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Collecting Kennedys: Many ways to collect historic halves
By Mike Thorne, Ph.D.
September 22, 2017

To paraphrase Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Nov. 22, 1963 was “a date which will live in infamy.” On that date Lee Harvey Oswald, acting either alone or with other conspirators, assassinated the 35th president of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy.


Much has been written about that event, which was “A Cruel and Shocking Act,” according to the title of a book about the assassination purchased recently by my wife. Even horror novelist Stephen King took a stab at the story with his book, 11/22/63, which I read in a Kindle edition on a bus trip to the Northwest. If you’re into the time travel genre, it’s a blast.


If you were around back in 1963 and were old enough to be aware of such things, then you’ll remember the shock and horror of that day and the days following it. No matter how you felt about the man himself, you were bound to be affected by the assault on our country through the murder of our young president.


And if that weren’t bad enough, two days later, on live television, nightclub owner Jack Ruby shot Oswald as he was being transferred from city jail to county jail. The wound proved fatal. Ruby’s motive was supposedly to spare Mrs. Kennedy the ordeal of having to return to Dallas for a trial.


Shortly after the assassination, Congress authorized a coin to memorialize the slain president without specifying the denomination other than to say that it should be a silver coin. Because there was no guarantee that silver dollars would ever be coined again, and Jackie Kennedy didn’t want JFK’s likeness to replace that of George Washington, the half dollar was chosen.


To simplify the design process, the Mint’s chief engraver, Gilroy Roberts, was told to use the Kennedy inaugural medal as the prototype for the coin’s design. Thus, Roberts adapted the design he had created for the obverse of the medal, with Frank Gasparro performing the same operation on his reverse design for the same medal.


As a result of this speedy approach to the Kennedy half’s design, proof dies for the coin were available in early January, with ultimately nearly 4 million proofs coined for the 1964 sets. Circulation-strike production began at the end of the month at the Denver Mint.


On March 24, the new half dollars were placed on sale to the public in Washington, D.C. Despite limiting customers to 40 coins apiece, the 70,000 coins allocated sold out by the end of the day, with a line of buyers waiting as lengthy as the initial line when the coins went on sale. Although similar rationing occurred at banks in other major cities, such as in Boston and Philadelphia, the result was the same as in Washington.


Souvenir hunters and speculators purchased the new half dollars as fast or faster than they could be produced. Another factor fueling the sales was the rise in silver bullion prices.


Writing in his Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins, Walter Breen said that another factor may have been rumors that the designer’s initials GR actually represented the Soviet Union’s hammer and sickle. Because of this, some of the coins may have been hoarded pending recall and design change.


Ultimately, more than 400 million Kennedy half dollars were produced in 1964, with more than 270 million from Philadelphia and another 156+ million from Denver. As the Mint’s stock of silver declined and the price of the metal rose, the decision was made to lower the silver content of the half dollars while eliminating it completely from dimes and quarters. Thus were born the silver-clad Kennedys, with each coin containing 40 percent silver.


Silver-clad Kennedys were minted from 1965 through 1970, with nickel-clad halves becoming the order of the day thereafter, except for special issues. Despite the production of hundreds of millions of Kennedy halves, they have never circulated to any extent, and in 2002 production of the half dollar for circulation ceased. Since that time, each year’s coins have been available only through the Mint.


As with any series that’s more than 50 years old, there are many different ways to collect Kennedy half dollars. The PCGS Registry Set site, for example, lists seven different major sets, with another six specialty sets. PCGS Registry Sets are collections of coins all certified by PCGS. You can assemble Registry Sets of NGC-certified coins as well.


One example of a PCGS major set is the Basic Set, Circulation Strikes (1964-Present). This set requires 101 different date/mintmark combinations of Kennedys minted for circulation. It includes circulation-strike examples of coins only available through the Mint, such as the 1970-D, found only in 1970 mint sets, and all circulation-strike Kennedys minted since 2002.


Include proof Kennedys with the Basic Set, and you’ll need 182 coins to complete your collection. Obviously, quite a few proof Kennedy half dollars have been produced over the years.


For the ultimate set, you can add major varieties to the Basic Set with proofs. For this, you will need 207 different coins. Major varieties include coins from Bill Fivaz and J. T. Stanton’s Cherrypickers’ Guide to Rare Die Varieties of United States Coins. Two examples are FS-101, 1964-D with doubled-die obverse, and FS-901, 1972-D with no designer’s initials.


A major design change occurred in the Kennedy series, as a special reverse was designed to commemorate the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976. Seth G. Huntington’s Independence Hall design was selected. Ultimately, more than 520 million halves were struck in 1975 and 1976 bearing Huntington’s reverse design and dual dates (1776-1976) on the obverse.


