US Coins

Collectors’ Clearinghouse: Errors & Varieties: Wobbly Kennedy half dollars identified by 'lipstick test'

A few months ago, I tackled the issue of wobbly half dollars — coins that would rock or spin when placed on a flat surface.

In that column, I noted that some cases — like the 2001-P Kennedy half dollars that led off the discussion — were clearly caused by a sunken reverse die that produced a corresponding bulge on the reverse face of the coin. In a second case — a 1972-D half dollar provided by Steve Rodriguez — I was not able to establish the source of the instability. A few weeks after the column came out, Rodriguez sent me a second 1972-D half dollar that was struck by a different die pair. Like the first coin, it rocked when the reverse was placed on a flat surface. In both coins, the highest point on the reverse was the eagle’s shield.

As with the earlier piece, identifying the cause of the instability was made difficult by the fact that there was only one example and there were no associated defects such as die cracks or centralized design weakness that might have pointed to a sunken die. I had to leave the coin in the suspense account, with respect to both the cause of the instability and whether the coin represented a Mint error (as opposed to post-strike damage).

Recent developments have left me more confident that both 1972-D half dollars represent Mint errors of a minor sort. The reason for my optimism is a large shipment of wobbly half dollars recently sent to me by Jon Leese. The shipment includes 13 2001-D Kennedy half dollars that rock when placed on the reverse face. Die markers show that at least two die pairs are represented. Not surprisingly, the point of instability is the center of the shield.

A second sample consisted of seven 1997-P half dollars, almost evenly divided between two different die pairs. Unlike the previous pieces, these rock when placed on the obverse face.

Rounding out the shipment were a single 1998-P Kennedy half dollar and a single 2000-D half dollar, each of which rocked when placed on the obverse face.

I didn’t have to look very far for the cause of instability in these coins. In each sample, the instability appears to have been caused by a very common and prosaic event — a failure for the design rim to exceed the height of the interior design. One of the primary functions of the design rim is to protect the interior design and permit coins to stack neatly. If the design rim is too low, a wobbly coin may result.

Further evidence in support of this conjecture is provided by a “lipstick test.” I smeared a thin, uniform layer of red lipstick on a piece of paper and placed the paper on a hard countertop. I then pressed several of Leese’s coins into the lipstick, making sure that the center of the coin and all points along the rim made contact with the paper. Each coin was then carefully lifted off the paper. Areas coated with lipstick represent the highest design points.

The reverse of one of the 2001-D half dollars shows a large deposit of lipstick on the eagle’s shield. This is the highest point of the design in normal half dollars. Lipstick has also stuck to some of the peripheral letters.

Patches of lipstick are rather dispersed on a 1997-P half dollar. Affected areas include Kennedy’s cheek, eyebrow, base of neck and two spots in his hair. These are the highest points of a normal design. Sunken die (die subsidence) errors will alter the normal array of high points and concentrate them in one area.

A similar lipstick pattern is seen on the obverse face of the 1998-P and 2000-D coins.

The lesson from this exercise is that, when one is confronted by a wobbly coin, one should first eliminate the prosaic explanation.

Coin World’s Collectors’ Clearinghouse department does not accept coins or other items for examination without prior permission from
News Editor William T. Gibbs. Materials sent to Clearinghouse without prior permission will be returned unexamined. Please address all Clearinghouse inquiries to or to 800-673-8311, Ext. 172.

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