By Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez for CoinWeek.com ……
A 1964 Special Mint Set Kennedy half dollar recently turned heads when it was offered by Heritage Auctions during the September 7-11, 2016 Long Beach Expo U.S. Signature Auction. Trading for $47,000 USD, the coin listed as Lot #5545 became the first 1964 Special Mint Set (SMS) Kennedy half dollar posted in a public sale since 2010.
The 1964 SMS Kennedy half dollar is one of the most elusive modern United States coins and is by far the rarest non-error, non-die variety Kennedy half. Mystique shrouds the existence of 1964 SMS Kennedy half dollars, of which there are just 12 known examples. There is relatively little verified information explaining their origin or provenance, and the mystery coins are scarcely offered for sale.
How To Tell A 1964 SMS Kennedy Half Dollar from a Business Strike Or Proof
The 1964 SMS Kennedy half dollar that just sold for nearly $50,000 has a satin-textured surface, which is the general appearance of all 1964 SMS halves. Salmon-orange rim toning kisses the upper obverse and lower reverse surfaces of the coin with ambient white-gray coloration across the fields and devices. Surface marks on the lower obverse that mimic dark fingerprints are described by Heritage as “carbon-gray flecks.”
Overall, the coin boasts strong details and a sharp, square wire rim – features seen on other 1964 SMS Kennedy half dollars. Die polishing marks and an absence of contact marks further indicate these 1964 Kennedy half dollars were specially struck and not simply high-end business-strike specimens. These coins do not display the mirror-like reflective surfaces that are seen on proof coins, yet they have a stronger strike than seen on either the 1964 proof coinage or SMS coinage from 1965 through 1967.
Another important die marker on the 1964 SMS Kennedy half dollar is known as a “dangling 4”. This diagnostic is a tiny, teardrop shaped piece of metal that descends below the 4 digit in the coin’s 1964 date.
How Often Are 1964 SMS Kennedy Half Dollars Offered for Sale?
The discovery of the 1964 SMS half dollar came in the 1990s. For many years, the first appearance of the 1964 SMS Kennedy half dollar was recorded as 1993, but further researched has unveiled a June 1991 appearance of the 1964 SMS Kennedy half dollar, when an unusual five-piece set of 1964 Philadelphia-Mint coins was offered in a Stack’s sale.
“The [half dollar] has a fully satiny obverse and a somewhat reflective surface,” reads the description for the Stack’s lot. “The strike on all the coins is far sharper than is seen even on the Special Mint Sets. We suspect that these were struck as an experiment to determine the sort of finish the Mint would use from 1965 through 1967.”
The Lincoln cent, Jefferson nickel, Roosevelt dime, and Washington quarter in that same set also exhibited the same surface characteristics as the 1964 SMS Kennedy half dollar. The five coins were offered in a nondescript snap-tight plastic coin holder.
There are relatively few auction records to provide any solid analytical information on the coin’s overall market performance. Of the 12 known specimens, the majority grade Mint State-67 (MS), and two score a numerical grade as high as 69, with one graded as an MS coin and the other a Specimen Proof (or SP) piece. The lowest-grade is assigned to an example recognized by PCGS as an SP-64.
Population reports from the Professional Coin Grading Service (PCGS) and Numismatic Guaranty Corporation (NGC) reflect far more than a dozen individual specimens. However, many 1964 SMS Kennedy half dollars have been cracked out of their slabs, with most of those being regraded by PCGS, thus explaining the inflated population report.
Over the past decade, the 1964 SMS Kennedy half dollar has appeared at auction at least four times, not counting the most recent Heritage Auction listing. In November 2006, an MS-67 sold for $4,715 at a Bowers & Merena sale. In July 2008, an MS-67 traded for $6,037.50 in a Heritage auction. An MS-68 specimen crossed the block in April 2009 for $10,350. Heritage again sold an MS-67 in January 2010, with that piece commanding $16,100; it was the last public offering of a 1964 SMS Kennedy half dollar until September 2016, when the rare coin was listed in the Heritage Long Beach Expo auction.
Sales histories for the entire 1964 SMS set are similarly spotty. They have infrequently turned up for sale over the years. A world-record price for the five-coin set was achieved in 2013 when VDB Coins brokered a transaction involving a 1964 SMS set that sold for $151,200.
Interestingly, the most expensive coin in that set wasn’t a 1964 SMS Kennedy half dollar but rather the 1964 SMS Jefferson nickel, which earned an MS-68 grade from PCGS with Full Steps designation, indicating a complete strike on the steps of Monticello, seen on the reverse of the coin. That coin had an individual sales price of $84,170.68.
Where Did 1964 SMS Kennedy Half Dollars Come From?
There is much speculation, excessive rumor and very few facts concerning the origins of the 1964 SMS Kennedy half dollar. Before 1991, there was no known public numismatic record of the coin. It is suspected the 1964 SMS Kennedy half dollars and other 1964 SMS coins may have belonged to former U.S. Mint Director Eva Adams, who coordinated the swift introduction of the Kennedy half dollar in January 1964 – just weeks after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963.
Adams passed away on August 23, 1991 – just two months after the first Stack’s listing of the five-piece 1964 SMS coin set. Perhaps those coins were consigned by Adams’ or her family members during her waning days. Or perhaps the coins belonged to another U.S. Mint employee.
Adams’ estate was sold soon after her passing, and it is believed coin dealer Lester Merkin may have acquired some or all of the 1964 SMS Kennedy half dollars that may have been offered during that sale. Merkin passed away on July 26, 1992, and his collection was in turn sold by Stack’s.
Over the years since, 1964 SMS Kennedy half dollars have trickled into the marketplace. In many cases they have been uneventfully sold in private transactions. On few occasions, they turn up in public sales. When the 1964 SMS Kennedy half dollar does make a rare appearance in a public auction, fervent bidding from modern coin collectors and Kennedy half dollar enthusiasts surely follows.
Despite price declines among many coin series in recent years since the Great Recession of 2007-2009, the 1964 SMS Kennedy half dollar appears to hold its own in the marketplace. Its $47,000 final price in the recent Heritage Auction places it among the most expensive modern coins around.
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