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Coin Rarities & Related Topics: 1792 Half Dimes, Part 2: Amazing Pieces to be Auctioned

A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds
News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #145 …..

I focus upon two of the five finest 1792 half dimes (“dismes”) and I mention others. On Jan. 10, 2013, in Orlando, Heritage will auction the Floyd Starr piece, which is PCGS certified “SP-67.” Two weeks later in New York, on Jan. 24th, Stack’s-Bowers will auction the Knoxville-Cardinal piece, which is NGC graded “MS-68.” Each of these has sold for more than a million dollars in the past. As I indicated last week, in part 1, including these two, at least eight 1792 half dismes will be offered at auction in January 2013.

I. What is a “Disme”?

In 1792, the French term “disme” was employed on patterns of half dimes and dimes. It then meant ‘tenth’ and, more importantly, “disme” constituted a general reference to the decimal system.

The five letter word “disme” never became part of the English language and never referred to a coin in French. Indeed, its structure is not really consistent with modern French. It is no longer in the French language, and it was probably reluctantly admitted into the French language after 1585, when the title of an academic work by a Flemish mathematician, De Thiende, was oddly translated into French as “La Disme.”

Inclusion of this French term on patterns of 1792 half dimes was an announcement that the U.S. was planning a national coinage program that was based on the decimal system, which meant that it would be much different from the British, French and Spanish coinage systems. From the mid 1600s to some point during the 20th century, French was the international language of diplomacy. Also, the French government was of great assistance to the Revolutionary Army in the war for independence from Great Britain.

“Disme,” in the 1600s and 1700s, was pronounced like the English word ‘deem’ is now pronounced. I provide evidence in last week’s article, part 1. Furthermore, I then discuss the history of 1792 half dismes and I theorize as to their meaning, with emphasis upon their historical significance. Information for beginners is put forth last week as well. (Clickable links are in blue.) This week, the focus is on individual pieces.

II. The Pittman Piece

When I reported on the sale, in 2007, of the Knoxville piece to the Cardinal Educational Foundation, I reflected upon the pedigrees of the finest 1792 half dismes. I then stated that the Floyd Starr and Knoxville-Cardinal pieces are superior to the 1792 half disme that was formerly in the collection of John Pittman.

I attended the Pittman I sale in October 1997. All of Pittman’s coins were not certified when they were auctioned by the firm of David Akers in 1997, 1998 and 1999.

I saw the Pittman 1792 half disme and I discussed it with others who did as well. At the time, the concensus was that it should be graded MS-65 or MS-66. I graded it as MS-65.

Charles Browne, for one, then noted that the Starr piece is much better. Browne has served more than one stint as a PCGS grader and has been employed as a grader by several leading coin dealers over his career of more than thirty-five years.

I was astonished when I recently saw, on the PCGS CoinFacts site, that the Pittman piece has been PCGS graded as “MS-67.” Regarding 1792 half dismes, I have made numerous inquiries regarding the grades of the best ones. No one has ever indicated to me that he grades the Pittman piece as “MS-67.” Andy Lustig remarks that the “Pittman 1792 half disme is a nice coin, but not in the same league as the Hayes, Starr and Knoxville coins.”

As I have never seen the Hayes piece, most of this discussion relates to the Knoxville-Cardinal and Starr 1792 half dismes. I have carefully examined the Garrett piece, which was PCGS graded MS-63, then NGC graded MS-66, and later NGC graded MS-65.

The Garrett 1792 half disme was auctioned by Spectrum-B&M in August 2009 for a reported price of “$552,000.” The hair on the obverse (front) is well detailed, almost as much as the hair on the Starr piece. In my view, the Garrett 1792 half disme is definitely not one of the three finest known, and is not likely to be one of the top four.

There is another 1792 half disme is a contender for a top ranking. At an event in Georgia in 1987, the firm of Mid-American Rare Coin Auctions sold a gem quality 1792 half disme. This same piece re-appeared in an auction in January 1990, in Los Angeles, by Superior Galleries. It was then PCGS graded MS-65.

There are many coins that were PCGS graded MS-65 before 1990 that are now PCGS graded anywhere from MS-65 to MS-68. Indeed, most PCGS graded MS-65 graded coins during the 1980s have since received higher grades.

