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Inexpensive 20th Century Half Dollars for Beginners

A Weekly CoinWeek Column by Greg Reynolds
News and Analysis regarding scarce coins, coin markets, and the coin collecting community #174 …..

Last week’s topic was modestly priced Bust Half Dollars, which may be too expensive or too exotic for beginners. After someone has collected coins for a while, it is not unusual for he or she to gravitate towards bust half dollars, as these are readily available, attractive pre-1840 coins that are usually not very expensive. Even so, beginners are more likely to be interested in 20th century silver coins. The purpose of this discussion is to provide advice as to how to get started collecting silver half dollars of the 20th century.

Silver half dollars are among the most popular of all coin denominations in the history of U.S. coin collecting. Although silver dimes may be better values, from a logical perspective, a larger number of people demand silver half dollars. Over time, a substantial percentage of beginners have been especially attracted to silver half dollars.

50c_groupBeginners are more likely to be familiar with the designs of 20th century coins than of 19th century coins. Indeed, millions of people have seen pre-1965 silver coins on television, in the collections of friends, in jewelry shops, at flea markets or at “antiques” shows. So, familiarity and the fact that 20th century coins tend to be available at a low cost are reasons for beginners to collect them.

After a collector builds a 20th century type set of silver half dollars, at a low cost, he or she may decide to enhance that set or to start an intermediate or advanced collecting project. After all, a new collector should be cautious and not spend ‘a lot,’ for a few months or at least for a few weeks, while gaining from experience and learning at least a little about the coin business.

I. Types of Half Dollars

The seventeen design types of U.S. silver half dollars are: 1) Flowing Hair (1794-95); 2) Draped Bust, Small Eagle (1796-7) ; 3) Draped Bust, Heraldic Eagle (1801-07); 4) Capped Bust, “Lettered Edge” (1807-36); 5) Capped Bust, “Reeded Edge” (1836-39); 6) Liberty Seated, No Drapery, No Motto (1839 only); 7) Liberty Seated, With Drapery No Motto (1839-53, 1856-66); 8) Arrows & Rays (1853 only); 9) Liberty Seated, No Motto, With Arrows, No Rays (1854-55); 10) Liberty Seated, With Motto (1866-91 except 1874); 11) Liberty Seated, With Motto, With Arrows (1873-74); 12) Barber (1892-1915); 13) Walking Liberty (1916-47); 14) Franklin (1948-63, though 1964 Franklins may exist); 15) Kennedy-90% silver (1964 plus later Proof-only issues); 16) Kennedy-40% silver (1965-70); 17) Kennedy Bicentennial 40% silver (1976).

Various silver commemoratives are separate topics. Vintage commemorative half dollars were minted from 1892 to 1954. The bicentennial issues of 1975-76 could be termed ‘commemoratives,’ some of which were 40% silver. Furthermore, non-circulating, silver, commemorative half dollars have been produced, at various times, from 1982 to the present. The current discussion is limited to regular issues and Proofs that correspond to regular issues.

Copper-Nickel ‘Clad,’ Kennedy Half Dollars that contain no silver were first struck in 1971. These have little value by themselves and are usually collected as parts of Proof sets or of uncirculated “Mint Sets.” Such sets are sold directly to collectors by the U.S. Mint, and sets that were sold in the past are traded among dealers in the present. A 1971-S Proof Set, for example, retails for less than $8, and includes Proof 1971-S coins of five denominations.

II. Kennedy Half Dollars

50c_ken_obvDuring 1964 only, 90% silver business strike, Kennedy Half Dollars were produced. Before 1980, half dollars struck in Philadelphia never had mintmarks. More than 270 million Kennedy Halves dated 1964 were struck in Philadelphia and more than 150 million were struck in Denver, each with a ‘D’ mintmark. At least one-third of the original mintages survive, so there are more than 140 million 1964 or 1964-D halves around in the present. There are not nearly that many collectors interested in them.

A beginner should not pay a significant sum for a 1964 Kennedy Half Dollar. A circulated piece could probably be found for a price that is not much higher than the value of its silver content (‘melt value’). According to coinflation.com, an uncirculated (‘MS’) 1964 half had a ‘melt value’ of about $7.882 on June 22, 2013, $7.1796636001 worth of silver and $0.0085432 in copper. A collector should be able to acquire a pleasant AU-55 grade 1964 half for less than $10.

