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Kennedy halves saw many changes

This article was originally printed in the latest issue of Numismatic News.
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It could safely be said that in a number of ways the Kennedy half dollar was a coin that was created to mark an historic and tragic event. In the process, the Kennedy half dollar became a part of history as well.

Moreover, now over 40 years since first being issued, the Kennedy half dollar has created a great deal of U.S. numismatic history itself. For students of U.S. history and U.S. numismatic history, the Kennedy half dollar is an important coin and important collection that may well seem even more significant in the future.

It can definitely be assumed that back in 1963 none of us ever thought that we would hold a Kennedy half dollar in our hands. As a still fairly young coin collector, I had read about three Presidents of the United States being assassinated, but they were basically in the form of old drawings of Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield and William McKinley. To someone in 1963 it seemed like another era and while there might have been a few older citizens around who remembered the McKinley or perhaps even the Garfield assassination, they would have been very old.

The series of events that took place Nov. 22, 1963, remain all too familiar to those of us who live it.

It was a couple hours from the first announcement that sent us packing from our English class to the final one that the President had died and that we were to head home acting appropriately. In those two hours the world had changed and while we all knew something very big, tragic and important had happened none of us truly understood what it would mean to us at the time or in the future.

The immediate impact was a series of images that are hard to forget. My father, a decorated World War II veteran who had voted for Nixon, was in tears. Having watched so many of his friends die in World War II, losing friends was not unusual for him, but crying was and especially crying over the loss of a man he had not voted for in the first place, but he was typical of so many who had been touched by John Kennedy and the Kennedy family without even knowing it.

Maybe today the magic does not seem as real, but in the 1960s it was. A number of years later when the late President’s brother Robert F. Kennedy was running for the Senate from New York my father was working the security detail. There was an enormous crush of people in a solidly Republican town to hear Bobby Kennedy speak on the steps of city hall. At least one person fainted at the mere sight of Bobby Kennedy. She was a former baby-sitter of mine. The fact that she fainted even caused my father to chuckle as the woman’s father was the Republican county chairman.

I will never forget my father’s response to my observation that it looked like Kennedy might be able to beat the incumbent Sen. Kenneth B. Keating. He chuckled and observed, “the only way Kennedy will lose is if all his voters faint on their way to vote.” That didn’t happen but Robert F. Kennedy went to the Senate representing New York anyway, but the whole thing was typical of the unique relationship between the family and the American people.

In many ways what must always be remembered in trying to understand the impact of John Kennedy is that he was the first TV President. Every night as families gathered around their black and white TV sets, which is what so many did at the time, there was John F. Kennedy, his wife and children. Even if you did not agree politically with Kennedy, his family became an evening part of everyone’s family.
Certainly the tragic events in Dallas would have had a great impact no matter who was President, but as the first TV President, that impact was magnified as the entire nation felt like the two children now without a father were children they actually knew.

It made things more personal and made the loss so much greater for millions.

The last days of 1963 were sad ones with the traditional Christmas colors being replaced by black. That Christmas virtually everyone in the country received something special relating to Kennedy for Christmas yet in many ways the tragedy seemed to somehow to be one without any real closure. It may very well be that the closure came in the form of the Kennedy half dollar.

In fact the idea of a Kennedy coin had been acted on with great speed. Chief Engraver Gilroy Roberts was told to be ready to make a coin although initially there was no certainty as to which denomination it would be. That was also changed quickly as according to Roberts he was told on Nov. 27, 1963, to begin work on a Kennedy half dollar.

The decision to go with a half dollar was a bold one. The Franklin half dollar had not been in use 25 years, so its design could not be changed without an act of Congress. There were probably more than enough votes to have a change approved but the real question with the holidays rapidly approaching was whether there was time enough to have the measure approved as legislation often moved slowly.
It was an interesting matter as Roberts and his assistant Frank Gasparro, who would design the reverse, were actually busily at work on the Kennedy half dollar long before the measure was actually approved by the Congress.

The legislation was signed into law Dec. 22, 1963, after having been passed by Congress very rapidly.

Roberts was to have a very delicate moment in his design of the obverse and that was going with Secretary of the Treasury Douglas Dillon to meet with Mrs. Kennedy and then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to show them the design and gain their approval of it before it was put into production.

