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Half Dollar Opens Door to Memories
By Paul M. Green, Numismatic News
June 10, 2013

This article was originally printed in Numismatic News.
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I cannot look at a Kennedy half dollar without seeing not just a coin, but a flood of images many times in black and white from my past. Perhaps some day decades after the event, much the same will happen to people when they remember the World Trade Center, but right now, the early 1960s still live in the Kennedy half dollar and it started in a sense long before that November day in Dallas when the shots that would change many of us forever rang out.

For me, the story stretches back to a sunny October day in 1960 standing on the sidewalk at Franklin square in Middletown, N.Y., which was named because one of the buildings overlooking the square had busts of Benjamin Franklin around the top. I was not there to look at the Franklin busts, but rather to see Henry Cabot Lodge, who had gained fame as the American ambassador to the United Nations, but who now was the candidate for vice president running against John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson on the ticket with Richard M. Nixon. Lodge was making a campaign swing through New York with New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller.

It was really the first time I remember a campaign. I had lived through others, but was too young to really remember them. I had seen the President in person at Stewart Air Force base where Dwight D. Eisenhower had landed on his way to West Point. He gave me a big smile and seemed basically like a friendly grandfather, but Eisenhower could afford to smile. He had already won two terms as President, but no one was smiling about Kennedy and Nixon.

It was an intense campaign and the vote was going to be close. It was exciting and that is why I went to see Lodge that day as he passed through town. As it turned out, his reputation was bigger than the reality as Lodge did not appear to enjoy the whole thing very much in stark contrast to Rockefeller. It was perhaps due to the fact that this was New York and Rockefeller and his wife Happy seemed to be exactly that, very happy in New York. Rockefeller after all was very wealthy, but at that time in New York he was everywhere. It seemed like you could not walk down the street without meeting the governor or his wife or both. Lodge on the other hand seemed a little uncomfortable, like a Red Sox fan sitting in a wave of pinstripes at Yankee Stadium.

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Lodge was probably more uncomfortable on election night when it became obvious that Johnson made the difference for Kennedy by carrying Texas for him, thus giving JFK the presidency.

Three years is an eternity when you are a kid, but roughly three years later on Nov. 22 came an announcement in English class that we were to go to our homerooms. It was an odd thing as Thanksgiving vacation was to start the next day and I had glorious plans for a weekend of turkey and trading campaign buttons with a friend as we had just jointly purchased a large campaign button collection.

With Teddy Roosevelt and Eugene V. Debs buttons on my mind I assumed my seat after tripping over Lynne Cohen’s shoes, which seemed to always be in the aisle and not on her feet.

Even Lynne seemed to wake up when the public address system came to life and an announcement was made that the President had been shot and that we were to sit quietly and await further instructions.

Our teacher had no training for a day like that and while trying to pass the slow moving minutes, he asked who knew the name of the vice president. For John Blumental and me, the question was easy. Getting ready to divide our campaign buttons we knew the name of Teddy Roosevelt’s vice president and just about every one since 1904 plus most of the losers like Lodge. By the time we answered and were explaining what Johnson had done before this day, even Lynne Cohen was sitting up and listening instead of being in her usual sleepy curled up position.

The biography that we knew of Johnson was barely finished when the announcement came that the President had died and that we were to return home “respectfully” and wait for further information on the school schedule. At that point all bets for the weekend were off and seeing my father at home crying in his police uniform even though he had voted for Nixon in 1960 brought home the fact that this was not a big event, but rather a monumental one.

The days and night of black and white TV pictures that followed are still clear from Johnson stepping off the plane to the Sunday morning stunner when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald on national TV. Then there are the images of the President’s young son and the drumbeat as world leaders marched behind the casket. Even at age 14 you knew this was a time you could never erase no matter how hard you might try.

Approval of the Kennedy half dollar was the natural result in Congress and it was quick. It was a delicate process. Everyone wanted the coin out quickly but the Kennedy family had ideas and someone had to explain to them that these ideas would slow things down and that if proof coin production did not begin quickly, people at the Mint would have no work.

Public Law 88-256 authorized the Kennedy half dollar. It was required as otherwise the design could not have been changed from the Franklin image. Franklin had been on the coin less than the minimum of 25 years.

