Getting started in numismatics

Young or old, affluent or not, all sorts of people find coin collecting an accessible hobby. Many famous collectors started as children or young adults, and this is also the kind of hobby and vocation that gets passed to generations within families and shared with friends. Because studying numismatics also involves learning about history, politics, art and much more, this hobby has educational value. Of course, coin collectors also find this hobby exciting and sometimes, profitable. The first step for novice coin collectors usually includes learning the language of coin collecting. Special terms describe a coin's condition, type and appearance. Mastery of basic terms opens the door to gaining more knowledge.


collectionStart Your Collection

Learning coin terminology and acquiring basic collecting knowledge are important first steps for those entering the numismatic hobby.




historyCoin History

From the U.S. Mint’s first facilities, to the discovery of the Saddle Ridge Hoard, read about the historical places, people and events that have shaped numismatics.




metalsPrecious Metals

Bullion investing and coin collecting go hand in hand. Learn all about the basics of investing and the many different bullion coins available.




coinsKnow Your U.S. Coins

What’s so special about the Morgan dollar? How many different types of Lincoln cents have there been? Get familiar with all U.S. coins, past and present.



Making coins come alive

The very first American colonists had little need for coins in the wilderness. They bartered with trade goods, Native American wampumand tobacco. As civilization grew, the British did not always give the Americans permission to mint their own coins, but the colonists found alternative sources of coins and on occasion, struck coins without royal authority. For example, the Massachusetts Bay Colony set up its own mint in Boston in 1652 during a period when England lacked a king and continued striking 1652-dated silver coins for decades. Thus, early examples of U.S. Colonial coins were born. In April of 1792, the U.S. Mint was established in Philadelphia, the nation's capital at the time.

Numismatics, the studying of coins, and the collecting of coins both stand apart from investing in coins for their bullion value. Still, the bullion value of most collectible coins still needs to get considered. Even today, the U.S. Mint and mints of other nations’ produce bullion coins that are different from regular coins intended for currency. Through much of history, coins derived most of their value from their metal content. While people used coins as currency for thousands of years, the practice might have been closer to trading small bits of copper, silver, gold and other precious metals. However, as gold and silver rose in value, the intrinsic worth of the precious metals in the coins began to exceed their face value. In the U.S., for example, the replacement of 90 percent silver coins with base metal coins began in 1965.

Learning about U.S. coins means learning about the history of the country. Very often, decisions about a coin's content, value and design were made because of political, economic or social events of the time that they were minted. In some cases, political figures or mint executives even made decisions because of favoritism, nepotism or personal competitions — and learning these details makes old coins come alive.


Know your U.S. coins: Kennedy half dollar

The shot heard around the world in 1963, a bullet from an assassin's weapon that ended the life of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, is still remembered on the annually produced half dollar struck in his honor.

As far as collectors are concerned, the shot cut short not only the life of a U.S. president, but also the 15-year-old series of Franklin half dollars introduced in 1948. By law, the designs of circulating coins are not supposed to change in less than 25 years without congressional approval. Emotions ran high and Kennedy's effigy quickly replaced that of Franklin's on the obverse of the half dollar beginning in 1964 by an act of Congress.

The prototype for the obverse and reverse of the Kennedy half dollar was the inaugural medal. The half dollar obverse design is the work of U.S. Mint Chief Sculptor-Engraver Gilroy Roberts. The reverse is an interpretation of the Great Seal of the President by Sculptor-Engraver Frank Gasparro.

COIN VALUES: See how much Kennedy half dollar coins are worth today

The 1964 Kennedy half dollar was eagerly sought by souvenir hunters, collectors and those nostalgic of the "Kennedy era." The coins were hoarded by speculators despite a mintage exceeding 273 million from Philadelphia and an additional 156 million from Denver, compared to just more than 89 million half dollar coins from both Mints combined a year earlier when Franklin's portrait was used.

Demand and an effort to place coins into circulation were primary reasons for the more than 429 million 1964 and 1964-D Kennedy half dollars. Production dropped dramatically, to about 65.8 million, in 1965.

Another situation, however, brought even more interest to the 1964 issue. In 1964 the coins were struck of .900 fine silver. This precious metal content was decreased to .400 fine in 1965. The .400 fine silver continued through 1970. All circulation-strike Kennedy half dollars since 1971 have been struck of copper-nickel composition.

All other circulating U.S. coins previously struck in silver were changed to copper-nickel composition beginning in 1965. The rising price of silver bullion was the later catalyst for the "great silver melt" of the late 1970s through March 27, 1980, when the price of silver collapsed.

Silver 1964 Kennedy half dollars are still typically priced based on the spot price of silver.

Despite the fact there are "key date" Kennedy half dollars based on mintage figures, no one knows for certain just how many coins and of what dates and Mint marks were destroyed by melting during the tumultuous 1970s.

The Bicentennial reverse depicting Independence Hall is by Seth G. Huntington, whose design was chosen in a design contest.

At the time it was issued, the 1776-1976 Bicentennial coin was unique in U.S. numismatic history and was commonly hoarded. It was the only circulation issue (quarter dollars, half dollars and dollars) with two dates appearing together and was one of the few times coins have been struck in another year other than that appearing on the coin (1975 and 1976 coins are dated 1776-1976).

In 2014, gold and silver dual-date commemorative 1964-2014 Kennedy half dollars were issued to honor the coin's 50th anniversary.

Even a type set of Kennedy half dollars is of interest. A circulation strike type set would include a .900 fine silver coin of 1964, .400 fine silver coin of 1965 to 1970, Bicentennial reverse coin of 1776-1976 and a copper-nickel composition coin of 1971 to 1974 and 1977 to date. An Uncirculated type coin collector might also want to consider a 1971 to 1977 Philadelphia coin without Mint mark and a coin from 1980 to date with the P Mint mark for the Philadelphia Mint.

The suggested set excludes all Proof coins, varieties and errors. The key dates to the series, according to mintage figures, are 1970-D, 1987-P and 1987-D coins. Each of these dates was only available in Souvenir Mint sets. Each of the 1987 coins was also available in Uncirculated Souvenir sets sold over the counter at the Denver and Philadelphia Mints. None of these three dates were officially issued for circulation. Since 2002, the Kennedy half dollar has not been struck for circulation. Circulation-quality Kennedy halves have been struck only for collectors and sold as numismatic products in rolls and bags.

There are a number of varieties collectors seek in the Kennedy series. Among these are off-metal strikes between 1964 and 1970 when the coins were still made with silver. As an example, 1965 Kennedy half dollars are known struck in .900 fine silver. There are doubled die coins, coins with repunched Mint marks of varying clarity, dates struck in Proof only, coins without the designer's initials (probably due to overpolished dies) and die varieties.

There was some speculation during 1976 among collectors whether the presidential seal reverse would be resumed beginning in 1977. It was. Kennedy half dollars of every date have also been struck in Proof. During the Bicentennial coinage Proofs were struck in copper-nickel as well as in .400 fine silver.

Beginning in 1992, the Kennedy half dollar has been struck in 90 percent silver and offered in a special silver Proof set for the collector market. In 1998 the silver version was struck in a Matte finish. Since 2005 a Satin finish version has been produced bearing both the P and D Mint marks for Uncirculated Mint sets.

The half dollar denomination is not used as often in commerce as other denominations. This has periodically brought about discussions of possibly abolishing the denomination.

Keep reading from our "Know Your U.S. Coins" series:

Cents and half cents:

2- and 3-cent coins:


Dimes and half dimes:


Half dollars:


Gold coins:

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