By Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez for PCGS ……
The mid-1960s was a colorful time in American numismatics, with the United States Mint making a series of changes to accommodate a terrible coin shortage brought on by widespread hoarding of 90% silver circulating dimes, quarters, and half dollars as the price of silver rose. To lessen the cost of producing circulating coinage, the Mint switched the composition of the dime and quarter to copper-nickel clad, and reduced the amount of silver in the half dollar to only 40%. And to help dissuade the removal of coins from circulation, the mint temporarily removed mintmarks from all coins beginning in 1965.
During that same year, mint officials stopped making annual Proof sets and Uncirculated sets, and instead focused on the production of circulating coinage.
But all was not lost for collectors, who were offered a new type of annual coin product called a Special Mint Set (typically abbreviated SMS). These Special Mint Sets consist of a single Lincoln cent, Jefferson nickel, Roosevelt dime, Washington quarter, and Kennedy half dollar each and represent a numismatic marriage of the Uncirculated sets and Proof sets.
The coins in the Special Mint Set were struck at the San Francisco Mint with polished dies and blanks and boast higher-quality finishes than seen on typical Uncirculated coins. However, SMS coins were generally not struck multiple times (as with most Proof coins) and in many cases were not polished at the Mint to the same degree as Proof coins. Thus, coins in the Special Mint Sets generally do not match the quality of typical Proof coinage. These sets were issued by the mint for $4 apiece – nearly double the price of the 1964 Proof and Uncirculated sets, issued at $2.10 and $2.40, respectively.
1965-67 Special Mint Sets: A Closer Look
While the Special Mint Sets of the mid-1960s were in production for only three years inclusive, they yielded a surprising number of noteworthy variations. Perhaps the most obvious of outward changes to the set over the course of those three production years is the packaging of the 1965 set versus the 1966 and 1967 sets.
The 1965 Special Mint Set was issued in pliable plastic packaging similar to the Proof and Uncirculated sets of the previous decade. The 1965 set contains a single Pliofilm packet with six sealed pockets, five containing each of the five coins and the sixth housing a navy blue and silver plastic token with a silhouetted design of a heraldic eagle and the words “UNITED STATES SPECIAL MINT SET”. The set comes with a certificate describing the new set, and all these materials are packaged together in a cream-colored outer paper envelope.
Major packaging changes debuted the next year for the 1966 and (later) 1967 sets, which come in a rigid two-piece plastic holder containing only the five SMS coins. This plastic holder is packaged in a navy-blue box emblazoned with the words “UNITED STATES SPECIAL MINT SET” in cream-colored writing. But the packaging for the 1966 and 1967 sets isn’t the only major distinction between these and the 1965 set. The quality of the coins themselves are notably different from year to year as well.
While all the SMS coinage exhibits far better strike and overall nicer quality than most Uncirculated coins of the period, there was a major shift in the quality of the SMS coins during the three years these Special Mint Sets were in production. The 1965 SMS coinage generally offers satin finishes with decent luster but little reflectivity in the fields. Relatively few 1965 SMS coins offer cameo contrast on the devices, lettering, and other raised features. Many collectors were less than impressed with the quality and presentation of the 1965 SMS coins and demanded better specimens. The United States Mint kicked things up a notch with the Special Mint Sets beginning the following year.
The 1966 and especially the 1967 coins much more closely resemble Proof coins, with much more deeply reflective fields and the raised features of early strikes often showcasing rich, frosted surfaces. While each of these SMS coins was struck with a special (SP) finish, some of the nicest pieces appear virtually indistinguishable from cameo Proofs. Even still, there are some surface discrepancies between the most exquisite SMS coins and typical Proof coins: the general absence of crystal-clear minute details often seen in Proof coins and the muted but undeniable appearance of flow lines in the fields, interrupting the watery smoothness in the fields more typical of Proofs.
The SMS Marketplace
Distribution figures for the Special Mint Sets are uniformly high, each year boasting mintages of around two million. The 1965 set saw a mintage of 2,360,000, while 2,261,583 sets were made in 1966 and 1,863,344 were produced in 1967. Intact sets in their original government packaging remain common in the marketplace today and generally trade for around $10 a piece. However, more and more are getting dissected to harvest individual coins within. One of the most common reasons for breaking up Special Mint Sets is to submit a particularly nice-looking coin for grading. And SMS coins that score top grades are worth big bucks.
Many top-quality 1965, 1966, and 1967 SMS coins easily notch three- and four-figure prices. These pieces often find homes in PCGS Registry Sets, several of which accommodate SMS coins for each of their respective series. Collectors have a variety of choices when buying SMS coins, which are graded with various designations akin to Proof coins (including CAM and DCAM), while the additional designations of Red, Red and Brown, and Brown apply to the various SMS Lincoln cents.
Providing additional numismatic flavor to the parade of SMS coins is the existence of minor and major varieties for several of the SMS issues.
Among these are two significant varieties among 1966 SMS Kennedy half dollars. These include the 1966 Doubled Die Obverse and 1966 No “FG” varieties. The former exhibits doubling within the motto “IN GOD WE TRUST” and across the profile of Kennedy, while the latter is missing designer Frank Gasparro’s “FG” initials as would normally be seen just under the eagle’s left thigh and above the tailfeathers in the lower right quadrant of the reverse.
One of the many wonderful things about collecting SMS coins of the mid-1960s is the wide range of pricing. These coins are affordable for just about any collector, regardless of budget limitations. Individual PCGS-graded SMS coinage in typical SP grades can be bought for less than $15 to $20 apiece. But PCGS Set Registry members who are after major grade-point averages and the title of finest set will gladly pay hand-over-fist for the nicest specimens. The presence of a couple significant varieties and the availability of the scarce and desirable cameo and deep cameo coins ensure something for just about everyone who ventures into the arena of SMS coins struck from 1965 through 1967.
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