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Memories enfold Kennedy halves

For many collectors, the Kennedy half dollar is permanently fixed in 1964 and the memories of 1963 and 1964 obscure all of the issues that followed. That understandable. For those who remember those years, they were troubled times.

Quick, what’s the key Kennedy half dollar?


Did you cite the 1970-D made only for the mint sets?

Perhaps you cited the 1987-P&D coins for the same reason.

Then there is the far rarer matte proof silver 1998-S that was struck as a companion piece for the Bobby Kennedy commemorative silver dollar. But many collectors might not even be aware of the existence of this coin.

For many collectors, the Kennedy half dollar is permanently fixed in 1964 and the memories of 1963 and 1964 obscure all of the issues that followed. That understandable. For those who remember those years, they were troubled times.

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 and in the process the Kennedy half dollar became a part of history as well. Moreover, since its first issue in 1964, 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 knew about three Presidents of the United States who had been 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. While there might have been a few older citizens around who remembered the McKinley assassination of 1901 or perhaps even the Garfield assassination of 1881, they would have been very, very old.

The series of events that then took place Nov. 22, 1963, remain all too vivid in my memory years later.
It was a couple of 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 Richard Nixon instead of John F. Kennedy 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 Kennedy and the Kennedy family without even knowing it.

Maybe today the magic does not seem 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 and the fact that she fainted even caused my father to chuckle as the woman’s father was the Republican county chairman.

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I will never forget my father’s response to my observation that it looked like Kennedy might be able to beat 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 and Robert F. Kennedy went to the Senate representing New York, 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 President 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 on the country 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. President Kennedy’s children Americans felt they actually knew and had watched grow up. It made things more personal and made the loss of their father 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 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.

In fact, 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 and to get a coin created.

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It was an interesting matter as Gilroy 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 approved by the Congress.
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 coin dies were not ready employees would have nothing to do. The Kennedys were apparently understanding and with a couple of minor changes the design went ahead with Dillon being able to officially approve the design on Dec. 27,1963 with the proof dies being delivered on Jan. 2,1964.

That is the definition of speed in matters relating to coinage. President Lyndon Johnson had signed the congressional authorization on Dec. 23, making it law.

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

There were long lines for the official release in March 1964, bringing normal banking activities to a halt. My father with instructions to acquire two rolls stood in line a couple of hours and got all the coins he could, which were a grand total of two half dollars as 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 face value while in the streets of Europe they were bringing reported prices of $5 each, or 10 times face value. That was astounding to collectors, but it was understood at the emotional level.

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, the new Kennedy half dollar was needed by them. For many, it seemed like the closure they otherwise could not find of a national nightmare.

The situation was to be short-lived. The government kept making 1964 Kennedy half dollars, as Denver and Philadelphia cranked them out as fast as they could. But because of the passage of the Coinage Act of 1965 and its being signed into law July 23, the Kennedy half dated 1965 would be in the minds of many collectors a cheap imitation as its composition was reduced to 40 percent silver from 90 percent and it would also have no mintmarks as 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, which was typical of the period as the government tried to bring an end to the coin shortage. Of course, with such mintages and no division 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 date prior to 1971 also potentially plays a role in what may be suspect supplies of the dates from 1964-1970 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 and again due to the uptrend in silver that began in 2001. 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 one of the most likely coins to be sold for their silver value.

We can 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 $13.50 each. The no mintmark dates that followed have had a similar pattern as in 1998 they were $2.25 to $2.50 each, but today They are $6.20 in MS-60, which to put into perspective, compare this to the $13 price of the key 1970-D, which had only 1 percent or 2 percent of the mintage of the 1965, 1966 and 1967.

Mintmarks returned in 1968 but collectors in large numbers did not and that was not helped with a nearly 250 million piece mintage for the 1968-D just further convincing 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 up to that point. The situation has been resolved as since 1975 all denominations in proofs sets are proof-only San Francisco issues and the dates have been included by many 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. These are very interesting especially in light of the fact that many collectors of the 1960s didn’t think clad coins could ever be desirable.

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 and over the years the 1970-D has moved both higher and lower dramatically. It jumped 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 clads in the case of business strikes and with mintages that tended to be in the 50 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 fact there were 40 percent silver versions also helped.

The regular design of the Kennedy half dollar returned in 1977 as did the general habit of overlooking new dates. That was probably even increased as the government began to market commemoratives, bullion coins and other special issues all of which at the time probably seemed like a better idea than saving uncirculated rolls of things like Kennedy half dollars. That has potentially produced a shortage and we are starting to see the impact as some dates have moved strongly in price with the 1986-P jumping to $25 in MS-65. 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 many other dates have reached $10 or more.

In fact, the 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. PCGS 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.

The 1970-D would have company in terms of dramatic price movements with the 1998 matte-finish Kennedy half dollar, which was produced as part of a special set with the Robert F. Kennedy commemorative dollar. The set that 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 $$250.

The silver proof sets, which 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. As proof-only silver Kennedy half dollars, some dates have taken off with the 1995-S and 1997-S exceeding $100 not too many years after issue. 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. But that will likely be the task of a future generation of collectors who do not remember the events of 1963 and 1964 and who instead will look only at the mintage figures.

Under the circumstances, the Kennedy half dollar, which has seen wild swings in its popularity, 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.

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