Still Going Strong After 55 Years; Are They
The Morgan Dollars of the 21st Century?
Updated Sept. 17, 2019
President John F. Kennedy lost his life to an assassin on Nov. 22, 1963. The Franklin half dollar series was only 15 years old—introduced in 1948—and an 1890 law required Congressional approval for design changes. Nonetheless, Mint Director Eva Adams demanded new half dollar designs from Chief Engraver Gilroy Roberts within a few days of Kennedy’s death. No serious Congressional opposition materialized. The authorizing legislation passed Dec. 30, 1963; the presses began striking proof coins Jan. 2, 1964. The extraordinary timeframe was achieved only because Roberts had designed the Kennedy inaugural medals, used as starting points for the coins.
The first proofs struck were the Accented Hair variety. The 1964 Accented Hair proofs are listed as FS-103 in the Cherrypickers’ Guide by Fivaz and Stanton, and as Heavily Accented Hair in the Guide Book. They show a pronounced V shape in the hair just above the apex of the ear; an easier diagnostic is the broken left bottom serif of the I in LIBERTY. Supposedly Jacqueline Kennedy, the president’s widow, asked for the hair to be remodeled. The 1964 Accented Hair proofs are really a one-year subtype rather than a “variety.” Both the 1964 Accented Hair and 1964 Normal Hair varieties are particularly prized when found in high grade with Deep Cameo contrast.
More than 400 million 1964 and 1964-D 90% silver Kennedy halves were struck for circulation (and many of those have been melted, but plenty survive). They today remain the only 90% silver Kennedy halves struck for circulation, and as such are a one-year type. Numerous Doubled Die Obverse (DDO), Doubled Die Reverse (DDR), and Repunched Mintmark (RPM) varieties exist for the 1964 and 1964-D (mintmark on reverse) coins, many listed in the fifth edition, volume II of the Cherrypickers’ Guide, which we recommend for series enthusiasts and variety collectors. (As well as Dr. James Wiles’ impossible-to-find The Kennedy Half Book.)
Concurrent with the new design was a “coin shortage” laid at the feet of collectors. A number of other factors were to blame, in reality:
—The 1963 introduction of the dealer-to-dealer Teletype system, increasing the speculative mania for BU rolls;
—Rising silver prices, partly due to increased industrial demand in photography and electronics;
—Bank payouts at face value of Morgan silver dollars, which continued until March 1964 (thank you!); and
—Widespread and increasing use of coin telephones and vending machines.
Introduction of the Kennedy half actually worsened the situation; collectors at home and abroad predictably kept many thousands of examples of the new 1964 Kennedys as mementos. The 1965–1970 coins saw reduced silver content of a “clad sandwich layer” composition, with an inner core of 0.791 parts copper and 0.209 silver bonded to an outer core of 0.800 silver and 0.200 copper, for a net silver content of 40%. Further demonizing collectors, the Mint chose to issue 1965–67 Special Mint Sets, rather than proofs, with coins lacking a mintmark (but struck in San Francisco) that were not as deeply mirrored or heavily impressed. Early prooflike strikes of these issues with Cameo or Deep Cameo designations are rare prizes.
Mintmarks were restored in 1968 but moved to the obverse. The 1968-D half dollars were the only business strikes produced bearing that date; the 1968-S proofs marked the first proofs bearing an S mintmark and struck in San Francisco. A similar scenario occurred with the 1969-D and 1969-S issues. The 1970-D is today a series key, issued only in Mint Sets to the extent of 2.15 million coins. It is rare in MS66 and extremely rare any finer, but in demand in all grades.
The 1971 and 1971-D half dollars marked the start of clad coinage, with no silver remaining in the composition. From 1971 through 1974, three mints produced the series each year: Philadelphia and Denver for business strikes, San Francisco for proofs. The 1974-D issue features a popular Doubled Die Obverse, FS-101.
No 1975-dated Kennedy half dollars were struck, in preparation for the special 1776-1976 dual-dated Bicentennial half dollars. They were struck as business strikes, proofs, and special 40% silver coins for collectors, The 1976 and 1976-D clad issues were business strikes. Rounding out the year are the 1976-S clad proof, and the 1976-S 40% silver BU and proof.
