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.