The Kennedys apparently liked the design but raised the question of a half-length figure. That was delicate as it had to be explained to them that there was only time for minor changes as work on the proofs had to begin almost immediately and if the dies were not ready employees would have nothing to do. The Kennedys were apparently understanding and with a couple minor changes the design went ahead. Dillon being able to officially approve the design on Dec. 27,1963, with the proof dies being delivered to coiners on Jan. 2,1964.

There were official ceremonies to mark the striking of the first coins, but in reality production had already begun before that Feb. 11 event as officials correctly sensed that they would need a stockpile of examples to meet initial demand. As it turned out, even the stockpile of 26 million coins was not enough.

There were long lines for the official release bringing normal banking activities to a halt. My father with instructions to acquire two rolls stood in line a couple hours and got all the coins he could, which was a grand total of two half dollars. There was a two-coin limit enforced to try to give everyone a chance to acquire the new coins.

The Kennedy half dollar was quickly being sold in the streets for twice their face value while in the streets of Europe they were bringing reported prices of $5 each.

There was no logic to the situation as clearly more would be made, but the simple fact was that, unlike other coins that people felt they wanted, people seemed to need the new Kennedy half dollar. It was emotional and it wasn’t just because the coins seemed scarce on the ground. For many, getting that coin seemed like the closure they otherwise could not find on a national nightmare.

The situation was to be short-lived. The government kept making 1964 Kennedy half dollars, but the coin dated the following year of 1965 would be in the minds of many a cheap imitation. After production of the 1964 the half dollar ceased, its replacement would see its silver content reduced to 40 percent from the 90 percent level under terms of the Coinage Act of 1965, which was signed July 23.

 The 1965 half dollar coin also had no mintmark on it. This was part of the program to discourage collecting. The idea of discouraging collecting was seen as a solution to a national coin crisis. Collectors had not created the crisis, but they were being blamed. The ironic part is that the 1964 mintage of 277,254,766 Kennedy half dollars at Philadelphia and another 156,205,446 at Denver did not help the situation at all.

The fact that silver was being removed from the dime and quarter and reduced in the half dollar caused a worsening of the situation as enormous mintages were required to replace the silver coins being hoarded by the public. That was seen in the 1967 total of 295,046,978 half dollars. That total represented the combined output of Philadelphia and Denver, but the fact remains it was a huge half dollar total that was typical of the period as the government tried to bring an end to the coin shortage.

Of course, with such high mintages, low silver content and no distinction between coins produced at Philadelphia and Denver, collectors were not very interested in the new coins and the probability is that relatively few were saved.

The 40 percent silver composition of the half dollar would last until 1970. After 1970 only special issues would contain any silver, but the presence of silver in the dates prior to 1971 also potentially plays a role in what may be suspect supplies of the dates from 1964-70 today.

Whether it was 90 percent silver in the 1964 Kennedy half dollars or 40 percent in those produced later, the silver was enough to make the coins prime candidates for being melted when the price of silver rose to $50 in early 1980. We cannot be certain how many Kennedy half dollars were melted, but it had to be significant as especially the 40 percent silver issues were seen as having basically no numismatic potential, making them the most likely coins to be sold for their silver.

We are starting to see the impact of the lack of saving and the later melting on prices. The 1964 and 1964-D were just $3.50 in MS-65 in 1998, but today they are $20 and $24, respectively. The no-mintmark dates that  followed have had a similar pattern as in 1998 they were $2.25 to $2.50 each, but today the 1965 is $18, the 1966 is $14 and the 1967 $22. The only way to understand the price of the 1967 with its high mintage is the lack of saving at the time of issue.

Mintmarks returned in 1968, but collectors in large numbers did not. The novelty was the mintmark was placed on the obverse, a location not used since 1917.

Lack of collector interest was not helped with a nearly 250-million-piece mintage for the 1968-D. This just further convinced many that Kennedy half dollars had a very limited future.

The 1968-D has acted much like the earlier dates rising from a 1998 price of $2  in MS-65 to $18 today.

There was another new half dollar in 1968 in the form of the 1968-S, which like the dime and quarter from San Francisco, was available only in proof sets, making it proof only. The collectors at the time were probably somewhat uncertain how to treat the 1968-S as proof-only half dollars were few and far between in U.S. numismatic history.

