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The Importance and Pedigrees of the Finest 1792 half dimes
By Greg Reynolds for CoinLink - July 10th, 2007


1792 half dime is 'in the news,' as the Knoxville piece sold for $1.5 million. On July 3, Steve Contursi, President of Rare Coin Wholesalers, sold it to the Cardinal Educational Foundation, of Sunnyvale, California. M. Logies, CEO of the Foundation, acted on its behalf. This Foundation is dedicated to educating people about early U.S. coinage.

   The Foundation's collection of early silver dollars was auctioned in New York in July 2005. I covered the event for a leading coin newspaper, and I reported on the sale of the fourth finest 1794 silver dollar for $1.15 million. 

   The Cardinal Bust Dollar collection had been exhibited around the United States from 2002 to early 2005. In 2004, the Foundation published an incredibly comprehensive book on the silver dollars of 1794, the first year in which silver dollars were struck. Previously, the Foundation had published short guides relating to early sliver dollars. Another book on silver dollars is in progress, and a book on the beginnings of the U.S. Mint will be released in August.

   This 1792 half dime will become a central part of the Cardinal Educational Foundation's Type Set of 18th century U.S. coinage. It will be made available for viewing by collectors and the general public, and for examination by dedicated researchers.

   The half dimes of 1792 are generally called 'half dismes.' The archaic spelling of dime, one-tenth, is on the reverse (back) of each. Supposedly, disme rhymes with seem or ream, and sounds the same as the word 'deem.' In my view, the use of an archaic (obsolete old-time) spelling is distracting in the present and does not serve an educational purpose. Besides, those who do not collect half dimes often have trouble conceptualizing them. Why confuse and distract people with an archaic spelling of 'dime'?

   Half dimes weighed half as much as dimes, and had half as much silver. They predated five cent nickels by almost seventy-five years. Curiously, there were Three Cent Nickels before there were five cent nickels. Three Cent Nickels were first minted in 1865, and five cent nickels were not struck until 1866. Half dimes were minted until 1873.

   There were half dimes before there were dimes. Dimes were not minted until 1796. Half dimes were certainly minted in 1794. There is some debate as to whether the half dimes of 1792 are coins intended for circulation or patterns distributed to impress politically influential people. It is now widely believed that they are coins, not patterns. In a speech in Nov. 1792, George Washington specifically referred to the new half dimes and said that they were needed for circulation.

   The Philadelphia Mint was still under construction in 1792. Half dimes were struck at a building owned by John Harper. But, these were not private issues. U.S. Mint personnel operated Mint owned machinery in Harper's structure, which thus served temporarily and informally as the U.S. Mint until the new building was ready.

   There is evidence that 1500 half dimes were struck in 1792. In the same year pattern mintages of cents, dimes and quarters tended to be on the order of less than a dozen of each proposed issue or experimental concept.

   It is clear that hundreds of 1792 half dimes entered circulation and were used to buy consumer goods. Most survivors are in very low grades. Uncirculated 1792 half dimes are extremely rare.

   Much has been written about the historical circumstances surrounding the production of the half dimes of 1792. The extent of the involvement of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson is an often discussed topic. Pertinent information can be found in books by Walter Breen and Don Taxay, and, especially, in some writings by Joel Orosz. There is not space here to review historical evidence.

   The present purpose is to discuss the coins themselves. Even someone who knows nothing about coins would realize that the first issue of half dimes is very important to coin enthusiasts. These may be the first federal coins intended for circulation

   The Knoxville-Cardinal 1792 half dime is graded “MS-68” by the Numismatic Guaranty Corp. (NGC). Coins are graded on a scale from 01 to 70, and not all numbers are used. For example, the four Very Fine grades are 20, 25, 30 and 35. In the 'Mint State' range from 60 to 70, all eleven points are used. Coins that grade 63 are 'choice,' 64 grade coins are very choice, and those that grade 65 or higher are usually termed gems.

