Monday, August 17, 2009

A Half Disme Memory

Aug. 17, 2009
Posted by John Dale

Back in 2001, at the World’s Fair of Money held that year in Atlanta, Georgia, I was the 16-year-old headliner on one of the five teams participating in the year’s World Series of Numismatics, grown-up edition. (There was also a Young Numismatists edition, but I’d signed up for the adult version first, and that was where I stayed.) My goal going in was to not embarrass myself, and at the time, I didn’t; by getting third place out of five teams, at a minimum I acquitted myself.

As for not embarrassing myself now – not so much.

I haven’t gone back to watch the tape (I think it’s somewhere in the ANA video library, though I’m not sure) but if it exists I want to see it, and yet I don’t. I don’t remember how brash, or how snarky, or how… teenager I was, and now part of me never wants to find out. I did pull at least one good memory out of it, though, so here goes!

The moderator asked me a question that I thought was very simple. Doubtless there was far more nuance to the wording than I remember, but the gist of it was: “In what year was the first United States coinage struck?”

Oh, this one is easy, I thought. “1793.”

The moderator told me I was incorrect, and that the answer was 1792. Ahem…did he just say my answer of 1793 was wrong? I went on the counterattack, noting that the Chain cent dated to 1793 and thus my answer was correct.

There was a response from an audience member (I won’t name him since I haven’t asked his permission to do so, but suffice it to say, he knew his stuff and still does!). The half disme of 1792 was the first U.S. coinage, so I was wrong.

"But, but…that shouldn’t count! That’s not a real coin!"

We ended up going back-and-forth until the exasperated moderator tossed out the question and asked me another.

Which of us was right? Should the half disme (pronounce it as deem, think of it as dime) “count”? It depends on whom one asks, and how one puts the question. Were they used as money in practice? The fact that most examples are worn, including the Choice VF one coming up in the September 2009 Long Beach U.S. Coin Auction, suggests that they were indeed used that way.

Were they regular-issue coins? Their inclusion as patterns in the Judd reference suggests no, even though the 10th edition update of Judd states that they “circulated widely as regular issues” and calls the 1792 half disme “most assuredly a coin made for general circulation.” If one believes that a U.S. coin has to be struck at the U.S. Mint, then no, the 1792 half dismes, which were minted on private property, would not count. It all depends on how the question is asked and what the question wants.

There’s little question what collectors want, though – they want 1792 half dismes, regardless of grade. Our April 2006 Central States Signature® Auction bears this out: a holed VG details example brought $14,950 including Buyer’s Premium, while the Specimen 67 representative set a record at $1,322,500. When the Choice VF example on offer at Long Beach comes up for auction, it will fall between those two extremes, but where? Attending the auction, whether on the floor, as a telephone bidder, or via Heritage LIVE!, is the best way to find out!

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-John Dale Beety

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