The situation has been resolved as since 1975 all denominations in proof sets are proof-only San Francisco issues and the dates have been included by many hobbyists in their regular collections. Of course, to obtain a proof-only San Francisco half dollar for a specific date, someone needs to break up a proof set and that has made for an uncertain supply and sometimes dramatically higher prices.
The 1995-S, for example, has jumped from $13 in Proof-65 in 1998 to $35 today while the 1997-S has posted a gain from $13 to $34.

Dramatic price movements are actually not that unusual in the case of the Kennedy half dollar as the 1970-D has been something of a sensation since it was announced that it would only be found in the mint sets of that year. The ordering period for the mint sets had passed by the time the announcement was made, meaning there would only be 2,150,000 examples of the 1970-D. That resulted in instant speculation. Over the years the 1970-D has moved both higher and lower dramatically. Lately it has been relatively stable after jumping from $13.50 in MS-65 in 1998 to its current $50.

After 1970 the Kennedy half dollar like the other former silver issues would be produced only as a copper-nickel clad coin in the case of business strikes and with mintages that tended to be in the 64 million to 300 million range except for the San Francisco proof-only issues. Collectors and dealers continued to suspect that most dates had very little potential to be better.

The special 1976 Bicentennial reverse featuring a Seth Huntington Independence Hall was one exception as the Bicentennial reverses for the quarter, half dollar and dollar proved to be very popular with the public and despite being saved in large numbers the Bicentennial reverse coins have held up well and even in some cases increased in price.

The regular design of the Kennedy half dollar returned in 1977 as did the general habit of overlooking new dates. Mintages fell off.

That trend was probably even magnified as the government began to market commemoratives in 1982, bullion coins in 1986 and other special issues, such as silver proof sets in 1992,  all of which at the time probably seemed like a better idea than saving uncirculated rolls of regular Kennedy half dollars. That has potentially produced a shortage for future collectors of some dates and we are starting to see the impact. Some specific dates have moved strongly in price, with the 1986-P jumping to $25. The 1990-P and 1990-D were each $1.50 in MS-65 in 1998 but today they are at $18 and $15, respectively, and a number of other dates have reached $10.

Satin finish was used on the half dollars included in the annual mint sets, so some collectors want not only a 2005-D half dollar, they also want the 2005-D satin finish. Whether collectors in the distant future will continue to make those distinctions would make a great topic of discussion.

However, the market seems to be realizing that many Kennedy halves are scarcer than we think. Recent price increases may be just the start, especially if you consider the highest grades.

The 1969-D for example is $20 in MS-65 where it is available, but if you try to find an example in MS-67, that is another matter. The Professional Coin Grading Service has graded the 1969-D 253 times, but only one coin reached MS-67 and fewer than 50 were MS-66.

The 1982-P is another where the grading service numbers suggest that the current $10 price in MS-65 may be too low and as time passes it would not be surprising to see an assortment of Kennedy half dollar dates post some surprising prices in the highest grades. One of the contributing factors regarding the 1982-P is that there were no mint sets made that year as part of the government’s across the board cost cutting efforts. This means there are none of these collector sets to raid for higher quality examples. So current supply, such as it is, depended on collectors putting rolls away at the time of issue.

The 1970-D half dollar would have company in terms of dramatic price movements. In 1998 there was a silver matte-finish Kennedy half dollar that was produced as part of a special set with the Robert F. Kennedy commemorative silver dollar. The set, which cost $59.95, probably looked like another slick promotion from the Mint at the time – and that is what it was – but since 1998 it has soared with the matte-finish half dollar alone now sitting at $285.

The silver proof sets that were first offered in 1992 have proven to be another source of dramatic price increases in the case of the Kennedy half dollar in the sets. For the proof-only silver Kennedy half dollars, some dates have taken off, with the 1995-S and 1997-S now standing out of the crowd with prices nearing $100.  That is impressive when you realize that in 1998 they were just $13 each.

Over the same period of time a number of other dates have nearly doubled and the probability is that the silver proof-only dates might well go higher if additional numbers of collectors decide to include them as part of their regular collections.

Under the circumstances the Kennedy half dollar was once basically ignored by almost everyone has increasingly been getting attention. With rapidly rising prices in a number of cases and suspect supplies in others, the Kennedy half dollar may have finally reached a point in its history where it can be accepted and appreciated as the historic coin it is and as a potentially great collection of modern issues.

For the many new collectors who started with 50 state quarters, the Kennedy half dollar might well prove to be an excellent choice for their next collection.

2010 U.S. Coin Digest
Listings, color photos and current pricing of the always popular half dollar.

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