The denomination chosen for Kennedy’s image was logical. No one wanted to touch the Lincoln cent, Jefferson nickel, Roosevelt dime or Washington quarter. Moreover, Franklin would still have Franklin Square and those busts in Middletown, N.Y.

It was close to record speed. The law took effect Dec. 30, 1963, and on Feb. 11, 1964, Philadelphia and Denver mints began production of the new Kennedy half dollars. On March 24, 1964, with 26 million in stock, distribution began, but that turned into something closer to a riot.

There was no way the 1964 Kennedy half dollar was going to be a rare coin. The idea was simply to get one before anyone else. The investment potential was in making the emotional connection with the late President, his family and all grieving Americans. It was not monetary.

Everyone seemed to want one coin and many wanted quantities in order to be able to give them to grandchildren as gifts.

The lines formed early and the bank imposed a limit of two coins per customer. I had wanted more, but I had to take what my father could get. I had blackmailed him into going to the bank by simply threatening to skip school that day. He was not happy either with my threat, or with the fact that he had been in line nearly an hour and had only two coins to show for it.

The 1964 Kennedy half dollar was saved in record numbers. It never seemed to have any potential for price increases when we looked at the mintage totals.

Philadelphia’s mintage topped out at 277 million pieces and Denver cranked out 156 million. True, they were 90 percent silver and were heavily melted in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but we could not know that in 1964.

The mintage numbers and the heavy saving by the public suggested strongly that there would always be a supply of Kennedy half dollars in top grade.

The Philadelphia coin was listed at $3.50 in MS-65 in 1998. It was the same price as the 1964-D. Today, thanks to both the high price of silver and a grading system that came into general use in the 1970s, the values are $22 and $24, respectively. No one in 1964 would ever believe such a price was possible.

In 1965, the Kennedy half dollar emerged with a reduced silver composition of just 40 percent compared to the 90 percent purity of the prior year. It was the only U.S. coin left with any silver in it at all. Silver was eliminated from dimes and quarters by the Coinage Act of 1965. The act also helped push the half dollar from being an object of near reverence to one of disdain both because of the reduced silver content and the lack of mintmarks.

No one expected even the 40 percent silver content to last. In that, the cynics were correct. All silver was removed in the 1971 issue.

Even though the 40 percent silver Kennedy half dollars were later melted, the mintages of 1965, 1966 and 1967 all seemed high enough to at least keep those dates from ever doing anything in terms of price increases.

Naturally, like the 1964 coins, the mintmarkless coins of the great coin shortage of the time have risen in value from $2.25 to $2.50 in 1998 to $14.50 to $18.50 in MS-65. To be fair, MS-65 is still quite a hard grade to find even though collectors now routinely buy MS-70 coins of newer issues.

The 1968-D has moved to $16.50 and the 1969-D to $20 in MS-65.

Of all the dates of 40 percent silver, only the 1965 has a mintage of under 100 million.

In 1968, mintmarks returned to U.S. coins. The year also saw the creation of San Francisco proofs with “S” mintmarks. This started a trend of proof-only San Francisco coins that allowed collectors to begin a new subset. The “S” proofs continue to this day, augmented by “S” silver proofs that began in 1992.

The final year of the 40 percent silver half dollar for circulation was the 1969-D. The 1969-S available only in proof sets had a mintage of 2.9 million, which seemed low at the time. But we collectors were anxious to find some scarcity in a time when regular mintages were so much higher.

There had been no Philadelphia Kennedy half dollars in 1968, 1969 or 1970. In the first two of those years, Denver had made the circulation strikes and the mintages numbers for both exceeded 100 million. That had created a surplus. It was also the intention of the government to remove silver from the denomination and it did not want to “waste” what silver it had left in making more half dollars. It was decided to make 1970-D Kennedy half dollars only for the mint set.

The problem was that nobody bothered to tell collectors that before they placed their orders for the 1970 mint set. Set orders slumped to 2.15 million.

When the announcement was made about the fate of the 1970-D half dollar, that produced an instant mad dash by hobbyists to buy the set on the secondary market and thereby acquire the scarce 1970-D half.

Issue price had been $2.50. The set quadrupled, popping to over $10, rewarding loyal mint set buyers with a large profit. Today the 1970-D half dollar lists for $40 in MS-65. This is an increase from $13.50 in 1998.

