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Stacks to offer 1792 Half Disme at Americana Sale

The first silver coin of the new United States. This denomination is one of the 1792 coins struck before the cornerstone of the new Philadelphia Mint was laid. Researchers Joel Orosz and Carl Herkowitz did considerable research on this issue and their findings were published in the ANS American Journal of Numismatics 15 in 2003.

half_disme_stacks_012610George Washington himself provided silver coins or bullion to provide the silver for this issue, approximately $100 in value of which $75 in face value in half dimes were produced (the mintage of 1,500 is believed true), the balance of the silver was likely scrap and its disposition is unknown.

These were struck in the cellar of saw maker John Harper as the new Philadelphia Mint was still under construction at the time these were coined. Finished coins were reported by Adam Eckfeldt to have been given to President Washington who distributed them as gifts to friends, many ending up going overseas.

The actual planchets were prepared and delivered to the mint by Thomas Jefferson, who made records of these actions in his personal journals.

As some were given out to dignitaries and friends, this accounts for the number of high-grade examples that are known today. However, the vast majority did circulate and like other early half dimes from that period are often found with considerable surface challenges.

The present example is among the finest known. NGC has certified six in this grade, only three finer, the highest MS-68. The obverse has minor adjustment marks on the rim where every precious grain of silver was measured and any planchet deemed too heavy was filed just enough to get to the correct weight.

The reverse dies were misaligned slightly from the obverse, and a broad rim shows over the top of the eagle, while the rim is quite thin below, not affecting any of the lettering or devices. Out of the approximately 1,500 struck, perhaps 150 survive in all grades.

The word DISME that appears on this coin probably had a silent S and would was pronounced Deem. This early spelling was used in the Mint’s internal bookkeeping for years after.

It originated in the 1585 mathematical treatise of Simon Stevinus of Bruges, De Thiende, The Tenth, the pioneer work on the decimal system, translated into French as La Disme by Thiende’s printer Christoffel Plantjin.

The striking of the half disme, believed to have been in mid-July 1792, marked the implementation of decimal coinage in the new nation, preparing the way for the eventual abandonment of the Spanish real and half real as divisions of the dollar. Its date, design and rarity spawned numerous legends about this coin, including the persistent notion that the bust was an actual portrait of First Lady Martha Washington.

Her husband’s emphatic rejection of a portrait coinage for himself should have eliminated that legend long ago. That Washington himself supplied the silver for its coinage meant he would never have tolerated his wife depicted in such a manner and this has been confirmed by the article mentioned above.

Washington alluded to these coins in his Annual Address of Nov. 6, 1792, “There has been a small beginning in the coinage of half dismes, the want of coins in circulation calling the first attention to them.”

The well-worn examples ordinarily met with testify that most of the mintage went into immediate and prolonged circulation, accounting for the exceptional rarity of Mint State pieces more than 200 years later, and all remain as treasured reminders of the birth of American coinage.

The possession of a 1792 half disme in any grade is a badge of accomplishment and distinction, representing as they do the first federal coins made under the auspices of Mint Director David Rittenhouse, in the formative period of the Mint. The present opportunity cannot be overemphasized.

Offered as Part of the Stacks Americana Sale January 26-27 as Lot 3139

NGC Census: 6; 3 finer (MS-68 finest).

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