Someone who wishes to splurge on a 1964 Kennedy could consider acquiring a PCGS graded MS-65 coin for around $25. A PCGS or NGC graded MS-66 1964 half might retail for around $100 and is not a good value. A regular, business strike 1964 Kennedy Half is just too common to be worth $100, from a logical perspective. Someone who has some time for a search may find a naturally and colorfully toned AU-55 to MS-63 grade piece, perhaps one that was kept in an album for decades. There is no need to pay more than $20 for an especially attractive, 90% silver, Kennedy Half Dollar.

PCGS or NGC certified Proof-67 grade 1964 Kennedy Half Dollars tend to sell online for a range of prices, from $15 to $45. It is difficult to draw a conclusion about the wide range of prices without seeing the individual coins that sold. In any case, nearly four million Proof 1964 halves were minted and nearly all of them are extant. Beginners should not spend more than $25 for one, in any grade. A non-certified Proof-65 or Proof-66 1964 half should be priced well below $20, though non-certified coins sometimes have serious problems that are not readily apparent.

For the collector who demands Proof Kennedy Halves that have ‘Deep Cameo’ contrasts, white frosted devices contrasting with dark, almost black, fields, a PCGS or NGC certified ‘Proof-67 Deep Cameo’ 1964 half could be easily be purchased for less than $235. Usually, these do not appear significantly different from those that are certified as “Proof-68 Deep Cameo” or “Proof-69,” and the certified “Proof-67 Deep Cameo” coins are much better values than the higher certified Proof Kennedy Halves.

Even so, paying $200 for one only makes sense for a buyer who has a strong fondness for ‘Deep Cameo’ contrasts. Many Proof 1964 halves feature incomplete, though substantial cameo contrasts, which some collectors find to be very attractive. For HD64ProofObvmost collectors, a Proof 1964 half that is NOT designated “Deep Cameo” at the PCGS or “Ultra Cameo” at the NGC may be a better value in terms of price.

As for the 1992-S to 2012-S Proof, 90% silver Kennedy Halves, it is best to buy these as parts of original “silver” Proof sets from these years, respectively. Such sets are not expensive and are often available in original U.S. Mint packaging. Most original “Silver Proof Sets” dating from 1992 to 1997 are available for less than $45 per set, sometimes for less than $25 per set. Only one 90% silver Proof Half from this era is needed for a type set.

Oddly, Kennedy Half Dollars dating from 1965 to 1970, both business strikes and Proofs, are 40% silver. These are extremely common. For example, nearly three hundred million 1967 halves were minted and tens of millions of them survive in the present.

For a type set, a non-certified MS-65 1968-D for less than ten dollars is a good value. Even if such a coin is very much overgraded by an incompetent or unethical dealer, an expenditure of ten dollars is not much for a coin collector to lose. Besides, a ‘Mint State’ 1968-D half has $2.89 worth of silver bullion, as of the evening of June 25, 2013.

A PCGS graded MS-65 1968-D has a retail value of around $18, and a PCGS graded MS-66 1968-D half has a retail value of around $40. Assuming that the coins purchased are appealing, these could be good values for collectors who feel comfortable spending such amounts for extremely common coins.

Personally, I figure that a nice AU grade 1968-D could be found for less than six dollars. As more than fifty million of these are likely to be around, six dollars seems to be a fair enough price for a 1968-D half.

As for the 40% silver 1976-S Bicentennial issue, a collector who seeks strong cameo contrasts may consider a Proof-67 coin, which has a retail value of less than $25. A PCGS certified “Proof-69 Deep Cameo” 1976-S 40% silver half should retail for less than $50.

Another option is to buy a “1976-S Silver Proof Set” with the 40% silver bicentennial quarter, Kennedy Half and Eisenhower Dollar, in original U.S. Mint packaging. Such sets should be easy to find at many small or medium sized coin shows and from mail-order coin firms. Usually, the coins included grade 65 or higher. Such sets are available from mainstream dealers of modern coins for less than $35 each.