I do not know the grade that would now be assigned by graders at the PCGS or the NGC if this same 1792 half disme was submitted in 2013. Indeed, I have never seen this 1792 half disme and, as far as I know, it has not been publicly offered for more than fifteen years. I know one expert who was very impressed by it when he saw it in Jan. 1990.

III. The Hayes Piece

It is also true that I have never seen the Jimmy Hayes 1792 half disme. Along with Hayes’ type set of copper, nickel and silver coins, it was auctioned by Stack’s in 1985. It re-appeared in the Paramount session of Auction ’80, one of the annual apostrophe auctions that were held each summer from 1979 to 1990.

My preliminary research suggests that the Hayes piece has not been re-graded at any point during the last dozen years. Indeed, a reliable source suggests that it may have resided in a collection in the Midwest for at least that long. I have been told that it was graded “MS-66” by the NGC in the late 1980s or early 1990s. I have, however, been unable to confirm this point, though it is very plausible.

Mark Feld remembers the Hayes 1792 half disme as being “all there and gorgeous. My best guess is that I would grade it a 67 today,” suggests Feld. Mark was a full-time grader for the NGC during most of the 1990s. Much earlier, he was employed by Steve Ivy. Later, Feld worked as a grader for more than one leading coin firm.

IV. The Knoxville-Cardinal 1792

In an article in 2007, I stated that 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.” I add that it has no substantial contact marks or scratches, though there are some relatively minor ones.

Though some might not grade it as “MS-68,” the Knoxville-Cardinal 1792 is the highest quality 1792 half disme that I have ever seen.

The Knoxville-Cardinal piece scores extremely high in the category of originality. It has never been cleaned. It was properly stored.

Long before it was in either the Knoxville or Cardinal Collections, the Knoxville-Cardinal 1792 half disme was auctioned in New York by Stack’s, during October 1988. An earlier pedigree is provided in the current Stack’s-Bowers catalogue, which I have not independently investigated. I did not even see this catalogue entry until New Year’s Day. This Stack’s-Bowers online catalogue also states that the price realized in Oct. 1988 was “$68,750.”

By 2004, probably in 2003, the Knoxville-Cardinal 1792 half disme was upgraded by the NGC to MS-68. During 2004, the Knoxville 1792 half disme was on display in a dealer’s showcase at at least two major coin conventions. Though it was then said that this piece was “not for sale,” a valuation of “$2 million” was explicitly mentioned.

In Jan. 2007, Steve Contursi purchased the Knoxville 1792 half disme. On July 3, 2007, Contursi sold it to the Cardinal Educational Foundation for a reported sum of “$1.5 million.” Martin Logies is the curator and director of this foundation.

The Knoxville Collection was owned by a Western collector and was assembled, under the guidance of Jay Parrino, in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Knoxville Collection featured the all-time best type set of silver U.S. coins and it included patterns as well.

The Carter-Lustig-Contursi-Cardinal 1794 dollar was formerly in the Knoxville Collection. In 2003, it was PCGS certified “SP-66” and, in late 2012, it received a sticker of approval from the CAC.

This 1794 silver dollar and the Knoxville-Cardinal 1792 half disme will be auctioned by Stack’s-Bowers in New York on Thursday, Jan. 24. The Cardinal set of large cents will also be featured. This set is highly ranked in the PCGS registry. I will be writing more about coins in this consignment from the Cardinal Educational Foundation.

V. History of the Starr 1792 half disme

Floyd Starr actively purchased a large number of rare U.S. coins from the 1920s through the 1940s. Long after Starr died, Stack’s (New York) auctioned his collection. In 1984, Starr’s large cents were sold.

Most of the rest of his U.S. coins were auctioned in Oct. 1992. His world coins were sold at a later time. The Stack’s catalogue, of Oct. 1992, suggests that this 1792 half disme was earlier owned by Virgil Brand.

On Oct. 20, 1992, a coin firm located in Southern California bought the Starr 1792 half disme at the Stack’s auction in New York. When Starr’s coins were auctioned in Oct. 1992, none of them were certified.

The principals of this Southern California firm successfully argued that the PCGS should designate the Starr 1792 half disme as a ‘Specimen,’ abbreviated on the PCGS holder, as usual, by two letters, ‘SP.’ Recently, editors of the PCGS CoinFacts site began to refer to such coins as ‘Special Strikings’ rather than as Specimens. Following longstanding tradition, I employ the term ‘Specimen’ here.