With few exceptions, the 1977–1992 issues follow a similar pattern: business strikes made in Philadelphia and Denver, proofs in San Francisco. Many of those circulation strikes are quite elusive in MS66–MS68 grades. The proofs see heavy demand from Registry Set collectors in PR70DCAM, and many collectors are glad to collect the same coins in PR69DCAM. The 1979-S Type One proof has a filled S mintmark, the 1979-S Type Two proof a Clear S. Beginning with 1980-P, the Philadelphia Mint broke a 200-year-old tradition and began placing a P mintmark on the obverse. The 1981-S proofs have two mintmark styles. The more-common 1981-S Type One has a smaller-looking mintmark with a rounded top loop; the scarce 1981-S Type Two shows a frosty surface, larger openings, and flatter top loop. 1987-P and 1987-D were only produced in Mint Sets.
From 1992–present the Mint began offering silver proofs and clad proofs, many elusive and in demand in the highest grade, PR70 Deep Cameo. Business strikes continued in Philadelphia and Denver through 2000, along with the 2001-D and 2005-PD, for which high-grade business strikes are rare. The Mint has now stopped producing circulating Kennedy halves, but it still offers collector coins. Issues not made for circulation include all of the 2002-PD through 2019-PD issues. Beginning with 2005 Mint Sets, the Mint also offered 2005-PD through 2010-PD Satin Finish coins, with a satiny, somewhat mattelike finish.
The year 2014 marked the 50th anniversary of the design, and the Mint pulled out all the stops to produce not only a gold dual-dated 1964–2014W version, but also a four-piece silver 50th anniversary set with coins with Philadelphia, Denver, San Francisco, and West Point, and special 2014-PD high relief clad coins as well as the usual “circulation strike” and silver and clad proofs.
Two final Kennedy half issues deserve mention. A number of experimental 1964 Special Mint Set (or Specimen/Special Strike) coins were produced under mysterious (and unknown) circumstances, which are quite rare. Through our extensive research we know that the 1964 SMS coins, the Kennedy halves in particular, are among the rarest coins produced in the second half of the 20th century. We have done much research and believe the true number of SMS sets produced was 15–20 at most. Not all of them contained true 1964 SMS Kennedys, however, according to a source who was present when they first came to light in Stack’s auctions in 1991 (not 1993 as is often given; we have found Stack’s catalogs from 1991 offering these coins). PCGS has certified only a dozen 1964 SMS halves, with some undoubted duplications. We sold our 1964 SMS half graded MS67/SP67 PCGS (PCGS switched later to the SP designation for Special Strike) in 2016 for some $47,000—a world record for a Kennedy half that stood for nearly three years. And since we were Heritage catalogers at that time, we published a roster of exactly one dozen surviving examples (viewable at the link above). We think most of the former NGC examples have been cracked out and resubmitted to PCGS; the population data for both services are undoubtedly inflated, for all five denominations. We have handled several examples of each denomination, cent through half (and four complete sets) via private treaty.
The 1998-S Special Mint Set Kennedy was also produced with a mattelike, satiny finish. The mintage was 63,250 coins, which are eminently collectible and in great demand. Those coins were part of a two-coin commemorative set along with the 1998-S Robert F. Kennedy commemorative silver dollar. But except for their special finish, they bear the same design as other Kennedy halves and are collected as part of the entire series, where they are considered another key issue.
Walter Breen wrote in his 1988 Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins: “The Mint Bureau has repeatedly discussed the possibility of abolishing the denomination, but to date no action has followed. Nevertheless … the end of half-dollar coinage is probably only a few years away.”
Despite those words (Breen actually made up a lot of stuff; don’t get me started), 31 years later, the Kennedy half dollar series continues. It is now, at 55 years long, 12 years longer than the Morgan dollar series. The PCGS Kennedy Half Dollars Complete Variety Set, Circulation Strikes and Proof (1964–Present), currently comprises 263 issues, including proofs, business strikes, SMS, and Cherrypickers’ varieties. The collection increasingly resembles the Morgan dollar set. Both collections:
—Span two different centuries and have endured much longer than predicted;
—Begin with a popular proof variety (the 1964 Accented Hair and the 1878 Seven and Eight Tailfeathers);
—Feature many common issues from multiple mints, with a sprinkling of low-mintage and condition rarities;
—Feature a low-mintage S-mint key (1893-S Morgan and 1998-S SMS Kennedy);
—Include a mysterious low-mintage key produced under curious circumstances (1895 proof and 1964 SMS);
—Include many noncirculating issues—numismatic unicorns unwanted in commerce; and, finally,
—Are technically completeable, although difficult and costly in the highest collector grades.
For a new collecting challenge, consider starting or expanding your Kennedy half collection. Are they the Morgan dollars of the 21st century?