By Ron Drzewucki – Modern Coin Wholesale ……
In this installment of Grading Coins, I’m going to talk about the popular Franklin half dollar series.
The Franklin half dollar was struck for just 15 years, from 1948 to 1963. It was replaced in 1964 by the Kennedy half, under circumstances that need no explanation here.
Personally, when it comes to 20th-century type half dollars, I’ve always been most fond of Weinman’s Walking Liberty design, but the Franklin half is a close second. It has a clean, clear design that I find to be uncluttered and timeless.
Chief Engraver John R. Sinnock is best remembered for being the designer of the Roosevelt dime, but it’s the Franklin half that I find to be his best work.
The coin’s obverse features a right-facing bust of Franklin. He is surrounded by LIBERTY at the top and IN GOD WE TRUST at the bottom. Both inscriptions wrap around the rim. The date appears to the right of Franklin, just underneath his chin.
On the reverse, centered, is the Liberty Bell. I’ll discuss this feature in depth in a moment. Again, wrapping around the top and the bottom of the design is text, in this case, the legend and denomination: UNITED STATES oF AMERICA and HALF DOLLAR. Our national motto – E PLURIBUS UNUM – appears in a smaller font to the left of the bell. The statutorily-required eagle (drawn in miniature) stands to the right of the bell.
Its this perfect symmetry of obverse and reverse design that makes the Franklin half dollar a true classic.
Today, Franklin half dollars are widely collected by mint, by date, in Proof and Mint State finishes, and by variety. A complete set of BU Franklins can cost as little as a few hundred dollars over silver spot or as much as 10 or more thousand dollars per coin, depending on characteristics that I will describe in this column.
The key to collecting the series is finding coins that you like with great eye appeal, coins that you enjoy looking at, and coins that you want to own.
The key to grading them? Well, that’s another story.
And I’ll tell you that story now…
MS-60 to MS-63
The Sheldon Grading Scale exists on a 70-point continuum, where every point from 60 to 70 (the “Mint State band”) is considered when looking at an uncirculated coin. For some series, using MS-60 or MS-61 makes sense. But for the Franklin half dollar, you can throw those grades out the door. They “frankly” don’t exist… and if you were to ever find an uncirculated one banged up enough to qualify as one of these two low Mint State brackets, you probably wouldn’t want to own it anyway.
But what about MS-62?
In the grading room, an MS-62 is more often than not a submitter mistake; a coin that someone thought was MS-63 but was a little too banged up to make the grade. A couple thousand of these have made it into holders over the years, but there isn’t much of a premium market for them. I can’t remember the last time I saw one, actually.
The true starting point for Mint State Franklin half dollars that a grading service might actually receive from a customer is MS-63–and even at this grade, odds are that the submitter overlooked a glaring issue with the coin and hoped they had a 64 or 65 instead.
At 63, a Franklin half dollar may be softly struck, dull, or lifeless. Or it may have a nice strike and great luster but be severely bag marked. This is especially true of half dollars struck in the latter half of the 1950s through 1963, as BU coins in mint bags were heavily hoarded by silver speculators.
- Pro tip 1: If you’re a coin dealer – or silver stacker – and someone offers you a deal on unsorted, un-searched, and uncirculated Franklin halves, especially from the years I just mentioned, it’s safe to say that you will probably be looking at a bunch of MS-63s.
- Pro tip 2: If you’re a collector (and not a professional dealer), and you hold a Franklin in your hand that is Mint State but that you’d never pay to have someone grade due to obvious problems on the coin, then you probably have a MS-63.
When you get to MS-64, you find yourself looking at a quality coin with too many hits in the focal areas. The Franklin half is a well-designed coin from an artistic standpoint, but its uncluttered design leaves most of the coin vulnerable to contact marks. A gem coin should appear, at first glance, to be clean of contact marks that reveal themselves once one takes a closer, more studied look.