   A 1792 half dime in Good-06 condition may be worth around $20,000, and an EF-40 piece may sell at retail for $100,000 or so. Prices really depend upon the physical and aesthetic characteristics of the individual coin, and upon its pedigree.

    From 1988 until early 2003, this 1792 half dime was in the Knoxville collection. Jay Parrino guided the collector known as 'Knoxville' in the building of the finest silver type set ever assembled. Most of the set was complete by 1992. In 2003, Parrino purchased the set outright, and he sold it during the late Spring and Summer of that year.

   Contursi purchased more than half the coins in the Knoxville collection. A few pieces found their way into the Oliver Jung type set that ANR auctioned in July 2004, and several were in the James Lull type set that Bowers & Merena (CA) auctioned in January 2005.

   Jung had a 1792 half dime, though it was not from the Knoxville collection. While a 1792 half dime is considered optional for a general or silver type set, it is an option that is often exercised. Jung's 1792 is graded AU-55 by the Professional Coin Grading Service, and is an exceptional piece. While no one would mistake it for an uncirculated coin, it had nice surfaces, natural toning, and no serious imperfections. It is very attractive. It realized $138,000 in July 2005, less than one-tenth the price of the Knoxville-Cardinal 1792 half dime in July 2007.

   The whereabouts of the Knoxville 1792 half dime from June 2003 to January 2007 are not clear. Bob Higgins, senior partner of Certified Assets Management, showed it to me more than once in 2004, though he never owned the coin. In late January 2007, Contursi bought this half dime and a group of other excellent coins from “a private source,” evidently a dealer-representative of the owner. 

   The Knoxville-Cardinal 1792 half dime has tremendous natural toning. The greenish blue, medium russet, gold-peach and amber shades are indescribable. The toning is even and well balanced. Furthermore, it is deep and rich. Also, as I remember, the coin has no significant contact marks or scratches.

   Coins from the 1790s often have adjustment marks. These are filing or scraping lines that were on the prepared blanks before striking. At the time, silver and gold coins were valued primarily by their precious metal content, not their stated denominations. It was thus very important for coins to have the precisely correct amount of silver (or gold for gold denominations). It was very difficult to make blanks of the correct weight. Underweight blanks were melted while overweight blanks were scraped or filed down so that they were of the correct weight.

   As a large percentage of blanks were significantly overweight, many silver and gold coins from the 1790s have some adjustment marks. While adjustment marks are not considered to be problems, they can affect the aesthetic appeal of a coin. Indeed, sometimes, such marks are very distracting.

   Most 1792 half dimes have numerous adjustment marks. The Knoxville-Cardinal 1792 has minimal adjustment marks.

   Is it the finest known 1792 half dime? It might very well be, though I am not convinced that it is so.

   Many experts believe the Floyd Starr 1792 to be the finest. It had never been certified when Stack's sold the silver coins of the late Floyd Starr in October 1992. The Stack's cataloguer asserted that it is the finest. In 2006, Mark Borckardt, a senior cataloguer at Heritage, stated that the Starr 1792 is “the probable finest known.”

   At the 1992 Starr auction in New York, Steve Contursi was the successful bidder, at $87,500. Contursi has thus had the pleasure of owning both the Knoxville-Cardinal and Starr 1792 half dimes.

   I attended the Starr sale in October 1992. I designated the Starr 1792 as either 'MS-65 Prooflike' or 'Specimen-65.' I really thought that a vertical scratch in the observer's left obverse (front) inner field prevented it from meriting a higher grade. While the coin is very attractive, it is not stunning. The Knoxville-Cardinal piece is perhaps more attractive, though it is a little dark.

   It might be true that others at the Starr sale, including the nation's foremost graders, deemed the Starr half dime to grade '66'? It is certainly true that grading standards were more stringent in 1992 then in 2007. 

