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Inexpensive Halves That are Worth the Hunt
By Mark Benvenuto, Coins Magazine
January 24, 2014

This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine.
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The current U.S. Mint proof coinage program traces back to 1936. Since that time some absolutely gorgeous coins have been made, and collecting moved from being the hobby of the wealthy to something any of us can enjoy. Let’s see which inexpensive halves a person might be able to get their hands on today, whether as proofs, or high end coins made for circulation.

Kennedy halves
For whatever reason, it just doesn’t seem that there are many Kennedy half dollar collectors. Perhaps the fact that we don’t use them much in everyday commerce translates to the idea that they are not very collectible. Perhaps the single year of 90 percent silver, in 1964, means collectors consider that to be the start and the end of the collectible part of this series. Whatever the reason, numerous collectors ignore these 50-cent pieces, which is a pity.

One way to collect Kennedy halves, and to look for the best that one can find, is to find some place from which you can collect them from circulation. It might actually be easiest to become a local at your bank or credit union and see if the teller can help you with the task. See how long it takes to assemble a date run, and how high grade a set of pieces you can gather. Look out also for the 40 percent halves, minted from 1965-1970.

Another way to collect Kennedy halves is to buy from well-stocked dealers. Even in high grades, circulating Kennedy half dollars do not cost too much. Some have been slabbed—certified by third-party grading services, that is—and one can only imagine if the value of the coin is more than the slab in which it is housed. Making the effort this way could land you a collection rather quickly.

Kennedy proofs
If circulating Kennedys seem like too bland a proposition for you, why not try collecting the series as proofs? Believe it or not, this may be one of the few series of U.S. coinage in which proof pieces can almost all be found in dealer bargain bins. You see, every year of this series falls into the time frame of the modern proof program, and has seen proof mintages in the millions. Those who collect one denomination or another break them from their cases and sell off the coins they don’t need. Hence, proofs in bargain boxes.

Franklin halves

Franklin halves have the distinction of being the last of the all 90 percent silver half dollar series. Thus, none of them are as inexpensive as most of the Kennedys. But even the lower mintage dates are pretty common.

Where collecting Franklins becomes fascinating is in the better grades. Mint State-64 coins are generally affordable for just about all dates and mintmarks. But since Franklin half dollars were apparently not used a great deal in everyday commerce, there are some that can be found in grades such as MS-67 or -68. Also, watch for the elusive pieces with full bell lines on the coin’s reverse.

These higher grade Franklins are not going to be cheap coins. The ante for this card game, as it were, is always going to be in the hundreds of dollars. But some of them are not super expensive, even when you are looking at the best that have been graded and certified (and yes, to get serious about these levels of mint state, it is wise to stick to certified coins). For example, as this is being written, there are less than 10 of the 1958 Franklins made for circulation that have been graded MS-67 by Numismatic Guaranty Corp., and none are finer. But the cost for one, should you be able to get it, is only about $500 to $600. That’s surprisingly low for the best a person can possibly buy.

Franklin proofs
Collecting proof Franklin halves can become something of a passion unto itself. They were first produced in 1950, and made every year thereafter, always at the Philadelphia Mint. What makes these so interesting is how they span not a long stretch of years, but represent a long ramping up from coins we might consider scarce or rare, to coins that remain quite common today. For example, the 1950 is the rarest of the Franklin proofs, with only 51,386 minted.

The sets they were sold in have probably been broken up by now, or at least most of them have, which might actually make it easier to obtain one. After all, you don’t have to buy an entire year proof set.

But by 1953 the number of proofs had jumped into six figures, with 128,800 being the official total. Then, skip forward a few more years, to 1957, and you get to the first year in which there were more than 1 million proofs manufactured. By just about any stretch, that’s a common proof coin.

While there is a downward droop for proof Franklin half dollars in 1958 (only to 875,652), by 1959 the number went back up over 1 million, and in 1961 it went over 3 million.

Even if you don’t have a fortune to sink into the hobby, the chances are you do have enough to buy one of the later date Franklin half dollars as a proof. You may find it very possible to gather more, as the prices in Proof-65 hover around $50, and even some Proof-67s come in below $100 per coin. This can become a passion or hobby unto itself.

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Walking Liberty halves
Any collector who has ever walked into a dealer’s shop, attended a large show, or leafed through the pages of an issue of Coins has seen quite a few Walking Liberty half dollars for sale. They appear to be a perennial collector favorite. The design wears well, even as the coin sees increasing use, and the image was considered beautiful enough that it came back to life for the one-ounce silver American Eagle. Of the coins we are examining here, they are also the most expensive. Of course, you can buy Walking Liberty halves in lower grades for little more than the price of the 0.36169 ounces of silver metal in each, but I want you to know about the best.

What do Walking Liberty half dollars go for in the higher end of mint state? Well, there is bad and good news when it comes to high end Walking Liberty half dollars.

The bad news first: the less common dates and mintmarks will cost into the thousands of dollars in MS-65, and the key dates, such as the 1921-D and 1921-S, go for far beyond that, possibly even into six figures. But the good news, at least for those of us who don’t have the price of a house to spend on a single coin: The more common dates, especially those at the tail end of the series, can be purchased for between $200 and $300 in grades as high as MS-66.

The idea of buying only slabbed specimens when you make the decision to collect these halves is an important one. But it’s good to know there are several dates that can be purchased at or above MS-65 for less than that proverbial arm and a leg.

Walking Liberty proofs
I began with a brief comment that what can be called the modern proof set program got its start in 1936. That means there are several dates within the Walking Liberty half dollar series for which proofs exist. There was an issue of them each year from 1936 until 1942 (the program resumed in 1950 with the Franklins). As might be expected, these are expensive coins. The bottom line on any of the proof Walkers is $500, with the higher end climbing into the thousands of dollars.

But before we toss aside any thought of adding a proof Walking Liberty half to any collection of 50-cent pieces we are assembling, let’s first look at what we could be getting, then see if a plan can be made to get the funds. First, the lowest mintage among this seven-year run of proof halves is 3,901, for the 1936. As might be expected, that is the most expensive of them.

But the 1940, as well as the 1941 and 1942, had proof runs of just over 11,000, then 15,000, then 21,000 pieces. And that 1942, with its 21,120 proofs, can be purchased in a grade such as Proof-65 for about $600.

Expensive? Yes. Impossible to buy? No.

Doing some quick math we can see that if a person sets aside $60 per month, in 10 months he or she will have the needed $600. Since these are proof coins, their prices are probably going to be relatively stable, as proofs do not rise and fall with the fluctuations of precious metal prices (or at least, do not do so nearly as much). Thus, even with an outlay of only $60, you can have what you need in less than a year. Some dealers even allow a type of layaway, reserving your coin for you, as long as your payments are on time. It’s worth thinking about.

Barber and Seated halves
Back farther than the Walking Liberty half dollars there are some beautiful pieces in the Barber series, the Seated Liberty series, and even the different Bust series of the early 1800s. But no matter how much one looks, the better mint-state coins are always going to cost $1,000 or more.

I’ve been trying to find the best coins at the best prices, and somehow $1,000 or higher seems like we are drifting away from good prices. So for the moment, let’s reflect on just what kind of high end half dollars collectors can collect without steam rolling their wallets.

We’ve seen that the Kennedys have more promise than most of us thought, the Franklins are beautiful and beautifully priced, and that there are some excellent 50-cent pieces within the Walking Liberty halves. If you set your sights on it, a tremendous collection of half dollars can indeed be yours.

Good luck.

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