For a Kennedy set requiring only a few coins for completion, you might select one of PCGS’s specialty sets. The first one of these listed is the Kennedy Half Dollar Basic Silver Short Set, Circulation Strikes (1964-1970). Only eight coins are required for set completion: 1964 and -D (90 percent silver), 1965-1967 (40 percent), and 1968-D, 1969-D, and 1970-D (all 40 percent).


Ordinarily, at this point I would be advocating the purchase of certified coins for a collection. But this is unnecessary for Kennedy half dollars. Unless you’re trying to put together a PCGS or NGC Registry Set, a collection of Kennedy half dollars consists of coins most of which are not worth enough to justify the expense of certification.


As I scan the values in the August 2017 issue of Numismatic News “Coin Market,” I find that dates with values above $20 for either Mint State-65 or Proof-65 are rarities. In fact, from my experience a few years ago, you may be able to get a good start on a collection of circulated Kennedys by going through rolls from your local bank. You may even be able to find most or all of the made-for-circulation early issues with silver content.


Of course, if you’re interested in Kennedy halves with grades above MS- or PR-65, then certification will be a must, as the dates become both scarce and pricy in super grades. For example, consider the 1964 Kennedy half dollar. Valued at only $19 in MS-65, the PCGS value for this date in MS-67 is $725, with an MS67+ valued at $4,000. Similarly, according to Rick Tomaska’s A Guide Book of Franklin & Kennedy Half Dollars, the MS67 Kennedy sells for “…anything from $1,500 to $4,000.” This is for a coin with an original mintage of 277+ million pieces.


In fact, this is the story for almost all Kennedy halves: They’re worth relatively little in MS-65 or PR-65, but become pricy when you go beyond MS-66 or PR-69. In other words, as long are you’re content with decent but not spectacular coins, you should have little trouble affording the vast majority of Kennedy half dollars.


If you decide to add the different Fivaz/Stanton varieties to any of the basic sets, or to collect them by themselves, you’ll find that some of them are considerably more expensive than the normal variety of the date. For example, a normal 1982-P lists for $18.50 in MS-65; the 1982-P without designer’s initials is valued at $110 in the same grade.


Cherrypickers’ Guide lists several Kennedy halves with die doubling (or tripling or quadrupling). As one example of a quadrupled-die obverse, the authors picture a coin whose “…quadrupled image is evident on IN GOD WE TRUST, the hair, and TY (of LIBERTY).” In their value chart, it’s worth $70 in MS-65 vs. $15 for the normal date.


Between 2005 and 2010, some Kennedy halves were produced with a satin finish. These were found only in mint sets. Referring to the 2005-P with satin finish, Rick Tomaska writes, “These look like our early 1909-1916 matte Proofs. This issue is gorgeous looking and quite easy to find in MS69.” The PCGS guide prices it at $30 in this grade. “Coin Market” gives it a value of $8 in MS-65.


There’s also a 1998-S silver Kennedy half with a matte finish and a low mintage (62,350). This was included in a special two-coin set along with a Robert F. Kennedy silver dollar. It’s unpriced in “Coin Market” and in the 2018 U.S. Coin Digest. The PCGS price guide gives it a value of $120 in MS-67, $155 in MS-68, and $185 in MS-69. I found a PCGS-certified piece with a grade of MS-69 for sale on eBay with a Buy It Now price of $165 or best offer. Looks like a bargain.


In 2014, the Mint issued several special Kennedy half dollars to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the series. From the Philadelphia and Denver mints came two clad halves. Four silver versions were struck at San Francisco and West Point in addition to Philadelphia and Denver. Finally, for the ultimate Kennedy half dollar, a gold coin bearing the dual dates of 1964 and 2014 was produced. According to Wikipedia, “The gold coins were released in conjunction with the American Numismatic Association in Rosemont, Illinois on August 5, 2014.” My wife and I attended that convention, and I well remember the chaotic atmosphere surrounding attempts to obtain the coin by collectors, investors, and people looking to make a quick buck.


The gold coin is valued by “Coin Market” at $1,500 in PR-65. I suspect that coins with this low a grade are actually quite rare. I found one on eBay, certified by PCGS as PR-69 DCAM (deep cameo), for $1,125. That seems fairly reasonable for a coin with a gold content worth about $950 as I write this and a mintage of just 73,772 pieces.


As I think you can see, there are many different ways to collect the Kennedy half dollar series. As long as you’re content with coins that will look nice but won’t achieve some stratospheric grading status, you won’t have to put a second mortgage on your house to afford them.


In addition, there are enough different varieties (metals, finishes, mints) to keep you engaged for many months. And that sounds like a winner to me.



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