This is an outwardly attractive, well circulated survivor of this elusive key date issue. Both sides are richly toned in a blend of original dove and charcoal gray. Wear is generally even, and it leaves at least outline definition to most of the devices. There are few abrasions that we deem distracting to the unaided eye, although there are concentrations of pin scratches over Liberty's bust on the obverse, as well as throughout much of the reverse. These typical and minor imperfections are old and toned over.
This is the S. Vogel-J.H. Smith specimen of the 1802 half dime, and it was discovered as part of a small accumulation of coins housed in a leather pouch with a spring-loaded closure. The pouch once belonged to a local farmer on the upper Eastern shore of Maryland. A local numismatist identified the find in the late 1970s and it was first authenticated by Charles Hoskins, and later by PCGS.
The farmer did not recall when or from where the coins were purchased, but explained that he had participated in various auctions and farm sales over the years, and as such it may have been part of the family holdings for close to three-quarters of a century. From its birth in Philadelphia to its resting place in Maryland, one can only imagine the "life" of this half dime in the mid-Atlantic region throughout its 211 year history.
Notes on the 1802 Half Dime
The first 1802 half dime to sell at public auction is believed to be the William A. Lilliendahl Collection specimen in December 1863. This piece was then described as the finest of the three known specimens, although Harold P. Newlin noted the coin was in only "Very Good condition." That coin sold for $340, a record price that stood for a generation until Newlin's own finer specimen of this rarity was sold at auction. Furthermore, one of the finest known 1794 silver dollars brought a comparable $285 in another auction in 1863 confirming that American numismatists at the time had a firm grasp on the rarity of the 1802 half dime. The original mintage is believed to be a mere 3,060 pieces, and these suffered great circulation challenges; these small silver coins simply did not survive intact. Researcher David J. Davis studied this issue extensively and with the help of numismatic organizations and other well known numismatists concluded that no more than 35 distinct examples exist (published in his extensive listing of all known auction appearances in the reference Federal Half Dimes 1792 - 1837 by Russell J. Logan and John W. McCloskey in 1999). Since that time David Davis has passed away, but shortly before his death we discussed the issue and he believed that perhaps as few as 25 distinct examples exist, as a few of those previous auction offerings were found to be counterfeits -- or repaired and straightened coins previously listed as bent or damaged. Remarkably the 1802 half dimes in both the Smithsonian's National Numismatic Collection and the American Numismatic Association Museum are altered dates and thus not included in the census.
Much has been written about this particular issue. The first such research was conducted by leading numismatist of his era Harold P. Newlin, in 1883, when he published his work titled A Classification of the Early Half-Dimes of the United States soon after he sold his collection of half dimes through J.W. Haseltine on April 10, 1883. In that publication Newlin enumerated most of the known auction appearances, and deemed it a "most exalted" rarity. At that early time, Newlin was able to list 16 appearances and gave a thorough presentation as to why he was of the opinion that the 1802 half dime was "the most desirable [rarity] of the silver series," eclipsing other pieces famous at that time including the 1804 dollar, and quarters of 1823 and 1827. His reasoning was based largely on the existence of restrikes of these and, in the case of the 1823 quarter, commentary that these were "struck from the altered die of the quarter of the preceding year, and possesses no characteristics of its own." Daniel W. Valentine published his work on the entire half dime series in 1931 entitled The United States Half Dimes in a pamphlet issued by the American Numismatic Society, and later reprinted with additional notes by various numismatists in 1975. Valentine confirmed the rarity of the 1802 half dime but did not give a listing of individual specimens. In the 1975 Valentine reprint additional information on this date was provided by Walter Breen, including a listing of several known specimens. Currently the best reference on this particular date is the David J. Davis research published in Federal Half Dimes 1792-1837. As has been done by other numismatic authors, it is highly likely that a publication will eventually elucidate each of the known specimens and probable provenance, as has been done for the 1796-1797 half dollars and 1794 silver dollars, as well as other important rarities. This will confirm the great rarity of this early silver coin by starting to complete a Condition Census of the known examples.
Comparable to the 1823 Capped Bust quarter in rarity, the 1802 half dime is indeed one of the rarest silver circulating coins ever issued by our mints. Why so few were coined likely reflected the demand that particular year, as both the 1801 and 1803 half dimes are certainly far more plentiful by comparison.
Listed as #61 in the Jeff Garrett and Ron Guth 100 Greatest U.S. Coins reference, the 1802 half dime is highly desirable as this issue was not a midnight project by mint authorities, but is simply a low mintage date that served its intended purpose in the channels of commerce. Little attention was paid for a few generations after these were struck, so survival was entirely random. Hence, the vast majority are well worn, many are damaged as well, unlike the present offering which is rather wholesome on balance. To date PCGS lists a total of just eleven examples certified, the finest is AU-55. Demand has always exceeded supply for this issue, as so many collectors and investors desire an example, so why not add this great rarity to your advanced collection?