   The Stack's cataloguer suggested that it might be a 'Specimen' striking. I was stunned by the reflective surfaces and the crispness of many of the design elements.

   In 1993, the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS) certified it as Specimen-66. Contursi consigned it to a Superior Galleries auction that was held in Baltimore in July 1993. In that sale, it was overshadowed by the Dexter-Dunham 1804 dollar, a Bickford $10 gold pattern, the first NGC graded Proof-69 Morgan dollar, and other pieces that garnered more attention. Less than half a page was devoted to the Starr 1792 half dime, and it was not deemed worthy of inclusion in the color plates at the beginning of the catalogue. It sold then for $96,250.

   At some point over the years, the PCGS upgraded it to SP-67, perhaps in 2005? In April 2006, Heritage auctioned the Starr 1792 half dime (Pictured Above) for a staggering $1,322,500. It may be the least rare coin ever to sell for more than a million dollars. Some experts have estimated that 400 to 500 are around today. The late researcher Walter Breen stated that 200 to 250 survive, and this range make sense to me.

   Consider the rarity of some other coins that have sold for more than $1 million each. There are only five 1913 Liberty Nickels, only fifteen 1804 Dollars, seventy to ninety 1796 'No Stars' Quarter Eagles, seventeen to twenty 1907 Ultra High Relief $20 gold coins, nine or ten 1894-S dimes, and five 1885 Trade Dollars. Logies concluded that there are fewer than 150 1794 silver dollars.

   There is no doubt that the Starr 1792 half dime is really cool. The dies were heavily and carefully polished and imparted a thick, very glossy, amazing reflective coating to the surfaces, especially on the reverse. The hair detail is incredible, sharper than Miss Liberty's hair on the Knoxville-Cardinal piece. The outer design elements, letters, are particularly crisp, and in somewhat higher relief than on most (or all) other 1792 half dimes. Indeed, the Starr 1792 has considerably more design detail than any other that I have seen.

   The obverse (front side) of the Knoxville-Cardinal 1792 half dime is as well or better struck than the obverses of the others that plausibly merit a grade of MS-65 or higher. Of course, the Knoxville-Cardinal 1792 is well regarded for its near flawless surfaces and its fabulous natural toning. But, it lacks pizzazz. It is also tremendously important that it has probably never been cleaned or dipped, and that is certainly a strong reason (among other reasons) as to why it was graded “MS-68” by NGC. When I last saw them, the Starr and Pittman pieces also seemed to have completely natural surfaces, though I do not remember all their microscopic characteristics. These are not large coins. 

   The John J. Pittman 1792 half dime realized $308,000 in October 1997, a very high price at the time. In the Pittman I catalogue, David Akers suggests that the Pittman piece and the Judd coin are the two finest 1792 half dimes. His remarks are ambiguous. I interpret them to mean that Akers maintains that the Pittman 1792 is the finest, the Judd 1792 is the second finest, and the Starr 1792 along with one that was auctioned by Jeff Garrett's firm in 1987 are “both Gem quality” but not at the same level as the Pittman and Judd pieces.

   Did Akers ever see the Knoxville 1792 half dime? It was in a Stack's auction in 1988. But, Akers was not in attendance at that auction.

   Akers catalogued the Judd 1792 for the Paramount session of Auction '80. In the April 2006 Heritage catalogue, Borckardt says that the Judd piece and the Jimmy Hayes 1792 are the same coin. (Pictured at Right from Akers does not mention this point in the Pittman catalogue, though he was certainly very familiar with the Hayes silver type set. Nevertheless, it does seem to be accepted. While I have never seen the Judd-Hayes 1792, color pictures suggest that it may be an exceptionally attractive coin. Its reverse is more sharply struck than the reverse of the Knoxville piece.

