The 1964 half dollar along with the 1964-D might well have had the most spectacular first day release in the history of the United States. It is a little unclear whether the Kennedy half or the 1857 Flying Eagle cent release wins the prize, but close is what makes horse races.
Certainly, the situation with the 1857 Flying Eagle cent was unique at the time. People wanted to get rid of their old large cents and half cents and they were also allowed to trade in old Spanish and other foreign silver coins for the new Flying Eagle. Clearly, the public was tired of the old silver and large copper issues as they stood in line at the Philadelphia Mint. Once they received their new Flying Eagle cents they acted in the best American tradition: they peddled them in the street for more than their face value. It was apparently a wild scene.
The Kennedy half dollar sold in the street as well after long lines had formed at the nation’s banks on the first day of availability in 1964. In the streets of Europe, a new Kennedy half dollar brought $5 early on. Even in the poor nations of Central America they brought twice face value. The coin was not just an American icon, the whole world was paying tribute to John F. Kennedy.
It is all a little hard to imagine if you were not there. In part, it was a function of the fact that television had made Kennedy a world figure. When he died, people cried in front of little stores in small rural towns where the only television sets could be found. They cried just as the people of Boston cried. The assassination of Kennedy was unlike anything with the possible exception of 9/11. Everyone seemed to feel they knew the American President and his family.
No one could seem to find closure for the sad events until the Kennedy half dollar came along. The Mint had stockpiled a large number of coins, but it wasn’t enough. A limit of two coins was imposed. Still, it would take months for the new coin to stabilize in price. Everyone knew there would eventually be enough coins to go around, but no one seemed to care. Price seemed not to matter.
By the time demand was finally satisfied, the Philadelphia Mint had cranked out 277,254,766 halves while Denver added another 156,205,446. The usual half dollar mintages were nothing like that. The previous high had been just over 67 million and the next highest was nearly 48 million.
The 1964 was never going to be a long-term premium date as a result, except that it was made of 90 percent silver. Bullion value has long underpinned the half dollar’s value.
Even those individuals who foolishly paid $5 for the coin were bailed out when silver rose in price.
Today, discerning collectors will pay $22 for a 1964 in MS-65 and $24 for a 1964-D in the same grade, but these must be slabbed.
While a slab is important today, how such a thing would have been perceived in 1964 is anyone’s guess.
For those with long memories, the important thing is not the slab, nor the silver, it is the aspect that the coin is a memorial to a man who was taken away from us.
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