With silver completely removed, a new pattern of production started in 1971 and perhaps a new pattern of collector neglect of the half. The emotional attachment to the coin was long gone and so was the attachment to it caused by its silver content, which collectors still valued. There would be regular business strike production at Philadelphia and Denver each year along with San Francisco proofs.

From 1971 to 1974 the coins have proven to be very solid in price in MS-65. The 1971 with a mintage of 155,640,000 currently is priced at $17.50. This is a giant leap from the $2.50 in 1998. And there is no silver in this coin. The others in this period range from $12 to $20.

In 1976, the Kennedy half dollar featured a special Bicentennial reverse design of Independence Hall created by Seth Huntington. On the obverse appears a dual date, 1776-1976. These Bicentennial issues were struck in copper-nickel for circulation and also in 40 percent silver alloy for collectors in both uncirculated and proof. The surprise key coin of the group is the clad 1976, which had a mintage of over 234 million, but which today is priced at $16.50. In 1977 production returned to the pattern that prevailed prior to 1976. Denver and Philadelphia struck the circulation coins and San Francisco turned out the proofs.

One change that is noticeable is that mintages were lower than those of the early 1970s reflecting declining use of half dollars. Collectors of the time might have been surprised that there was any use by the public of the half dollar. There were some additional low mintage dates. The 1986 and 1986-D are currently priced at $17.50 and $14, respectively, on mintages of just over 13 million and 15 million.

A few other dates stand out for various reasons. The 1987 and 1987-D coins were struck only for use in mint sets. Mintages were under 3 million. Prices in MS-65 are $16.50 and $12.50, respectively.

This time, collectors were notified in advance of Mint plans, so they bought all they wanted in order to get the half dollars of that year. This has very likely kept the prices of the 1987 half dollars lower for collectors today.

The 1982 and 1983 coins are suspect in terms of supply as there were no mint sets issued in those two years and collectors by then had fallen out of the habit of saving uncirculated rolls of new issues. Prices indicate that something might be up with these but still aren’t high enough to indicate any real shortage of supply.

The 1983-P is the most expensive of the group at $22.50 and the 1983-D is cheapest at $12.50. If there are still collectors of MS-65 half dollars 20 or 30 years from now, prices might be higher. Also offering collectors the opportunity for putting aside potentially good pieces are the half dollar issues of the 1990s. Collectors were in a funk in the first half of that decade and that might mean some of these issues will do well as the years pass.

The 1990-P and 1990-D are already at $17.50 and $20, respectively. Those are pretty high figures for such recent issues even if they are MS-65. Their mintages are not unusually low. The question is how many coins have survived in top grades?

One Kennedy half dollar that has survived in top grade and still commands a top price is the 1998-S matte finish proof silver coin. It is priced at $225. It was a special issue available only in the Kennedy Collectors Set, which included the Robert F. Kennedy silver dollar commemorative. The set sold for $59.95 and obviously was well worth it. Chances are good the price will not soften as mintage was just 62,350.

While they are not as special as the 1998-S matte-finish coin, proof-only San Francisco halves still have their following. At first, many were unsure just how popular the proof-only coins would be. That, however, was back in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The proof-only coins have now been around long enough to prove that they have a place in the hearts of collectors.

The key to the proof-only “S” half dollars is the silver 1995-S, which is $46 in Proof-65. It was listed for $13 in 1998.

Another more valuable date is the silver 1997-S, which is $35.

It should be remembered that in order for a collector to obtain an individual coin at these prices, someone had to have broken up the proof set in which it came.

The best part of collecting the silver “S” proofs is that you get a large 90 percent silver coin, and traditionally, collectors have preferred the larger silver coins over smaller ones like quarters and dimes.

For many of us, it seems like just yesterday when the Kennedy half dollar made its appearance. The images and feelings of the time are easily recalled and these coins will help us remember. The coin helped a nation come to terms with its grief and collectors now have a substantial collection if they choose to assemble it.

For younger collectors the best part of the Kennedy half dollar set is that it can still be assembled at reasonable cost. The silver coins in it can go higher in value either because more collectors want them, or silver investors drive up the price of the precious metal. That would seem like two ways of winning and hopefully sufficient inducement to attract newcomers to the series for many years to come.

How long this series will continue in production, no one knows. Perhaps it will be until the last one of us who remembers 1963 leaves the numismatic scene.

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