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Early half dimes worth exploring?

 

If you are like most collectors, chances are you have never seen a half dime unless you happened to see them in an exhibit at a coin show or on display at the museum.

Actually holding one? Forget it. They were long gone before the circulation finds era heyday and that was how many collectors got up close and personal with their coins.

To average collectors, early half dimes have probably seemed far removed from their lives, breaking in only when the top 1792 half disme brings $1.3 million in a Heritage auction.

That price alone is enough to make anyone think about half dimes for five minutes, but more likely than not, the high price will scare them more than inspire them. Most collectors cannot afford million dollar coins.

Perhaps we can think about them in a less threatening way. Early half dimes of the United States are some of the most interesting and historical issues of the United States.They may not get a lot of publicity, but they are a great collection and a great way to study American numismatic history.

There are other reasons for modern collectors to overlook early half dimes. They are small in size and not the sort of coins that you see promoted as there are too few to promote. Of course, that means they tend to be expensive and many times are tough if not impossible to find in the grades collectors might like.

A limited demand, however, has a bright side and that means that while costly, in some cases if you check and see precisely how many examples of certain dates are known, you can rapidly come to the conclusion that early half dimes in many instances are excellent values.

Approaching early half dimes does require that you be realistic. There are not going to be examples regularly offered in grades like MS-67 in large part because they were never saved in any numbers and because the early United States Mint was simply not capable of producing many coins in such grades at the time they were struck. Even so, some collectors will take up the challenge and find that collecting early half dimes is a great experience and a lot of fun.

The importance of the half dime is sometimes not understood today. The nickel did not exist before 1866. The 5-cent denomination of the Founding Fathers was a tiny silver coin of 16.5 millimeters. This is smaller than the 17.9mm modern dime, which is the smallest current U.S. coin denomination.

The half dime was such a low denomination that the Americans of the time could put it to a lot of use. Consequently there was a lot of concern that the nation had a sufficient supply of small silver issues like half dimes. The Mint Act of April 2, 1792, authorized various denominations and the ink was barely dry when it appears that someone was trying to produce half dimes.

It was a difficult situation as once the authorizations were approved the first step was to get a mint. There was no United States Mint. The construction process was going to take time and apparently there was some feeling that the first coins were needed right away.

Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson was working on getting the first United States Mint up and running, but at the same time it seems that he had at least a small role in producing the first half dimes, which were produced before the Philadelphia Mint was ready.

The 1792 half disme, which topped the $1 million mark in the case of perhaps the finest known example, is a coin that will probably always be covered in mystery. Questions are many and facts are few. Certainly the 1792 half disme at least based on the lack of a Mint and the fact that the law required that its future officials post large bonds before producing gold or silver coins could not be seen as a coin that was likely to reach the public quickly.

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If those hurdles were not enough, where would the government get the silver for coinage?

The Founding Fathers were nothing if not inventive. The source of the silver for the 1792 half disme is one of many interesting parts to its story. In his book, The U.S. Mint and Coinage author Don Taxay includes a written account of a Jonas McClintock who reportedly conducted an interview with Adam Eckfeldt, a longtime official and employee at the early Mint. The discussion included the 1792 half disme where McClintock is quoted saying, “In conversation with Mr. Adam Eckfeldt today at the Mint, he informed me that the half dismes above described were struck at the request of Gen. Washington to the extent of One Hundred Dollars which sum he deposited in Bullion or Specie for the purpose.”

Even if the story is true, it is just one source although certainly Washington had the financial means and like any other American at the time he was perfectly within his rights to make a private issue. The likely place where the half dismes were made would have been at the corner of Cherry and 6th Streets in Philadelphia in the basement of a sawmaker by the name of John Harper as that place had become something of an unofficial mint at the time.

The 1792 half dismes showed the involvement of other well-known figures as they appear to have been the work of Robert Birch who was credited with a similar 1792 cent. Legend has it that the reverse represents Martha Washington from a Trumbull painting but that also is suspect.

The use of the 1792 half disme is also an interesting matter. McClintock recounted that Eckfeldt suggested Washington, “Distributed them as presents – some were sent to Europe but the greater number of them be believes, were given to acquaintances in Virginia – No more of them were coined except those for Gen. W – they were never designed as currency – the Mint at the time was not fully ready for going into operation.”

In some respects that would suggest that the 1792 was closer to a souvenir or presentation piece coming directly from Washington, in short, a private issue produced by people who happened to be close to or in the government at the time.
Washington, however, added an interesting twist to the matter when he addressed the Congress on Nov. 6, 1792, when he stated, “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.”