During 1993, the Starr 1792 half disme was PCGS certified “SP-66.” This Southern California coin firm consigned it to the Superior Galleries auction of July 26, 1993, which was held in Baltimore a few days prior to the summer ANA Convention. The official list of prices realized indicates that it sold for “$96,250,” the exact same price that it realized about nine months earlier.

This auction result was a record price in 1992, certainly modest to strong at the time. Coin markets overall in Oct. 1992 were much less heated than they were in Oct. 1988, when the Knoxville-Cardinal piece sold for $68,750. Bidding was intense for the fresh material, from an epic collection, at the Starr sale in Oct. 1992. (Please see my article on What are Auction Prices?)

After this piece had received a Specimen designation and a 66 grade from the PCGS, it was expected to realize slightly more at auction in July 1993, when coin markets overall were healthier. The same auction result, nine months later, was not strong.

At some point in the mid to late 1990s, the Starr 1792 was upgraded to 67 by the PCGS. A collector consigned the Starr 1792 half disme for Heritage to auction in April 2006. It then brought $1,322,500. It seems plausible that the buyer in 2006 was the collector who currently uses the name “Greensboro.” He specialized in coins that are certified as Proofs or Specimen Strikings, particularly silver coins.

For example, his 1855-S half dollar, which is NGC certified as “Proof-65” will also be auctioned during this same Platinum Night event on Jan. 10th. It is one of two known, San Francisco Mint, Liberty Seated Half Dollars that are not business strikes.

VI. The Quality of the Starr 1792

Although the ‘Specimen’ or ‘Special Striking’ designation by the PCGS has received much attention, the Starr 1792 half disme was famous before it was certified. Also, as I just said, it sold for the same amount at auction after being certified in 1993 as it did in 1992.

In 1992, cataloguers at Stack’s, referred to the Starr 1792 half disme as being “Choice Uncirculated,” rather than as a gem quality coin. Cataloguers at three different auction firms, in 1992, 1993 and 2006, all refer to a noticeable vertical “scratch” in the left, inner obverse field.

The Starr piece is especially noteworthy for its exemplary detail in the hair on the portrait and its very reflective surfaces. The eagle on the reverse, too, is better detailed and more fully formed on the Starr piece than on most (or all?) other, surviving 1792 half dismes.

The Starr piece is clearly not a Proof. “Double struck, as most were,” asserted the Stack’s cataloguer in 1992. I strongly disagree. This coin was struck once, and in low relief. My belief is that all 1792 half dismes were struck once.

In regard to 1792 half dismes, the relations of the raised design elements to the fields, the irregular nature of many design elements, marked metal flow lines across elements and adjacent fields, some blurred elements, microscopic anomalies in the fields, and other factors altogether suggest one-time strikings and business strike status. Indeed, 1792 half dismes were sloppily made. These tend to have substantial adjustment marks, be struck well off-center, and struck with uneven pressure. Plus, the dies themselves were crudely made and the set-up of the dies may have not have been fully ‘level.’

If the coining personnel had sought to make this piece a Proof, the relationships of the design elements to the fields would be different and the outer design elements would be much better defined. There would be other differences as well.

There are some U.S. Mint products from the 1790s that are relatively closer to being Proofs than the Starr 1792 half disme, especially a 1795 Half Eagle ($5 gold coin) that Heritage auctioned in Jan. 2008 and will offer again in Jan. 2013, though that coin is not a Proof either. It may be at true Specimen.

On the Starr 1792 half disme, the exceptional detail in the hair could come about from much better than usual spacing of properly-anchored dies and/or, more likely, it was struck in a slower more determined manner with some additional force. As I pointed out in my series on 1841 Quarter Eagles, there are several variables that relate to the definition of design elements on coins that were struck with a screw press.

There is a good chance that some 1792 half dismes, including the Starr piece, were made more carefully than others. There was not a rule that stated that all 1792 half dismes must be made equally.

It is often true of coin issues that were struck on a screw press that some were made more carefully and with more determination than others. Though I understand how it could be argued that all such better-made pieces are Specimen strikings, I do not agree.

Indisputably, the Starr 1792 half disme was struck with dies that were particularly well polished, so were dozens of 1796 quarters. While the reflective surfaces of the Starr piece are distinctive in contrast to other surviving, very high grade 1792 half dismes, it is not known how many others with reflective surfaces were struck. More than a thousand 1792 half dismes have not survived.