MS-64s aren’t quite there. First, look at the hair details, the Franklin’s cheek, and the bottom of the bust truncation. These are the high points of the coin’s obverse and they are often nicked and scraped.
The bell on the reverse reveals any incidental contact that happened to the coin after it was struck. Check out the entire bell, especially the bottom.
If the coin has hits in these high relief areas but the fields are otherwise clean – even if the strike is a bit soft… you have a coin that should grade MS-64.
At MS-65, a Franklin half dollar will be, for the most part, free of major marks. Not totally free of marks, mind you, just free of major ones. The bell on the reverse will still take some hits and expect that Franklin’s bust, hair, and face will exhibit minor hits as well. Nothing major at this grade.
In the certified world, MS-65 Franklins are considered mid-grade. Dealers usually won’t pay a premium for them unless they have spectacular toning, are from a conditionally scarce date, or have Full Bell Lines.
For people who collect slabbed coins, MS-66 is the sweet spot for this series. Most collectors will be able to piece together most of the set at this grade, even with Full Bell Lines. Don’t get lulled into the believing that you’ll be able to put the entire set together at this grade without doing some work (or ponying up for PQ coins).
The PCGS and NGC pop reports will tell you which dates are scarce at this issue. 1949-D, 1951-D, 1959-D, 1960, 1961, and 1963… these dates are super tough in 66. 1961-D and 1962 are even tougher.
What makes MS-66 Franklins a cut above their MS-65 gem counterparts is an overall cleanness to the surfaces. At this grade very light contact marks are permissible- but nothing that is in any way distracting. Again, high points of the coin are the most susceptible to damage. The Bell and Franklin’s bust should be mostly clean. Isolated marks are ok- but nothing deep or noticeable. If the coin is heavily toned, the grader may give the coin the benefit of a doubt–especially if the color is nice.
The fields should be clean and attractive.
The ultimate business strike Franklin.
MS-67 is, for all intents and purposes, as good as it gets; NGC has graded two at MS-68, while PCGS has graded none. A MS-67 won’t be a perfect coin, but it should be one of the best looking Franklin half dollars you have ever seen. Only the lightest ticks are permitted. The obverse counts more than the reverse in the mind of a grader and it should carry the coin at this grade.
At MS-67, due to the premiums associated with conditional rarity, buying a coin with knockout eye appeal is a must. This is also a “put away” grade. Franklins with PQ eye appeal, PQ color, and PQ surfaces in MS-67 will only become more and more desirable as this series matures. You will seldom see the “best of the best” on the market, unless you’re talking about a major auction.
On Full Bell Lines
Sometimes Franklin half dollars will technically look like they have Full Bell Lines (FBLs), but they won’t because of a hit that breaks them up. This is a mistake collectors often make when they self-assess a coin for this attribution. In addition, depending on the year and the quality of the strike, some of the dies and hubs used to strike Franklins didn’t have well defined lines in the first place. Again, the pop reports will provide you a road map to the density of fully-struck Franklins.
In my opinion, the premiums placed on the coins are totally in line with what collectors want. Collectors want high-quality FBL Franklin half dollars. Even better if the coin is all there and has nice, mint set toning.
I’m sure many of you know, but I used to be one of the senior graders at NGC. So don’t let it surprise you too much when I say that I happen to think both NGC and PCGS do a great job grading Franklin half dollars and getting the FBL designation right.
But why wouldn’t they? FBL attribution is the easiest part of evaluating Franklins–it’s either there or it’s not. Grading is much more subjective.
The key to the series is to buy what you enjoy. This is a series that’s here to stay, and it’ll only pick up steam as the years go by. No matter where the market takes the coin, there’s no consolation prize for buying coins that don’t pop and excite. In Mint State, the Franklin half dollar is by no means scarce. But beautifully-toned, high-grade and attractive coins are different things altogether.
I hope you get into the series and enjoy many years hunting down that next great coin!