Another who weighed in on the matter was Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson who was responsible for the Mint and Jefferson sided with Washington, writing in his accounts on July 13, 1792, “rec’d from the mint 1,500 half dismes of the new coinage.”

The references to the 1792 half disme by both Washington and Jefferson raise a number of fascinating considerations. In a strict sense they were clearly wrong but despite the fact that there was no official mint and a host of legal problems with considering the 1792 half dismes to be official coins, it appears that both saw them as coins and its hard to argue against Washington and Jefferson.

Moreover, remember Washington informed the Congress about the issue and if there was ever an appropriate time for someone to object that Washington was running around making his own coins and claiming they were official that was certainly the time, yet Washington’s announcement that they were coins was allowed to stand without objection suggesting that the 1792 half disme was seen as an official coin.

It is hard to draw any conclusion from the fact that some examples of the 1792 actually circulated. That was no significant achievement as a little bit of everything at the time was in circulation from foreign coins to tokens and probably a host of other items. So the 1792 half disme while perhaps attracting a bit of attention would have had no problem circulating.

The accounts regarding the mintage also raise questions. Jefferson reported the receipt of 1,500 half dismes, which is $75. Unfortunately we are not precisely sure what he did with the coins. Meanwhile Eckfeldt claimed Washington had deposited $100, which should have resulted in 2,000 coins. We cannot be sure if the missing 500 coins were perhaps the ones Washington was cheerfully passing out to friends and shipping to Europe or not. It appears that no one was upset so we have to conclude even though the amounts do not balance today they did at the time.

Unfortunately, we cannot answer so many questions and were not around to see the father of the country strolling down the street passing out half dismes, but we collectors today still have a surprising number of the 1,500 or 2,000 or whatever number to enjoy. Certainly any 1792 half disme is a special item.

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The combined total seen by the Professional Coin Grading Service and Numismatic Guaranty Corporation is regularly increasing with a total now around 100 in grades from VG-8 to Mint State. The diversity proves they did circulate with prices today starting close to $10,000 in AG-3 and $115,000 in XF-40.

The 1792 half disme alone raises enough issues for a book, but the dates that followed would also leave us with a number of other issues to be considered and questions to be answered.

The Mint was unable to attempt any silver or gold issues in 1793 when it was ready to begin operations. The problem at the time was simply that the officials would not post the required bond. While Thomas Jefferson tried to sort out that problem, the facility only produced copper half cents and large cents.

The bond problem was solved in 1794 and the facility could turn to silver issues. The half dime, however, was not the first denomination as despite the fact that the machinery was not able to produce coins larger than a half dollar it was decided to make silver dollars, anyway. That idea came back to haunt whoever was responsible as the silver dollar delivery was a mere 1,758 pieces. How many were attempted we will probably never know, but no one believes the idea was to make exactly 1,758, meaning a significant number were probably rejected.

Half dollars were next and that went better, although the total number produced was still under 25,000 pieces. The half dime was the third silver denomination to be tackled. By that time the year was drawing to a close.

We do not honestly know if any half dimes were actually struck in 1794 or not. We know some carried the date, but we also know none was delivered that year, which raises suspicions they were not produced until 1795. In addition there were no half dimes reported as produced in 1794. The first delivery was on March 15, 1795, and four more deliveries followed with the total for the year standing at 86,416, with some having a 1794 date while others were dated 1795.

With a combined mintage of less than 100,000 it is easy to conclude that either the 1794 or 1795 will be tough and they are with the 1794 currently listed at $1,325 in G-4 while the 1795 is listed at $1,050 in the same grade. Those prices have been rising in recent years. In MS-60 the 1794 is at $19,850 while the 1795 lists for $13,850 and they are also higher levels than in the late 1990s when the 1794 was just $8,500 while the 1795 was $5,050. Such classic American rarities tend to make good investments.

Trying to determine how that 86,000 or so total half dime mintage of 1795 might be divided between the two dates is a real adventure. The grading services actually help to a degree in that at the Professional Coin Grading Service and the Numismatic Guaranty Corporation the 1794 has appeared over 220 times while the 1795 is now around 620. Of course, the totals are always changing and are not perfect simply because some coins are never submitted and others are sent in more than once. Despite those flaws, the relative numbers are likely to be fairly close to accurate proportions, suggesting that the 1794 mintage might well have been on the order of 20,000 with the rest being dated 1795. Whatever their totals, the two are certainly important type coins as they are the only two to have the Robert Scot Flowing Hair design.

