Background and History
The 1802 Draped Bust Half Dime is recognized as a prized rarity within American numismatics. It is unknown in uncirculated grade and only 35 pieces are estimated to have survived from the original mintage. Auction appearances are infrequent, with problem free examples usually attaining six figure prices. The issue had been recognized as the “King” of the half dime denomination until the later discovery of the unique 1870-S half dime in 1978.
The United States half dime traces its origin back to the Mint Act of 1792, where it was authorized as the smallest silver denomination. That same year a limited number of “half dismes” were struck, before there was even an official Mint building. These early pieces are often considered to be patterns, although many apparently circulated within the early United States. The first true half dimes were struck in 1794 with the Flowing Hair design.
After two years of issue, a new obverse design was adopted for the half dime. An alternative portrait of Liberty, which is said to have been proposed by Gilbert Stuart and designed by Robert Scot, depicted the iconic figure with her hair bound by a ribbon and her bust partially draped. What is now referred to as the Draped Bust Half Dime series was issued for two years with the reverse design of the previous series before a new design was adopted featuring a heraldic eagle.
During these early years of production, the output of half dimes had been somewhat regular, although the denomination was not often requested by private silver depositors. As the smallest silver denomination of the time, it was the one silver coin that the general public was most likely to see in actual circulation. This provided the backdrop from the extremely low mintage of 3,060 pieces in 1802 and the high attrition of these pieces through the impact of circulation and later melts.
The extreme rarity of the 1802 half dime was recognized once the hobby of coin collecting started to gain momentum in the 1850’s. The stature of the rarity was assured when in 1863 an example of the 1802 half dime sold for a higher price than the finest known 1794 dollar.
The total recorded mintage for the 1802 half dime is a mere 3,060 pieces, with only a single die variety known. From this number, there are currently 35 recorded examples known to exist in all grades, or slightly over 1% of the original mintage. Within the grand scope of early United States coinage, this is an average number, somewhat on the low side. It was not until the 1850’s that collectors came to realize the rarity of this particular issue. At the time only a handful were known in all grades, although some more have turned up since then.
In 1863, the issue attracted significant attention when a piece described to be in “very good condition” sold for a sum of $340. The same year, the finest known 1794 dollar had sold for a lower price of $285. This comparison shows that the rarity of the 1802 half dime had come to be understood by this time when numismatics had become more popular in the United States.
An interesting observation which can be made when studying this issue is that the current roster of higher grade examples often have pedigrees dating back to the 19th century. This illustrates that these pieces were cherished early on and carefully preserved throughout the years. Once in a great while, an unrecorded specimen might be discovered in the ground, a dealers junk box (this actually has happened with some low end examples), or in a family’s holdings. These discoveries have mostly occurred for examples in low grade or damaged condition, making it unlikely that the current condition census for this issue will be altered much for the decades to come.
Finest Known and Values
The finest known 1802 half dime is an example that has been graded PCGS AU-55. This is followed by one or more examples graded by NGC as AU-50. The NGC census shows three pieces graded as such, but this may be inflated by resubmissions of the same coin. There have been no pieces certified in uncirculated condition.
Below the AU level, VF-XF pieces remain extremely rare, possibly numbering less than 10. Below that, the concentration of coins are in AG to VG grades, often damaged, cleaned, or with other problems. These account for as much as two dozen pieces within the total known population. When this issue makes an appearance at auction, it is generally these lower grade and problem pieces that are offered.
The value of any 1802 half dime is difficult to determine because of infrequent offerings and the impact of the overall eye-appeal of the issue and the demand at the time of sale. This is true for most United States coins, but it seems to be on the more extreme end of the spectrum for this issue. One example graded by PCGS as XF-45 sold for $299,000 at an auction in 2006. This was followed three years later by the sale of a different coin carrying the same grade of PCGS XF-45, which sold for the significantly lower price of $195,500. While the first price was somewhat on the high end, the second price may have been a bargain, as a NGC AU-50 sold for $345,000 in 2008.
As for the lower end examples that are more frequently offered, prices are influenced by the nature of any problems as well as overall eye appeal. In the current market, any 1802 half dime regardless of condition tends to sell for at least $15,000 or more. Problem free coins which receive a numerical grade from PCGS or NGC can typically sell for up to $100,000 or more.
Extensive research by David Davis has showed that on average, over a 140 year period, only one 1802 half dime is offered for sale in any given year. This provides collectors with very few opportunities to acquire this famous American rarity.