When’s a half dollar not a half dollar?
One of the most elusive half dollars doesn’t say half dollar on it and never circulated as money.
In 1964 as the price of silver rose above $1.29 an ounce — the point at which a silver dollar is worth more as metal than as money — the Mint began searching for alternatives.
The Mint hired Battelle Memorial Institute of Columbus, Ohio, to research substitutes for then-current 90 percent silver coinage. To test possible replacements — 17 were considered — the Mint prepared dies in dime, quarter dollar and half dollar size.
In its Feb. 12, 1965, “Final Report on A Study of Alloys Suitable for Use as United States Coinage,” Battelle reported, “A number of possible candidate materials were selected and taken to the Philadelphia Mint in the form of rolled strip to determine how well they could be blanked and upset, and coined. ... For the actual coining process, special dies were prepared by the Mint designers and engravers, which would duplicate as nearly as possible both the obverse and reverse design features of a typical dime, quarter, and half-dollar.”
The three Battelle pattern “denominations” show a bust of Martha Washington on the obverse and Mount Vernon on the reverse. All are dated 1759, the year George wed Martha.
U.S. Mint Sculptor-Engraver Edward R. Grove designed the obverse and signed it with his initials below Martha’s bust. U.S. Mint Sculptor-Engraver Philip Fowler designed the reverse. His initials appear below the right side of Mount Vernon.
The designs were reprised in 1982 and 1999 for the striking of “cent” and “dollar” patterns before the metals for those two denominations were changed.
For the Battelle study, the Philadelphia Mint produced “dimes” in 15 metals, ranging from an alloy of 50 percent silver and 50 percent copper to the adopted layered composition of copper-nickel-clad copper. The “quarter dollar” was tested in 17 metals, and the “half dollar” in just four.
The Society of U.S. Pattern Collectors’ website, uspatterns.com, reports the Smithsonian has two blue Lucite blocks, each containing a “dime,” “quarter dollar” and “half dollar.”
The website notes two clad “dimes,” ten clad “quarter dollars,” one nickel “half dollar” and about half a dozen clad “half dollars” are known to exist.
Despite their great rarity, the pieces tend to sell for a few thousand dollars on the rare occasion that they appear at auction. In 2014, one sold for $4,112.50 at a Heritage auction.