Yes, there is more to collecting Kennedy Half Dollars than is evident in the discussion here, which is about type coins. I should mention the Special Mint Set (SMS) issues of 1965 to 1967. Those interested can buy SMS sets in original U.S. Mint packaging for modest prices. Millions were made. As for 1964 coins with “accented hair” and various other varieties of Kennedy Half Dollars, these are of interest to dedicated specialists in the series and should be ignored by collectors who are assembling type sets.

As this discussion is about silver half dollars, I am not now addressing copper-nickel “clad” Kennedy Halves, which have been minted from 1971 to the present. These can be obtained for a little over face value. Sometimes, tellers at banks provide half dollars to their customers at face value.

III. Franklin Half Dollars

Franklins were minted from 1948 to 1963, though there are rumors of 1964 dated Franklin Halves existing. I have never seen a 1964 Franklin.

50c_frank_obvJohn Albanese points out that “a whole set of uncirculated Franklin Halves could be bought for less than $600”! Albanese suggests that circulated Franklins from 1956 to 1963 could be found “at local coin stores or at small coin shows for just a little over silver melt value. They probably buy circulated Franklins for silver value and are glad to sell them for a small profit.”

A carefully selected, really nicely toned, AU-58 grade Franklin could be found for less than $12, perhaps less, though it might take time to find it. A PCGS graded MS-65 Franklin could be acquired for less than $35. In April, Heritage sold a naturally toned, NGC graded MS-66 1958 half, with a CAC sticker of approval, for $56.

I have been a coin enthusiast since I was five years old and I remain baffled that people pay tremendous premiums for Franklins that have so called “Full Bell Lines” on the reverse (back of the coin). These are hardly noticeable and do not have any impact on the overall design. Certainly, the “Bell Lines” should be ignored when collectors select coins for type sets.

A PCGS certified Proof-65 Franklin, of a common date, could be found for less than $35 and an NGC certified Proof-65 Franklin might be available for less than $27! A whole 1962 Proof Set, in original U.S. Mint packaging, should be available for less than $25 at many coin shows, though it makes sense to look carefully at the coins included in non-certified Proof sets.

HD1961ProofObvFor those enamored by ‘Deep Cameo’ contrasts, a PCGS or NGC certified Proof-67 Franklin Half could be found for less than $200. In many original Proof sets from the late 1950s or early 1960s, however, an attractive Proof Franklin with considerable cameo contrast could be found with a reasonable search and the whole set would cost less than $60, maybe less than $35. While it is unlikely that a Franklin found in a reasonably priced Proof set will ever be PCGS or NGC certified as ‘Proof-67 Deep Cameo,’ a choice and attractive, cameo Proof Cameo Franklin could be found in a set, a coin that many collectors would enjoy owning.

For Kennedy or Franklin Half Dollars, it is easy to spend more than $500 for one at some major auctions. Quite a few collectors pay more than $1000 each for some condition rarities, those that are among the highest certified of their respective issues. In my view, 19th century coins represent better values, as post-1934 coins are usually extremely common. Besides, collectors assembling type sets typically acquire representatives of very common dates. (Clickable links are in blue.)

III. Walking Liberty Half Dollars

Walking Liberty Half Dollars are often regarded as among the most beautiful coins and are not rare. Indeed, most dates (and Mint locations) are very common. Even the best dates are widely available. There are important condition rarities of some better dates in grades of 65 or higher, though the better dates should not be of concern to beginners who are forming type sets.HD1917AU58obv

For a type set, a PCGS graded MS-66 Walker, with a CAC sticker, could be found for less than $200. A non-certified AU-55 grade piece, with nice natural toning, could be acquired for less than $20. In some coin stores or at some small coin shows, a pleasant, Extremely Fine-40 to AU-50 grade Walker could probably be bought for just a little over the value of its silver content ($7.82 on June 22nd), certainly for less than $10.

In February in the second in a series on classic coins that cost less than $250 each, I noted that, for the budget-minded collector, a single pre-1934 Walker is a good idea for a type set. For example, a pleasant AU-55 grade 1917 could be acquired for less than $105.

On March 10, 2013, Heritage sold a PCGS graded MS-62 1917 for $141. It does not have an unnatural ‘white look,’ like most ‘MS’ certified Walkers. Online images suggest that it might have natural russet toning.

Online images likewise of the PCGS graded AU-58 1917 that Stack’s-Bowers auctioned in March suggest pleasing, natural toning. It sold for $147.

