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Half dollar type set winners: Five ways to build a treasured set
By Mark Benvenuto
September 12, 2017

Even Though the half dollar has always been in second place to the silver dollar when it comes to collectors’ love for large U.S. silver coins, there has been enough action among them of late that most of us are looking again. The 2016 reboot of the Walking Liberty half dollar—in gold—has brought the denomination to the fore, and made many of us realize just how many choices there are within this denomination.


Since we can’t collect them all, it might be wiser, and a bit more achievable financially, to examine what levels of type sets a person might assemble. So, from smallest to largest, here we go.

 

1. A basic 20th-century type set. The easiest half dollar type set a person can assemble is the four different designs of the 20th century. Such a set needs only four pieces, but can still be fun to assemble, especially if we shoot for coins in the highest possible grades. There are plenty of Kennedy halves, for example, that can be found in Mint State-68 or Proof-69 that are still quite affordable.


Likewise, proof Franklin half dollars are not difficult to obtain, especially those in the latter half of the series, from 1957-1963.


Two surprises in this short type set are the price tags associated with proof Walking Liberty halves and with lower mint-state Barber halves. From 1936 to 1942 there were some proof Walking Liberty half dollars minted, although not many by today’s standard. What is of interest to us right now is that the final three years of that run currently command prices of about $500 for a PR-64 or -65 specimen. Assuredly, this isn’t pocket change, but this isn’t a fortune either.


Likewise, examples of the common-date Barber halves can be purchased for about the same price, but now in a grade such as MS-60.

 

2. A full type set of circulating halves. Lining up four excellent-looking half dollars can only whet our appetites for something bigger. And while there are several different directions in which one can go, a logical one is to see about extending the type set back in time.


There’s good news and bad when it comes to following through on such an idea. First, the good news: Both the Seated Liberty half dollars and the earlier Capped Bust series have common dates that are common enough even today that we can afford a handsome-looking example.


Several of the later years among the Seated Liberty series are available in About Uncirculated-55 for about $250, which is not too bad a price. And even the Capped Bust design saw high enough annual mintages several times that an AU coin will today only cost about $350. While these can’t be described as dirt cheap, they are much more affordable than we might have expected.


If there’s bad news in the world of early U.S. half dollars, it’s in the oldest of the designs. The three designs that make up the first 13 years of issue for any half dollar were never made in high enough quantities that we might consider them common, with the 1806 possibly being the only exception. No matter how we slice it, Flowing Hair half dollars and the two different versions of the Draped Bust halves will always be expensive.


So, as far as regular issues of any of the half dollars go, it’s quite possible to assemble a “six pack” that takes us all the way back to the Capped Bust design. But it’s an expensive proposition to push it back farther.

3. A type set of halves plus their pre-1857 Southern siblings. If expanding a half dollar type set into the 18th century is too costly an undertaking, it might very well be worth our time to consider another angle on what were essentially the 50-cent pieces of the early republic. I’m talking now about the four reales of what was first New Spain, but what then became Mexico.


It’s well known among serious collectors that a major part of everyday commerce in the Colonies, and then the young United States, was carried out using the coins of the Spanish holdings in the New World. It made sense. Modern-day Mexico and Peru still have huge mineral holdings, which have been mined now for close to 500 years.

In fact, throughout history there was so much silver moved back to Spain that researchers have even proved that by the late 1500s, the wars of Europe were being financed with silver coin that had come from the Americas.1

So by the late 1700s, the mint in Mexico City was producing enough of the eight reales and four reales silver coins that the U.S. was regularly using them. Indeed, that’s why Congress had to pass a law in 1857 ending their everyday use.


Adding four-reales pieces to a collection of U.S. half dollars may seem odd, but it’s not that expensive a proposal. The market for colonial Spanish silver isn’t as keen in the United States as that for older U.S. silver, and that keeps the prices lower. It may actually be possible to add a four reales from each of the Spanish kings, as well as one from a newly independent Mexico to any growing collection.

4. Adding the modern commemorative halves. Taking yet another tack on building a half dollar type set, we could look at the modern commemorative series and see just what might be available here. Initiated in 1982 with a half dollar honoring the 250th anniversary of George Washington’s birth, there are quite a few half dollar possibilities that were produced in the 1980s alone.


The Washington one makes a good addition to a type set because it was made in silver, something that seems to have faded as the modern commemorative program developed and unfolded. Quite often after this one coin, any issue of half dollar, dollar, and $5 piece meant a clad half dollar, a silver dollar, and a gold $5. There are several beautiful clad half dollars that were produced, but it would be the 1993 Bill of Rights half dollar that would be the next modern commemorative half dollar actually made of silver.


The possibilities among the modern commemorative program are wide, and now include the first ever cup-shaped coin—the 2014 National Baseball Hall of Fame half dollar. Yet for the most part all these halves are affordable. A person could definitely make a collection of them with any other half dollars and still end up with a very attractive set.



5. A type set inclusive of classic commemoratives. It doesn’t take too much imagination to think that if modern commemorative half dollars can be added to a growing type set to bolster it, well, so can the classic commemorative half dollars. The first of all U.S. commemoratives is the 1892 World’s Columbian Exposition half dollar. It was followed in 1893 by more of the same; and both had high enough mintages that they are still easy on the wallet.


The classic commemorative series is arguably not remembered for the Columbian half so much as it is for the excesses of the 1930s. This is the time frame during which Congress approved commemorative coinage bills that appear to have commemorated just about everything one congressman or another could think of, and chose to do it with a half dollar.


It might be expecting a bit much to try to add one of each of these classic halves, although doing so would certainly fit the textbook definition of a type set.


A bit of comfort comes in the numerous different dates and mintmarks that were used for several of these halves. For example, the Daniel Boone Bicentennial was issued with dates from 1934 to 1938, and with a pile of different mintmarks. Adding just one to a collection won’t, however, be too expensive.


The same holds true for the Arkansas Centennial, issued from 1935-1939; the Oregon Trail Memorial, issued from 1926-1939 (with plenty of missing years); and the Booker T. Washington half, issued from 1946-1951.
There are a few others with a large number of options as well. Many of them are very affordable.

All things considered


Whether you are a frugal collector and proud of it, or one who wants to dive deeply into the wide pool of half dollars the U.S. Mint has produced either for circulation or to commemorate some event, there are plenty of possibilities when it comes to producing a type set of them. Have fun, be patient, stay within your budget, and with time you will certainly have some excellent-looking type set of half dollars.

 

1Anne-Marie Desaulty, Phillipe Telouk, Emmanuelle Albalat, and Francis Albaràde. “Isotopic Ag-Cu-Pb record of silver circulation through 16th – 18th century Spain,” Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, 2011, Volume 108, No.22, pages 9002-9007.



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