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Half dimes trace roots to pre-Mint workshop

gre0408a-1.jpgIt would be difficult to pick out one coin of the United States as being the most historic. After all, you have the first 1793 Chain reverse cent, which ranks as the first coin made inside the brand-new U.S. Mint, or the first dollar of the United States, the 1794. There is an awfully good case to be made, though, for the 1792 half dime, normally called the half disme.

While not technically a coin produced in the U.S. Mint facility, it is still a coin that was of great interest to the likes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Moreover, the 1792 was the first of an interesting group of early half dimes that make for a fascinating collection in terms of good values and great historical interest.

It all started with the 1792. What we know of the situation is limited. We know that on April 2, 1792, the first Mint Act was approved and it included the denominations that were to be the official coins of the United States. One of those denominations was a silver half disme. At the time, however, there was going to be no production as there was not even a U.S. Mint. Thomas Jefferson as secretary of State was at the time responsible for a mint and he began the project of finding and outfitting a facility.

Every day, however, was precious as the new United States had a severe coin shortage. Commerce was being conducted, but with the coins of other lands and whatever else the people could agree on using. From those confused times a 1792 half disme would emerge. The best description of precisely what the 1792 represents is that it was a federal issue authorized by Congress but made outside the U.S. Mint.

We know the 1792 half disme was produced shortly after denominations had been first authorized. It was a time when Jefferson was busy getting the first U.S. Mint up and ready for business. At that time, in place of a real Mint, it appears that the closest thing to an official facility was located in a building on the corner of 6th and Cherry streets in Philadelphia where a man by the name of John Harper was a sawmaker in his day job and the U.S. Mint at night and on his days off. It might sound woefully unofficial but Jefferson even once called this operation ?the mint,? and there was no more official alternative at the time.

gre0408b-2.jpgThe full story of the 1792 half disme has assorted elements, some of which are proven, others believed and some probably simply resulting from stories, making them far less likely to be true. Sorting out fact from legend is not easy. The design, for example, appears to be similar to a Robert Birch cent pattern of the period although tradition has it that Martha Washington was the model. The fact that it is not even close to other depictions of Martha Washington from the period casts grave doubts on that part of the story.

The precise connection of the 1792 half disme to George Washington is also an interesting matter. Jefferson wrote of taking ?75D to the Mint to be coined into half dismes.? The ?Mint? was clearly Harper?s workshop, but Jefferson gives no indication where he got the $75.

In the Don Taxay book The United States Mint and Coinage, Taxay supplied the account of James McClintock, who reported on a conversation he allegedly had with Adam Eckfeldt, who was a longtime Mint employee and official dating back to the first days of the facility.

In the McClintock story supplied by Taxay, McClintock wrote, ?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 he deposited in Bullion of Specie for the purpose.?

gre0408c-3.jpgOf course right away there is a problem as Jefferson says he took $75 and Eckfeldt says Washington supplied $100. That is typical of trying to track down the accurate situation with the 1792 half disme.

The Eckfeldt version, however, stays with Washington as the source of the silver and as the person who received the entire 1792 half disme mintage. He explained that Washington, ?Distributed them as presents ? some were sent to Europe but the greater number of them he 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.?

The questions as to just how many half dismes were created is typical of a situation. Concerning the 1792, Q. David Bowers suggested in his book A Guide Book of United States Type Coins, ?The 1792 half disme is one of the more fascinating early federal issues because facts concerning it are scarce and legends abound.? Bowers? defends his description of it as a federal issue, saying, ?In the strictest sense, it is a federal coin authorized under the 1792 legislation but it is not a product made within the walls of the first Mint building.?

gre0408d-4.jpgWhile we can debate the precise nature of the 1792 half disme today, there seemed to be little question at the time at least in the minds of Washington and Jefferson. In a speech Nov. 6, 1792, to the Congress, it was made very clear by Washington what he thought. He said, ?There has also been a small beginning in the coinage of half dismes; the want of small coins in circulation calling first attention to them.? Jefferson backed him up as he recorded in his accounts on July 14, 1792, ?rec?d from the mint 1,500 half dismes of the new coinage.? Clearly in the minds of Washington and Jefferson the half dismes were real coins.

It would be improper to make the case that because they circulated the 1792 half dismes would count as coins. That?s because almost anything circulated. As there were no coins of the United States, any coin from England or Spain or Harper?s operation in Philadelphia was likely to circulate, assuming it was silver or gold. They might not have been precise as to the coin?s actual value, but it is probable that it was relatively easy to agree on basic values of any particular size coin.

Certainly the existing 1792 half dismes do suggest that they saw use. The fact that there are some that are so heavily circulated suggests that the 1792 saw use in commerce. A 1792 half disme in VG-8 was sold by Heritage Auction Galleries in recent years for $69,000. Not all that many years ago, an AG-3 was listed at $1,250. The best grade that can reasonably be expected is an XF-40, but Heritage just sold one graded MS-63 in its January 2008 Florida United Numismatists auction for $503,125. The best estimates are that there are perhaps a few hundred in various circulated grades, and perhaps up to a couple dozen in Mint State. The survival rate is actually unusually good considering a mintage of 1,500, suggesting that the people and few collectors of the day recognized the 1792 half disme as something special. That said, the coins are frequently seen with dents or other technical damage. Even the best will sometimes show a light strike on the eagle?s breast or some adjustment marks.

gre0408e-5.jpgWe will probably never be able to answer every question regarding the 1792 with certainty, but whatever your point of view on certain parts of the story or legend, the fact remains it is a very historic and interesting issue.
There would be questions even when the first half dime was produced inside the official U.S. Mint. Silver coin production began in 1794, first with an attempt at silver dollars that do not go very well, resulting in just 1,758 pieces. Then came half dollars with a mintage of just under 25,000. Finally attention was turned to half dimes.

