Both obverse and reverse dies were used to strike regular-issue half dimes of the V-3, LM-3 variety dated 1794. Struck in copper with a reeded edge.
In his magnum opus United States Patterns and Related Issues, Andrew Pollock III subdivides the older Judd-15 designation into two closely related classifications, Pollock-19 and 20. Pollock-19 is from the dies used to strike V-3, LM-3 variety 1794 half dimes, with the date close to the bust. Pollock-20 is from the dies used to strike V-4, LM-4 half dimes, with the date placed far from the bust. The present coin is one of the two known examples of Pollock-19.
The 1794 half dime was the first coin of this denomination struck at the U.S. Mint, because the famous 1792 issue was actually struck in John Harper's cellar before the Mint was built. Both examples of Pollock-19 are true die trial pieces, struck to test the half dime dies in 1794 or early 1795. In Federal Half Dimes 1792-1837, Russell Logan and John McCloskey report that all 1794 half dimes were delivered on March 30, 1795, so it is likely that the Pollock-19 coins were actually struck in early 1795. Both examples are remarkably well preserved, with the present coin certified as AU55 by NGC, and the other specimen grading an astounding MS64 Brown, also by NGC. It is clear that this issue has been prized and well cared for since the earliest days of the hobby.
Robert Coulton Davis compiled the first important listing of pattern coinage, published serially in The Coin Collector's Journal from 1885-1886. The 1794 half dime pattern was described as follows, "No. 12.-Obv. LIBERTY. Head with flowing hair to right. Before the head, seven stars; behind seven. In ex., 1794. Rev. UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. An eagle with outstretched wings within a wreath of laurel. This is the pattern mill, or 1/10 of a cent. Copper." Davis apparently missed the first star behind Liberty's head, enmeshed in the curls.
The attribution of this pattern as a mill has caused much confusion among pattern researchers. Pollock notes that "R. Coulton Davis regarded these pieces as pattern mills, equivalent to one tenth of a cent. Interestingly, Davis' attribution seems to be substantiated by the weight of one specimen enumerated in the census below, 19.7 grains, which, of course, is very close to the expected theoretical weight of 20.8 grains. Unfortunately, no other weight data are presently available for this variety." Pollock was referring to the present coin, which he had examined, weighed, and measured. His theory that Davis might have attributed the coin based on weight and composition is ingenious, but further research has uncovered a different source for the attribution.
A description of an obscure lot in the Mickley Collection (Woodward, 10/1867), lot 2138, explains Davis' curious attribution. The lot description follows, "2138. Pattern Mill, or tenth of a cent, 1794, copper, struck from the dies of the 1794 Half-Dime, fine and excessively rare, possibly unique." From this description, it is clear that Davis was not basing his attribution on scientific weights and measures. He was merely describing the coin that appeared in the Mickley sale 18 years earlier. Of course, Pollock's observation may explain why Woodward described the coin as he did in 1867.
The whereabouts of the present example prior to its appearance in Auction '85 has puzzled researchers for the last century. In The Comprehensive Catalogue and Encyclopedia of United States Coins, Don Taxay specifically states the coin in the Mickley Collection was from the "Val. 3" dies, identifying it as a Pollock-19. It is hard to know what his source was, since the lot description is not detailed enough to differentiate between V-3, LM-3 (Pollock-19) and V-4, LM-4 (Pollock-20) dies. Perhaps he had information on the location of the single known example of Pollock-20 in 1867. In any case, trusting that Taxay is correct in identifying lot 2138 as the long-missing present example of Pollock-19, part of the mystery is solved. The purchaser of lot 2138 was Col. Mendes I. Cohen, the prominent Baltimore collector. At the sale of the Cohen Collection (Cogan, 10/1875), lot 384 is described as follows, "1794 Half Dime. Copper. Trial piece. Exceedingly rare. Fair." The lot was purchased by Jules Fonrobert, the great industrialist and collector from Berlin. Fonrobert was bidding under the name "Roberts" at the sale. Fonrobert sold his collection through Adolph Weyl in 1878. Extensive research has failed to turn up any further appearances of this coin until it surfaced in Auction '85. Much like the second example of the Paquet Reverse double eagle, the coin seems to have gone overseas in the early times and only returned after a lengthy hiatus. The present offering is incredibly important, as the coin may not appear on the market again for years.
Physical Description. The strike is strong for a coin of 1794, with only a little softness on the eagle's breast. The surfaces are a lovely chocolate-brown and have a minimum number of abrasions for the grade. There is a small rim bruise above the B in LIBERTY. Excellent eye appeal and fascinating history combine in this nearly unique pattern from the earliest days of the Mint.