50 years later: Collecting the nearly 190 coins that make up complete Kennedy half dollar set a fun challenge

There are 125 date-and-Mint-mark combinations, plus a number of different metals, strikes and finishes
By , Special to Coin World
Published : 07/23/14
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Editor’s note: In his August monthly Coin World cover feature, Gerald Tebben looks back at the story of the John F. Kennedy half dollar as the numismatic community celebrates the coin's 50th anniversary. This is one of a series of articles from this feature that will appear online at CoinWorld.com. 

Make sure you read other posts in the '50 years later' series: 

Collecting Kennedy half dollars a fun challenge 

Collecting Kennedy half dollars can be challenging. The series compromises more than 125 date-and-Mint-mark combinations, three metals, more than a half dozen finishes, two reverse design types and two subtypes. It also has one outstanding but little-known rarity.

The Kennedy half dollar was initially produced in 90 percent silver. In the face of rising silver prices, the Mint switched to 40 percent silver (silver-copper clad) coins in 1965. Those were abandoned in 1971 for the current copper-nickel clad pieces.

Over the decades, the coins have been struck in a half dozen or so finishes (depending on who’s counting) — circulation, Proof, Satin (2005 to 2010 Uncirculated Mint sets), Matte (Special Mint sets), another kind of Matte (1998-S coins produced as part of a commemorative Robert F. Kennedy package) and, for the 50th anniversary, Reverse Proof and Enhanced Uncirculated.

Aside from minor modifications and changes resulting from lowering the relief, in 50 years of production, the coin has had only one design change, and then only for one year. Coins dated 1976, produced to commemorate the nation’s Bicentennial, have Independence Hall on the reverse instead of the presidential seal.

Interestingly, there are only two significant subtypes — the first Proof coins struck in 1964 had heavily accented hair (struck from dies bearing the hair style that Mrs. Kennedy asked to be changed). The hair was toned down after about 100,000 coins had been struck. Both types are readily available, though Accented-Hair pieces are scarcer. Coin Values lists Proof 65 Accented-Hair coins at $50 and regular hair pieces at $18.

The rarest Kennedy half dollar is the enigmatic 1964 Special Mint Set half. The no-Mint mark coin, unrecorded in Mint records, is known by perhaps a dozen surviving specimens, though some estimates range as high as 50.

The nation’s Mints were working flat out in 1964, trying to make headway against a persistent coin shortage that was widely blamed on coin collecting. Adding to the Mint’s misery was the 1963 rise in the price of silver above $1.29 an ounce, making dimes on up worth more as metal than as money. 

In 1965, the Mint replaced Proof sets with a less labor-intensive product, Special Mint sets. Special Mint set coins were carefully produced circulation strikes that exhibited a Matte Finish. Initially despised by collectors as poor man’s Proofs, they have come to be regarded as a distinct entity unto themselves.

No one knows why or where 1964 Special Mint set halves were produced. The coins do not have a Mint mark, which generally would indicate they were produced at the Philadelphia Mint. All other Special Mint set coins, though, were struck at San Francisco and do not bear Mint marks either.

The 1964 coins were possibly produced as trial strikes for the 1965 to 1967 Special Mint set run; some, however, believe they were produced as presentation pieces to mark the end of 90 percent silver coins.

The 1964 coins, which were unknown before 1993, appear in the market infrequently and can bring high prices. A PCGS MS-67 1964 Kennedy half dollar with the SMS finish fetched $16,100 at a Heritage auction in 2010.

The rarest Kennedy half dollar accounted for in Mint records is the Matte Finish 1998-S silver version, with a mintage estimated at 64,141 (the number of sets sold). The coin was packaged with an Uncirculated Robert F. Kennedy commemorative silver dollar in a “Kennedy Collectors set ” that sold for $59.95. 

The Uncirculated silver dollar retails for $40 to $45, but the half dollar lists in Coin World’s Coin Values at $100 in MS-63 (a very low grade for the coin) and $150 in MS-67.

In 50 years of production, the Kennedy half dollar has never seen much circulation. The 1964 90 percent silver and 1965 to 1970 40 percent silver coins were pretty much hoarded for their metallic content. 

By 1971, when the coin was first produced in copper-nickel clad, the denomination had fallen out of favor. Most people preferred to carry quarter dollars than heavy halves. Since 2002, the coin has been minted solely for sale to collectors. 

In MS-65 and below, most Kennedy half dollars are common and inexpensive, retailing for just a few dollars each. At MS-66, though, prices jump markedly, especially for the 40 percent silver-copper clad halves of 1965 to 1970, which run about $200 each.

In MS-67, the 40 percent silver coins jump past the $1,000 mark, with the 1967 coin topping the Kennedy totem at $4,500, according to Coin Values. With a mintage of 295 million, the coin is the most common Kennedy half dollar. Most, though, were poorly struck. PCGS and NGC report only 17 coins at MS-67, and none higher.

For 2014, the Mint is issuing special gold, 90 percent silver and copper-nickel clad half dollars marking the coin’s 50th anniversary. The portrait on these coins will replicate the original designs from the 1964 sculpt. Over the decades, the designs have been modified, especially through repeated reductions in relief. 

The silver coins will be issued in four finishes, one from each Mint production facility: a Reverse Proof 2014-W coin from the West Point Mint, a Proof 2014-P coin from the Philadelphia Mint, an Enhanced Uncirculated 2014-S coin from the San Francisco Mint and an Uncirculated 2014-D coin from the Denver Mint.

The silver and copper-nickel clad versions will bear the date 2014. The gold coin will bear the double date 1964-2014 and have a W for West Point Mint mark on the reverse, the same position that was used in 1964 for Mint marked coins.

Counting all possible metals, strikes and finishes, including the Mint’s 50th anniversary program, a complete Kennedy collection includes nearly 190 coins.

Check back with CoinWorld.com for the rest of Gerald Tebben's profile of the Kennedy half dollar. Or, better yet, let us tell you when a new post is up:

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