There are 1794-dated half dimes, but there were no deliveries of half dimes reported in 1794. That produces the suspicion that they were actually struck in 1795. We simply cannot be sure. The total of half dimes delivered in 1795 was 86,416 pieces and some were dated 1794 and others 1795. The reports, however, do not give precise numbers of each date.

Certainly, with a combined mintage of under 100,000, either date would be tough. Just how tough they should be, however, is up in the air without officials records. The more historic 1794 has always been the more expensive, listed at $1,200 in G-4 today, while the 1795 is $925. In MS-60 the 1794 lists at $16,850 while the 1795 is at $13,250.

gre0408f-6.jpgGrading services may help to determine roughly how tough the two are. At Professional Coin Grading Service and Numismatic Guaranty Corp. combined, report are that the 1794 has appeared roughly 220 times in all grades. The 1795 is at 611 appearances. That would suggest that perhaps one-quarter of the entire 86,416 mintage would be dated 1794. While not scientific, that appears to be reasonable.

With their low mintages and important place in history, the 1794 and 1795 half dimes would be costly under any circumstances, but there is an added factor that may play a role in keeping the price of the 1795 closer to the 1794 than would normally be the case. That factor is that these are the only two years of the type. In all grades the 1795 is more available, and most type collectors will take it because it is easier and cheaper to find. Of course, that extra demand naturally put more pressure on the somewhat larger supply, keeping the two fairly close in price.

In 1796 the new design would feature a Draped Bust obverse. That type would last for 1796 and 1797. The two probably do not receive the attention they deserv. The mintage of the 1796 is recorded as 10,230 and the 1797 as 44,527, the combined total being well below the total for the 1794 and 1795. That produces a listing around $1,150 for either in G-4 despite the fact that the 1796 has a significantly lower mintage.

Comparing the two, we find that the 1796 has been graded just 28 times at NGC in all grades combined while the 1797 has been graded 91 times. At PCGS the 1796 has been seen 76 times and the 1797 157. Certainly the grading service totals support the mintage differences.

There was no half dime production in 1798 and 1799. The next half dime in 1800 had a different reverse, a large eagle, which would be used through 1805. Thanks to a longer period of production, the large eagle reverse is a more available type even though the mintages remained low. The 1803 had the top mintage at just 37,850 pieces. Of the half dimes of the period, the 1800 is the least expensive, listing at $825 in G-4 and $12,750 in MS-60. Others are close, probably not unlike the situation with the 1797 in that type demand is a large part of the total demand for the dates and it tends to be centered on the most available date. That keeps the prices closer than might be expected with both the 1803 variety with a large ?8? and the 1800 being fairly close in price.

The date from the period that really stands out is the 1802, which had a listed mintage of just 3,060. That results in a G-4 listing of $37,500 as not only was it low mintage but it was also not saved because there were few collectors at the time. In MS-60 the 1802 lists for $185,000, supporting the notion that they were simply not saved in any numbers in any grade. When the first recorded sale of an 1802 half dime took place in 1863, the thought at the time was that there might only be a few known. Now we suspect there might be 35-45. Those figures seem high when you realize that the grading services show just three seen at NGC with the best of them being an AU-50 while PCGS reports nine with one reaching AU-50. Simply put, there is doubt there is a Mint State 1802, and the combined total of 12 suggests there might be closer to 20 known, if that many, as opposed to the estimates of 35-45. That total of perhaps 20 would make the 1802 a significant rarity.

It should also be remembered that with large commercial demand and small mintages, any half dime from the period could receive a lot of wear in a hurry. That situation was not helped by the fact that after 1805 the next half dime mintage was not until 1829. The situation has not really been exposed with the limited collector demand, but there are some exceptional early half dimes. The 1805 is a good example as it is listed at $1,075 in G-4 and $49,500 in MS-60. Those are premium prices, but you certainly get good value for your money as the 1805 has been seen just 17 times at NGC and 35 times at PCGS. That makes only 52 and some could be repeat submission. The historic estimates were that there might be 100 examples of the 1805, but those grading service totals make that estimate seem optimistic ? could there really be another 48 that have never
been graded?

In theory, with the suspension of gold eagle and silver dollar production in 1804, there were going to be greater mintages of lower denominations. You would be hard pressed to suggest the idea worked, based on the fact that the next half dime mintage did not take place until 1829 when the new William Kneass Liberty Cap design was introduced. The design was not the only change. By 1829 the Mint had improved its technologies and larger mintages were possible. Mintages would also be more regular, making the Capped Liberty type much more available. The lowest-mintage date of the type would be the 1832 at 965,000. The higher mintages would result in much greater availability with a type example of an available date in G-4 just shy of $50. In the case of Mint State examples, current listings are about $350 while an MS-65 might run $3,150. Just because the prices are lower than they are for earlier dates does not mean these dates are available in large numbers. It was, after all, the 1830s and there were not large numbers of collectors to save Mint State coins.

The lower prices can also mask the fact that some of the dates are not that common. The highest mintage was the 1835 at 2,760,000 and that is not a large total. In addition, the total was divided between small and large ?5C? varieties, as was the only other date to top two million pieces, the 1837. All the other dates tend to be in a 1.2 million to 1.5 million mintage range, and that is certainly not a large total.

Clearly the early half dimes are not an easy collection. Their historical importance, though, makes them much more desireable. As a result, it is unusual to find a nice example of one of the early dates at a discount price. You might, in fact, end up paying more than a listed price simply because owners have to be convinced to part with their treasures. That said, an early half dime is a great coin and a collection is even better.          

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