittenhouse himself. The fact that this coin has been traced back to the Rittenhouse family (see below) lends further support to this theory.
Most 1792 half dismes are also imperfectly centered on one or both sides with the denticles (and even some of the peripheral devices) partially or fully off the planchet. The present example, however, is superior in this regard as well. The obverse exhibits virtually perfect centering with nearly complete denticulation. The peripheral devices also exhibit complete, razor sharp definition right up to the border. The coin is superior in this regard to several other 1792 half dismes with which we are aware, including the Pittman specimen (David W. Akers, October 1997, lot 423), on which the tops of the letters PAR O are incomplete.
The impression on the reverse is drawn toward the 5 o'clock position and, thus, the denticulation is absent from 2 o'clock to 7 o'clock. This is a minor feature, to be sure, especially since most extant 1792 half dismes are struck slightly off center on the reverse, generally toward the 5 or 6 o'clock position, but occasionally toward the 10 or 11 o'clock position. We stress that all of the peripheral devices on the reverse of this coin are also fully and completely defined right up to the border -- further testament to the superior quality of strike that this coin possesses.
Regarding the luster quality of this coin, it is remarkable first and foremost for its quality, and then again because the coin has been preserved with enough care to allow us to appreciate the original finish in all its vibrancy. (Most surviving 1792 half dismes are impaired or worn to the point where the original finish is no longer evident.) Both sides exhibit a vibrant, satiny texture with modest, yet discernible semi-prooflike tendencies intermingled around the peripheries.
Neither the striking quality nor the luster on this coin would be so readily evident and fully appreciable were it not for the fact that this piece has been expertly preserved in all regards by its previous owners. The surfaces are completely original, as previously stated, the dominant toning a blend of light gray and dove gray that is a bit bolder on the obverse. Wisps of more vivid gold, blue and rose iridescence are also intermingled over both sides, but mostly on the obverse. The brightest colors are best appreciated when the coin is held at direct angles to a strong light source. There is not so much as a single distracting abrasion, as the premium Gem grade from PCGS suggests, and the only worthwhile pedigree marker is a minuscule planchet void (as made) in the left obverse field between the letter N in INDUSTRY and Liberty's neck. This feature is so small that it is only discernible with the aid of a loupe.
The finest known 1792 half dismes have been certified Specimen-67, MS-68, MS-67 and MS-66 by PCGS and NGC, these coins constituting the uppermost reaches of Condition Census for this historic early U.S. Mint issue. We have been able to establish the pedigrees for the following examples in this highly select group of numismatic rarities:
1 - PCGS Specimen-67. Ex: J.C. Morgenthau's "Great American" Sale (Virgil Brand), October 1993, lot 77; Floyd T. Starr, October 26, 1933, via J.G. Macallister; our (Stack's) sale of the Legendary Collection of Floyd T. Starr, October 1992, lot 4; Superior's Baltimore '93 Auction, July 1993, lot 137; Heritage's CSNS Signature Auction of April 2006, lot 1860; and Heritage's sale of the Greenboro Collection, Part II, January 2013, lot 5570.
2- PCGS MS-68. Ex: 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; George L. Tilden; Thomas Lindsay Elder's sale of the George L. Tilden Collection, June 1921, lot 2029; private collector; unnamed museum in New England, sold in the following sale; our (Stack's) sale of October 1988, lot 536; 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 Educational Foundation; and our sale of the Cardinal Collection, January 2013, lot 13093.
3 - PCGS MS-66. Ex: Dr. J. Hewitt Judd; Paramount's session of Auction '80, August 1980, lot 592; and our (Stack's) sale of the Jimmy Hayes Collection of United States Silver Coins, October 1985, lot 3. Dr. Judd reportedly traced this coin back to the family of David Rittenhouse, first director of the United States Mint. This coin was previously used as the plate coin for the 1792 half disme in both the popular reference A Guide Book of United States Coins by R.S. Yeoman and the specialized Judd pattern reference. The present example.
4 - NGC MS-66. Ex: Colonel James W. Ellsworth, March 1923; John Work Garrett; our (Bowers and Ruddy's) sale of the Garrett Collection, Part IV, March 1981, lot 2251; Superior's Jascha Heifetz Collection Sale, October 1989, lot 891; Superior's Father Flanagan's Boys Home Sale, May 1990, lot 3550; our (Stack's) 60th Anniversary Sale, October 1995, lot 267; and our (Bowers and Merena's) Rarities Sale of August 2004, lot 1383.
The Tradition and Romance of the 1792 Half Disme
The story of the 1792 half disme is well known, especially through the research and publication of information by Dr. Joel Orosz and Len Augsburger, whose recent book, The Secret History of the First U.S. Mint, is an essential addition to any numismatic library. Copies can be found on the Whitman Publishing Company website and at book sellers, a prime source for much information in our present text. Certain details were also given in "The 1792 Half Disme: America’s Most Distinctive Coin," a special essay by Augsburger, Orosz, and Pete Smith published in our January catalog.
It seems that in mid-July President Washington personally arranged for a supply of silver to be delivered to the Harper shop, where about 1,500 silver half dismes were struck one-by-one using a hand press. Nearly all of these were placed into circulation, where they found immediate use, as verified by most of the several hundred survivors today showing significant wear. Director Rittenhouse kept four personally, one of these being the coin showcased last January in our Cardinal Collection sale.
