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Superb Gem 1792 Silver Half Disme

Written by Q. David Bowers, Chairman Emeritus

Author: Q. David Bowers / Tuesday, October 30, 2012 / Categories: From the Desk of Q. David Bowers
Our January sale in New York City will have many highlights from the Cardinal Collection. One of the most important and historically interesting is a superb Gem 1792 silver half disme, said to have been originally owned by Mint Director David Rittenhouse. This provenance is derived from a Chapman sale of the early 20th century where four examples were thus described.

The Mint Act of April 1, 1792, provided for the United States to have its own coining facility. David Rittenhouse was appointed director and preparations began for setting up facilities. Existing buildings were purchased, and on July 31, 1792, a foundation was first laid for another structure. At the time the national capital was in Philadelphia. Although I have not seen any records to substantiate this, it does not strain credulity to suggest that President George Washington, who lived not far away, might have been on hand on July 31 or in the next month. Equipment was moved in and other preparations were made in the autumn, extending into the winter, at which time pattern coins were struck, including the famous Birch copper cents.

In the meantime, the first official United States coins were struck on July 15, 1792 in the shop of John Harper, not far from where the Mint would be established. Approximately 1,500 coins were produced. In recent times the 1792 half disme has been the subject of much research, including by Dr. Joel Orosz and Leonard Augsburger. When the January catalog is ready I expect I and others will add quite a bit of historical information.

As to the official status of this coin – lest someone think it might be a pattern – in his December 4, 1792 presidential message, George Washington mentioned that a beginning in United States coinage had been made with these half dismes due to the need for coins in circulation. As to the number of 1792 half dismes known in numismatic hands today I would estimate 200 to 300. Nearly all of these show circulation, sometimes extensive. As to true Mint State examples, never mind being in the grade of MS-68 as is the Cardinal coin, the number is probably fewer than a dozen. Here indeed is one of America’s most important coins from a historical viewpoint and, from the numismatic viewpoint, the offered piece is a “trophy coin” deluxe.