Proof Walkers were minted from 1936 to 1942. The tidal wave of grade-inflation and coin doctoring that harmed the coin community from 1997 or so to 2006 had a serious impact on Proof Walkers. For a type set, a PCGS or NGC certified Proof-63 Walker could be obtained for less than $500, though I would recommend against buying one. Those Proof Walkers that are currently graded “63” tend to be mediocre coins, at best. A beginner should probably avoid Proof Walkers or should cautiously consult experts before buying one.

IV. Barber Half Dollars

Yes, I know that Barber Half Dollars are generally classified as a 19th century type, rather than as a 20th century type. A series of coins that continues from one century to the next tends to be classified in accordance with the first of the two centuries, when the respective series began. Barber Half Dollars were minted from 1892 to 1915.

HD06O40obvAlthough it is not necessary to include a Barber Half in a set of 20th century half dollars, it is probably a good ides. Unlike Kennedy Halves, Franklins and Walkers, which are very common, Barber Halves tend to be truly scarce and they are not very expensive in low grades.

Philadelphia Mint issues of 1906, 1907 and 1908 are particularly inexpensive. One of these in Good-04 grade certainly would sell, in most cases, for less than $20. A 1906, 1907 or a 1908 in EF-40 grade retails for around $200. It may make sense to pay a premium for one that has pleasing natural toning and a minimum of contact marks.

There are many 20th century Barber Half Dollars in AU-50 to AU-55 grades that retail for prices between $300 and $500. The ones that are bright white usually have been artificially brightened via dipping in acidic solutions and should be avoided. Natural, medium gray or battleship gray toning is often found on AU grade Barber Halves and is generally regarded as desirable by advanced collectors of these.

Four different U.S. Mints produced Barber Half Dollars, those at Philadelphia, Denver, New Orleans and San Francisco. For a beginner, it may be interesting to assemble a set of Barber Halves from each of the four U.S. Mints. A 1907, a 1907-D, a 1907-O and a 1907-S could all be purchased in Good-04 grade for less than $100 in total!

In Fine-12 grade, a 1906 and a 1906-D each retail for around $40 each; a 1906-O and a 1906-S cost more, perhaps from $45 to $65 each. Price estimates should not be taken too literally, as every coin is different.

A set of EF-40 grade 1906, 1906-D, 1906-O and 1906-S halves would probably cost less than $1100 in total. Although I recommend acquiring PCGS or NGC graded EF-40 Barber Halves, it is difficult to find them as most collectors of these prefer non-certified coins.

In Sept. 2012, Heritage auctioned a PCGS graded EF-40 1906-O for $258.50. It is one of only nineteen so certified. In Jan. 2012, Stack’s-Bowers auctioned a PCGS graded AU-53 1906-O for $402.

Many EF-40 to AU-55 grade Barber Halves have never been submitted to the PCGS or the NGC. It is important to beware of non-certified coins because these often have serious problems that beginners would not notice. Experts sometimes miss serious problems as well.

It is important for coin collectors to find dealers that are competent and trustworthy. While no dealer can ‘bat a thousand,’ meaning no expert has a perfect record, a dealer should try hard to serve his customers. Dealers should think carefully about the physical characteristics of coins and be willing to discuss various details with their customers.

For collectors, reading about coins, viewing coins in actuality, and asking questions of experts, should all be part of an ongoing learning process. While a collector should not expect to become an expert, it is important to gain some idea of the characteristics of the kinds of coins that are being sought.

©2013 Greg Reynolds

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Greg Reynolds
Greg Reynolds
Greg Reynolds has carefully examined a majority of the greatest U.S. coins and most of the finest classic U.S. type coins. He personally attended sales of the Eliasberg, Pittman, Newman, and Gardner Collections, among other landmark events. Greg has also covered major auctions of world coins, including the sale of the Millennia Collection. In addition to more than four hundred analytical columns for CoinWeek and at least 50 articles for CoinLink, Reynolds has contributed hundreds of articles to Numismatic News newspaper and related publications. Greg is also a multi-year winner of the ‘Best All-Around Portfolio’ award from the NLG, as well as awards for individual articles, a series of articles on the Eric Newman Collection, and for best column published on a web site.

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