The historical significance of this issue was defined by none other than President Washington who, in his address to Congress on November 6, 1792, identified these coins as a regular coinage of the United States Mint. The requisite portion of the president's annual address is quoted:
"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. 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 dismes, the want of small coins in circulation calling the first attention to them."
What historical research has discovered has come from two main sources. The first is 1792 Memorandum Book by Thomas Jefferson, with two entries of particular interest to this issue. This is a personal journal of Jefferson's but no mention of these has been preserved in any official Mint documents known. Jefferson noted on July 11, 1792, "Delivd. 75 D. at the Mint to be coined." Since the site of the new Mint was being razed and had just been purchased a few days before, it is likely Jefferson refers to another location where the coinage would take place. Then following this entry is another two days later, dated July 13, 1792: "Recd. from the mint 1500. half dismes of the new coinage." Jefferson then left Philadelphia for Monticello, his home in Virginia. Jefferson's record makes no statement as to what he did with these half dismes -- did he spend them? Give them to the Mint for distribution? Did he hold onto them until he met with George Washington on October 1, 1792 at Mount Vernon? The written record is frustratingly silent. However, it would seem likely that "want of small coins in circulation" would have compelled Jefferson to get them there, rather than wait a few months to return the silver coins to Washington after such great lengths were accomplished to get these coined in July.
The second document is a Memorandum created in 1844 by John McAllister, Jr., a Philadelphia numismatist who summarized the reminiscences of Adam Eckfeldt, the retired second chief coiner of the U.S. Mint. Eckfeldt was in 1792 a part time contractor for the Mint. Although some portions of this Memorandum have been discounted as fanciful, other parts are likely accurate. 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 also part time contractor at the Mint. This Memorandum went on to say that 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 or in his home state of Virginia.
While Eckfeldt was right about the timing of the striking, and probably accurate about using John Harper's cellar, no one has ever found any hard evidence that Washington provided the silver or ever presented any of these half dismes to his friends. One would think a number would have survived with notations inscribed such as "Gift from President Washington, do not spend." As noted, most of these half dismes were spent around the time of issue, with many showing evidence of many years in circulation. A few were obviously saved and treasured, such as the present offering.
Although the McAllister Memorandum was not published until 1943, the gist of its contents was recounted in an article appearing in the February 6, 1853 issue of the Philadelphia Dispatch. The story quoted current Mint personnel Franklin Peale and William E. DuBois, respectively the successor and the son-in-law of the late Adam Eckfeldt. It was through this newspaper story that Eckfeldt's reminiscences first entered the consciousness of numismatists.
Although closely related to the 1792 "proposed coinage" of the United States Mint, and listed among them on pages 88-90 in the 2013 edition of the Guide Book, President Washington's address clearly establishes the 1792 half disme as a regular issue of the United States Mint. It is the first regular issue U.S. Mint coin, as such, evidence for which also comes from the fact that some 1,500 silver impressions were made -- far too high a mintage for a proposed (i.e., pattern) coin. Additionally, the 1792 half disme as an issue clearly circulated, and not only because Washington linked the production of these coins to a need for small change in commercial channels at that time. Most survivors of this issue are worn, some extensively, and it is obvious that many 1792 half dismes spent a considerable amount of time in circulation as coinage of the realm.
In addition to its historical significance as the first regular issue coin struck under authority of the United States Mint, the 1792 half disme enjoys such strong demand among advanced collectors due to a couple of popular stories attached to this issue. The first has it that George Washington himself provided some of his own silverware to be melted down and coined into these half dismes -- this from the Memorandum was picked up by the newspaper Philadelphia Dispatch in 1853. Another story suggests that the portrait of Liberty used on the obverse of these coins is a likeness of Washington's wife Martha. Neither has yet been proven, but have become a part of the mythology of our numismatic history.
The 1792 half disme is a fascinating coin, one that has attracted researchers over a long period of time, with Joel J. Orosz conducting perhaps the most extensive research, much of which has been published in The Numismatist and elsewhere in recent years. The designer and die cutter are thought to have been Robert Birch, who produced the motifs on contract. The appearance is quite similar to that used on the famous Birch pattern cents of the same year.
Just as the 1652 Pine Tree shilling variety Noe-1 is a candidate for being the "poster example" of an American colonial coin, perhaps the 1792 half disme would be ideal as such for a Philadelphia Mint coin. There is so much history in this piece that an hour-long presentation could be given concerning it, and still not all information would be given.
PCGS Population: just 2; with a further two finer, one certified MS-68 and the other Specimen-67. An entry for a Mint State-67 example that is still listed on the PCGS Population Report has now been certified MS-68 by the same service. That coin is the Cardinal Collection specimen listed above.
Ex: Dr. J. Hewitt Judd; Paramount's session of Auction '80, August 1980, lot 592; and our (Stack's) sale of the Jimmy Hayes Collection of United States Silver Coins, October 1985, lot 3. Dr. Judd reportedly traced this coin back to the family of David Rittenhouse, first director of the United States Mint. This coin was previously used as the plate coin for the 1792 half disme in both the popular reference A Guide Book of United States Coins by R.S. Yeoman and the specialized Judd pattern reference.