The next half dime would carry a Draped Bust obverse and small eagle reverse and would only be in use for 1796 and 1797. Interestingly enough, the combined total for the two years is actually lower than the total for the 1794 and 1795. The 1796 had a mintage of just 10,230 while the 1797 was put at 44,527. Despite the mintage difference the two are priced at roughly $1,000 each in G-4 which basically reflects a lack of demand as there is little doubt the 1796 is the tougher of the two. The 1797 is more available in MS-60 at $19,500 up sharply from $5,650 in 1998 and $6,500 in 2002 while the 1796 is $19,500 in MS-60. There are varieties of both dates.

Realistically, there are very few Mint State examples of either year and those that there are oftentimes will have one area of weakness. The type is tough with NGC reporting about 125 examples of the two combined, with the 1797 being about 75 percent of the total while PCGS reports 77 examples of the 1796 and 227 of the 1797.

There should have been heavy half dime mintages during the period that followed as the denomination was needed but there was no half dime production in 1798 and 1799. The Mint was stuck with a policy that worked against producing the coins needed to solve the national coin shortage. People were allowed to pick the denomination to be made from their metal and they almost always picked upper denominations, so dollars were produced and half dimes were not.

The problem was the nation’s day-to-day commerce needed half dimes and the dollars were frequently exported.

The next half dime would be the 1800, which would feature a new design with the reverse featuring a Heraldic eagle. The type would last through 1805, which makes it more available as a type coin, although the highest mintage, the 1803 at 37,850 pieces, could hardly be called readily available. The most available examples of the type lists for around $1,000 in G-4 and that is the 1800 not the highest mintage 1803. The 1800 is also being the least expensive MS-60 at $13,850. It should be noted that you can find Mint State examples although they are certainly not numerous, but more often than not under close inspection you will find at least one area weakly struck.

The date of the period that is really tough is the 1802, which had a listed mintage of 3,060 and which appears to be at least that tough. If the 1802 was a Saint-Gaudens double eagle or other coin that receives a lot of publicity it might well be on the verge of a million dollar price. It does not, however, get much attention, but it had not only a low mintage but a terrible survival rate. The first example ever offered for sale appears to have been 1863 at which time the suggestion was only a few were known. Walter Breen would later suggest there might be 35-45, but that appears to be wildly optimistic.

At last check NGC has graded a grand total of three examples of the 1802 and all three turned out to be AU-50. At PCGS they report nine examples with a wide spread in terms of grades, with most being lower circulated grades along with a single AU-55.

Even if we assume there are perhaps another dozen that have never been sent in for grading, which seems unlikely, the 1802 has a total survivorship well below the Breen estimates – in fact close to 50 percent of the estimates and that is being generous. Moreover, that total known puts it in a class with some of the significant rarities and worthy of very high prices especially if you find one of the better examples. While a $44,500 G-4 might be a good deal, today’s $375,000 AU-50 listing would almost certainly be simply shattered if a few more collectors would become active in half dimes.

The half dime after 1805 was not made again until 1829 and that gap in production is virtually impossible to explain. The coins were needed but never produced and this is in the period where the production of silver dollars and gold eagles was suspended, too.

When the half dime did return to production the 1829 would feature a William Kneass Capped Liberty design.There would also be far higher mintages with the lowest mintage of the type being the 1832 at 965,000 pieces. That means far lower prices. A G-4 is $55 and an available date starts around $47.50 for 1830 and later pieces. An MS-60 will be roughly $350 at the cheapest and an MS-65 at $3,150.

While certainly more available than the earlier dates, do not be confused as the half dimes of the period are not common. The top mintage was just 2,760,000 and that was the 1835, with the total being split between small and large “5C” varieties. Most of the other dates fall in the 1-1.5 million range and certainly the vast majority did not survive.
It is probably not reasonable to expect many collectors to start collecting half dimes today, but perhaps a few will decide that spending $2,000-$3,000 for a prize 1794 in the fine to very fine range is not out of the question.
After all, that cost looks downright cheap when compared to the other silver coins of 1794.

Once that door is opened a collector today has a lot of options with early half dimes as almost all dates with the possible exception of the 1802 are available at least in circulated grades. And certainly with the 1829 and later issues, prices come down dramatically.

With their small numbers, any early half dime is a good value. If you have a good prospect of doubling or tripling what you buy while you own it, the initial price outlay seems all the more reasonable.

The best part of half dimes, as with all coins, is you can study them, learn their history and have a great deal of fun obtaining an excellent education.

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