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Bullion Shark – Collecting Kennedy Half Dollars

By Bullion Shark LLC ……
The assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 was a shock to millions of Americans and people around the world who mourned the passing of the young leader. Within five days of this historic event, U.S. Mint Director Eva Adams authorized work to begin on a new silver half dollar with a likeness of the slain president.

On December 10, 1963, President Lyndon B. Johnson asked the Congress to authorize such a coin even though an 1890 law only allowed a design change once every 25 years. Test strikes were struck days later even before Congress passed legislation a week later. To save time the United States Mint used the portrait of Kennedy from the 1961 presidential medal designed by Chief Engraver Gilroy Roberts and the reverse of that medal with a heraldic eagle by Frank Gasparro as the starting point for the coin’s design.

On December 30, the President signed the bill into law, and a month later the Denver Mint began striking 90% silver circulation strikes, which were released to the public starting on March 24, 1964. This was the only time a coin was issued just four months after the death of an American public figure.

When Kennedy’s widow Jackie saw the coin, she asked Roberts to muss up the hair (soften the hairlines) after production had already begun, which led to the first variety of the series known as the Accented Hair Proofs. The second variety (which appears on the rest of the series except the 2014 50th anniversary silver and gold coins, which are also in higher relief) is known as the normal hair variety.

The coins were an immediate hit with the public, which began hoarding them in large quantities, and was also in demand overseas since many people around the world mourned JFK and wanted a keepsake of the president. To this day, people who receive the coin in circulation typically put it aside thinking it is made of silver or otherwise valuable or simply because of the ongoing mystique that surrounds JFK.

The Last Silver Halves

Over 400 million 1964 Kennedy half dollars and 1964-D silver halves– the last 90% silver half dollars were issued – were minted and are often purchased today in rolls. Many of them have been melted such as in 1980 when silver hit $50 an ounce. Yet many millions of the coins remain.

In 1964, a silver shortage emerged because of rising silver prices, the large number of Morgan dollars paid out at face value at banks and the speculative fervor for BU rolls at the time, so the Mint reduced the silver content of the coins from 1965-1970 to 40%. This also made the 1964 half dollars a one-year type coin, always popular with collectors.

In 1971 (by which time half dollars were no longer popular for use in commerce), all silver was dropped from the coins, which since then have been issued in clad (copper-nickel). In 2002, the Mint stopped issuing the coins for circulation, but it still sells them in bags and rolls of clad coins and continues to issue them in Proof and Uncirculated sets and in silver for the Silver Proof sets.

Issued continuously for 56 years, Kennedy halves are one of the most popular and widely collected modern coin series with a basic set of the coins accessible to anyone in grades up to MS66 for the clad coins with those in higher grades running several hundred each up to many thousands. For the 90% and 40% silver issues, even MS66 coins run at least a couple hundred dollars.

In terms of design types, the series is unusual for one that has lasted 56 years, 12 years longer than the Morgan dollar, in that there was only one design change, which was the bicentennial coin issued in 1976 that depicts a front view of Independence Hall in Philadelphia on its reverse side.

Sets and Condition Rarities

A complete set of the BU and proof coins runs less than $2,000, while adding the main varieties and the 2014-W gold coin (made of .75 ounces of gold with a mintage of 73,772 coins) brings the set up to $7,500 or more.

But the advanced collector who wants to have the highest-graded examples of each issue will need to spend many hundreds of thousands of dollars, and it will take time to assemble as there are a number of significant condition rarities. These include the 1964-D in MS68 that is worth $26,500, and the 1966 in the same grade that runs $15,000 – as well as many dates from the 1980s and ’90s that run around $3,000 to $5,000 in that grade.

There is only one major rarity in the series–a coin that was not supposed to be made–and that is the 1964 Special Mint Set coin. With estimates of the number of coins being between 12 and 50, it is by a long way the rarest coin of the series and a major modern rarity. The record for the highest price paid for a JFK half goes to an SP68 example that sold at auction in 2019 for $156,000. From 1965-67 the Mint issued these special sets instead of Proof sets. The coins were circulation strikes with a matte finish.

The 1964 sets, which first came to light in 1993 in a Stack’s catalog, may have been issued as test pieces for the sets or perhaps as presentation sets to mark the end of 90% silver coinage.

Ways to Collect

There are many different ways to collect the series in addition to building raw or graded complete sets of BU and proof coins. Others also or instead collect the many varieties like the 1972-D without the initials “FG” for Frank Gasparro or the 1974-D doubled die coin.

Type collectors need one of each metal (90% and 40% silver, clad and gold), the bicentennial coin (which was issued in clad and silver) and one of each finish. In terms of finishes, the coin has been issued from the beginning in business strike and Proof, in Satin Uncirculated for mint sets from 2005 to 2010, in Matte Proof in 1998 with a mintage of 62,000 (the lowest mintage issue of the series that is not a variety) as part of a special set to honor JFK’s brother Robert Kennedy; in reverse proof and enhanced uncirculated as part of the special 50th anniversary silver coin with mintages of 219,173; and in enhanced reverse proof only for the two-coin Apollo 11 50th anniversary set (99,998 minted).

Kennedy halves are a staple of modern American numismatics that have helped drive interest in collecting modern coins for decades. They will remain popular with many types of coin collectors and those many individuals who admire the former president, whose likeness has appeared on more coins and medals issued around the world than probably anyone besides Abraham Lincoln and Queen Elizabeth II.

Interested in these coins? Contact Bullion Shark at 516-739-5822
or visit their website at https://bullionsharks.com/

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  1. As someone old enough to remember the end of the 1960s, by 1971 the half dollar wasn’t so much unpopular as it was unfamiliar. The Mint’s failure to switch the coin’s composition to Cu-Ni at the same time as dimes and quarters left it hugely vulnerable to hoarding during that speculative run-up to $50/oz. People became accustomed to using multiple quarters when making change, letting the fifth slot in most cash drawers morph into a catch-all for paper clips and rubber bands. There was soon a vicious cycle where the coin didn’t circulate because few people used it, and few people used it because it didn’t circulate.

    Had the Mint followed Australia’s lead by admitting it was a fool’s errand to treat the 50¢ piece as a “prestige” silver coin, the denomination might have survived much longer.


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