To appreciate the coolness of the Starr 1792 half disme, it needs to be seen ‘in hand’ and rotated under a lamp. The dies were heavily polished. The surfaces have a thick, glossy texture, especially on the reverse.

The toning is definitely natural. If my memory serves well, blue, russet, medium gray, and slight green tones are all pleasing. Gray tones tend to cover most of the surfaces. It is very attractive. The Starr 1792 half disme really grabbed my attention.

In 1992, I figured this piece to be “MS-65, Prooflike.” Grading standards loosened during the period from 1997 to 2006. I would now be comfortable referring to it as ‘MS-66, Prooflike.’

In my view, for a coin to be a ‘Specimen,’ it has to be much more than Prooflike, it has to be physically different from business strikes, though not meeting the criteria to be a Proof. If a coin carefully struck with polished dies, is it still being produced with the same methods as a business strikes were struck?

“Both the Carter 1794 dollar and the Starr 1792 half disme are unique in terms of fabric and being prooflike,” asserts Andy Lustig, who used to own the Carter 1794 dollar. “I don’t know of any other prooflike 1792 half dimes or 1794 dollars. This does not necessarily prove that they were intentionally struck as something special,” Lustig adds.

“As a numismatist, I do not care how they are designated,” Andy continues. “They are special coins because they have a special fabric. I do not know about the coiner’s intent. They are special coins,” in Lustig’s view.

I have debated such issues with Andy on many occasions. In my view, whether a coin is a business strike, a prooflike business strike, a Specimen, or a Proof is entirely determined by an analysis of the physical characteristics of the coin. Prooflike coins are usually not Specimen strikings, regardless of the coiner’s intent. Please see my recent article on a Specimen 1839-O dime or my past discussion of a Specimen 1853-O Eagle.

In my view, the characteristics of a Specimen Striking are different from the characteristics of a sharply struck, prooflike business strike. While the additional hair detail is interesting, I am not that impressed by the physical characteristics of this piece, in terms of its method of manufacture.

It is, of course, a terrific business strike, of great importance. It could well be that the Starr 1792 half disme was carefully made, or carefully selected from those made, to be presented to an influential U.S. citizen in 1792, perhaps one of the founding fathers, or to be sent to a European monarch.

VII. Which is the Finest Known?

While the Knoxville-Cardinal piece is of higher quality in terms of grade, the Starr piece is just more interesting. Does the prooflike nature of a coin vault it above a coin of slightly higher quality that is not prooflike?

Regarding the Knoxville-Cardinal piece, Andy Lustig remarks, “natural toning, never dipped, a little dark, but definitely a gem.” Generally, though, Lustig likes “prooflike coins. I would pick the Starr coin. My second pick, from memory, would be the Hayes coin; it is prettier. In a technical sense, the Knoxville coin is probably better than the others. It is hard to rank coins from memories from many years ago. I would have to have them in hand to be sure. The Knoxville, Starr and Hayes 1792 half dismes are so different, in characteristics. It becomes a personal taste,” Andy concludes.

It does. There will always be some experts who prefer the Knoxville-Cardinal 1792 half disme to the Floyd Starr piece and other experts who prefer the Starr 1792 half disme. As the Hayes piece has not been publicly offered for so long, it is hard to even hypothesize as to how it would be interpreted in 2013. Besides, I am curious about the 1792 half disme that Mid-American Auctions sold in 1987 and Superior sold in 1990.

I do not yet have enough data to formulate a condition ranking for this issue. Both the Starr and Knoxville-Cardinal 1792 half dismes are gems and are terrific in other ways. I am glad that I have had the pleasure to examine them.

©2012 Greg Reynolds

Greg Reynolds
Greg Reynolds
Greg Reynolds has carefully examined a majority of the greatest U.S. coins and most of the finest classic U.S. type coins. He personally attended sales of the Eliasberg, Pittman, Newman, and Gardner Collections, among other landmark events. Greg has also covered major auctions of world coins, including the sale of the Millennia Collection. In addition to more than four hundred analytical columns for CoinWeek and at least 50 articles for CoinLink, Reynolds has contributed hundreds of articles to Numismatic News newspaper and related publications. Greg is also a multi-year winner of the ‘Best All-Around Portfolio’ award from the NLG, as well as awards for individual articles, a series of articles on the Eric Newman Collection, and for best column published on a web site.

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