   Charles Browne attended Auction '80 and the Stack's sale of the Jimmy Hayes silver type set in 1985. He agrees with Borckardt that the 1792 half dime in Auction '80 and the Jimmy Hayes 1792 half dime are the same coin. In his Auction '80 catalogue, he wrote that this coin is “amazing!”! He is not able to tell from his notes in the 1980s how this coin would be graded by current standards. Akers' remarks suggest that the Judd-Hayes 1792 may grade MS-66, or -67 now? 

   At the Pittman auction, several bidders believed that the Pittman 1792 would grade MS-66 if it was submitted to NGC. Has it ever been submitted to PCGS or NGC?

   In my view, the Pittman 1792 had never been dipped or cleaned, and has somewhat appealing natural toning. I vaguely remember light-grayish gunmetal blue, hazy russet, and gray-tan colors.

   Akers mentions adjustment marks in his description. In my view, these are faint and not distracting. There were no significant scratches or contact marks. The Pittman 1792 half dime had been carefully preserved since 1792.

   The Pittman 1792 half dime has nowhere near the eye appeal of the Starr piece, in my view, nor is it nearly as attractive as the Knoxville-Cardinal 1792. The reverse of the Pittman 1792 has more detail, especially on the eagle's breast, than the reverse of the Knoxville-Cardinal piece. The eagle on the Starr 1792, though, almost looks like it is of a superior species. On all other 1792 half dimes that I have seen, the eagles are missing feathers and lack the definition and presence of the Starr coin's eagle.

   According to the grading standards of the mid 1990s, my guess is that the Pittman piece graded MS-65, or -66. It did not overwhelm me. At the time, I thought that it was inferior to the Starr 1792 half dime, even though the Starr piece has that above-mentioned scratch. If the Pittman piece were to be graded using current criteria, assuming that its appearance has not changed since 1997, it would grade at least MS-66.

   There is an NGC graded MS-66 coin that recently sold privately. According to Mark Borckardt, it is the Garrett family 1792 half dime. (The collecting Garretts, who have been deceased for a long time, are not related to the author and dealer Jeff Garrett.) Borckardt lists several auction appearances of this coin, and he reveals that it was earlier graded “MS-63” by PCGS. I do not remember it. It was offered by Bowers and Merena (CA) in August 2004, but I did not attend that auction. Two experts tell me that they are very skeptical of the “MS-66” grade.

   There are numerous coins that are said to have been graded “MS-63” or “MS-64” by PCGS or NGC. It is likely that most of these reported coins are resubmissions of a very small number of 1792 half dimes, several of which were graded AU-55 or -58 in years past. As it is debatable as to whether certain 1792 half dimes are uncirculated, it is very difficult to estimate the number of uncirculated pieces that exist now.

   While the 1792 half dime that Jeff Garrett's firm auctioned in 1987 is a mystery to me, the fact that both Jeff Garrett and David Akers seem to refer to it as a gem suggests that it might grade MS-65 or higher in the present. It may have been dipped or scratches over the years. The four known gems are thus the Knoxville-Cardinal piece, the Starr piece, the Pittman piece, and (probably) the Judd-Hayes piece.

   I agree that the Starr piece is the result of some kind of special striking, though its technical grade might not be as high as one, two, or all of these other three? I rank the Knoxville-Cardinal 1792 half dime above the Pittman 1792 half dime. I would love to see the Judd-Hayes piece.

   In sum, 1792 half dimes are extremely important because: (1) they may be the first federal coins struck for circulation; (2) they are demanded by collectors who have a strong interest in U.S. history; (3) they are frequently collected along with Bust half dimes (1794-1837); (4) they are considered mandatory for inclusion in 18th century type sets of U.S. coins; (5) even though they may not be patterns, they are demanded by pattern collectors; and (6) they are often added to comprehensive, classic type sets (1793-1934); plus they are very logical additions to silver-only type sets. The Knoxville-Cardinal 1792 half dime is a tremendous asset of the Cardinal Educational Foundation.

© 2007 Greg Reynolds

Publication Date: 07/10/2007