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1964 Kennedy Half Dollars: The Last 90% Silver Halves

By Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez - September 24, 2020

The 1964 Kennedy Half Dollars are among the most sought after of all 90% silver coins.  These half dollars, the first to feature the now-familiar portrait of President John F. Kennedy, have been beloved as souvenirs and vessels of silver bullion among generations of Americans.  Struck within weeks of the president's assassination in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963, and introduced to the public by March 1964, these early Kennedy Half Dollars remain one of the top collectibles in United States numismatics.

Kennedy Half Dollar, 1964 50C, PCGS MS67+. Click image to enlarge.

A National Tribute

The Kennedy Half Dollar was approved by Congress and signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on December 30, 1963 – barely six weeks after the president was killed at the age of 46 during his motorcade procession in Dealey Plaza.  The numismatic move wiped the bust of Founding Father Benjamin Franklin from the obverse of the half dollar, where he had been seen since 1948, and replaced by a JFK bust designed by then-Chief Engraver of the United States Mint Gilroy Roberts; the reverse was anchored with a depiction of the Seal of the President of the United States as designed by Sculptor-Engraver Frank Gasparro.

So, what makes the 1964 Kennedy Half Dollar so popular?  The answer is complex... The nation was in collecting mourning over the assassination of Kennedy.  The dashing young president and his photogenic family were loved by many globally.  Even before his presidency, Kennedy had risen to fame through the political ranks as a Massachusetts State Representative, later Senator, and was known as a World War II hero who helped save his fellow crew on patrol torpedo boat PT-109 in 1942.  He also authored the critically acclaimed 1956 book Profiles in Courage, chronicling eight historic figures and their heroic stories.  President Kennedy's sudden death by lone shooter Lee Harvey Oswald stunned the nation in a fashion not seen since the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 or again until the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001.

President John F. Kennedy in the White House. Public domain photo. Click image to enlarge.

An Overnight Collectible

The swift bipartisan efforts to memorialize Kennedy on the half dollar ensured Kennedy would be honored within months of his passing.  And, when the 1964 Kennedy Half Dollar was released to the public on March 24, 1964, lines formed over a block long at the Treasury Department in Washington, D.C., with people eager to buy examples.  Similar scenarios played out at banks and other financial institutions around the nation over the days that followed as the new coins filtered into distribution.  Millions of Americans could now obtain a silver memento of the fallen president for 50 cents.  The coin became known as something "special" overnight.

Kennedy Half Dollars became treasured objects, with millions upon millions buying them from local banks to keep as souvenirs.  Countless others were hoarding the 1964 Kennedy Half Dollar for a different reason: their silver content.  By 1963, bullion prices had risen to the point that the 90% circulating United States Dime, Quarter, and Half Dollar were worth more for their intrinsic silver content than for their stated face value.  Silver coins were hoarded by bullion stackers to extreme levels, and some United States Mint officials determined that coin collectors were to blame.

The price of silver left the continued production of precious metal coinage financially infeasible.  So, the U.S. Mint changed the composition of the dime and quarter to a copper-nickel clad format while reducing the silver content of the half dollar to 40% beginning in 1965.  The United States Mint wound down production of circulating 90% silver half dollars on a high note, striking more than 430 million in 1964 – the most half dollars ever struck by the United States Mint for a single year to that point.  Broken down, these include the 273,304,004 circulation strikes bearing the 1964 date from the Philadelphia Mint, 156,205,446 hailing from the Denver Mint, and an additional 3,950,762 Philadelphia-minted proofs.

Collecting Kennedy Half Dollars

The most widely collected variety among 1964 Half Dollar is the Accented Hair, seen on a small number of proofs.  Early 1964 Proof Kennedy Half Dollars feature a bust of JFK with heavy hairlines over his ear.  However, the detail was softened per the request of newly widowed Jacqueline Kennedy, who was instrumental in the creation of the Kennedy Half Dollar to the point that she suggested the half dollar for her husband's portrait to avoid replacing George Washington's likeness on the quarter.

Kennedy Half Dollar, 1964 50C Accented Hair, HAIR COMPARISON. Click image to enlarge.

Estimates published on PCGS CoinFacts suggest just 5% of the 1964 Proof Kennedy Half Dollar mintage features the Accented Hair detail, resulting in a one-year type also attributed by the presence of an absent lower left serif in the letter "I" of "LIBERTY."  With a mintage of 3,950,762 proofs, that means approximately 200,000 pieces with the Accented Hair detail were produced.  High demand for this scarce issue drives prices skyward for any examples, with a typical PCGS PR65 specimen taking around $80.  Those designated as DCAM are rare, and the small number of PCGS PR66DCAMs take around $1,250 apiece.  PCGS PR68DCAM specimens fetch $12,500, and the single finest-known example is graded PCGS PR69DCAM and could take $25,000 or more if sold.

Kennedy Half Dollar, 1964 50C, DCAM, PCGS PR69DCAM. Click image to enlarge.

Meanwhile, garden-variety 1964 Proof Kennedy Half Dollars trade for a more affordable $25 in a grade of PCGS PR65.  As with Accented Hair specimens, regular 1964 Proof Kennedy Half Dollars are rare with full cameo affect on both the obverse and reverse, and prices for those frosty examples designated as DCAMs are subsequently much higher.  A PCGS PR66DCAM goes for $60, while higher-graded specimens fetch greater amounts still, with PCGS PR67DCAMs and PCGS PR68DCAMs trading for $225 and $625, respectively.  The relative handful of PCGS PR69DCAM specimens list on PCGS CoinFacts for $3,000.

Ordinary circulation strikes are easy to come by, with circulated Philadelphia and Denver examples proliferating in the many pre-1965 junk silver offerings and selling for at or near melt value in that grade.  However, significant premiums are encountered in the uncirculated grades.  PCGS MS65 examples command about $30 apiece, while the scarcer PCGS MS67s retail for around $500 or so.  Pieces grading higher than that are rare and command thousands of dollars when offered.

Other Notables

No survey of the 1964 Kennedy Half Dollar is complete without touching on a handful of other pieces from that year, including a bevy of comparatively obscure varieties known mostly by series enthusiasts.  These include the 1964-D Doubled Die Obverse, 1964-D Quadrupled Die Obverse, and 1964-D/D Repunched Mintmark.  While all are important to the Kennedy Half Dollar specialist and included in some of the Kennedy Half Dollar Registry Sets, perhaps the most significant of these varieties is the Quadrupled Die Obverse, which can be most prominently detected in the "U" of the motto "IN GOD WE TRUST."  One specimen graded PCGS MS65 took $492 in a 2020 Heritage Auctions event.

Kennedy Half Dollar, 1964-D 50C Quadrupled Die Obverse, OBVERSE DETAIL. Click image to enlarge.

Last but not least, there is the 1964 SMS Kennedy Half Dollar.  This extraordinary rarity came to light in the early 1990s soon after the passing of former Director of the United States Mint Eva B. Adams, who helmed the mint in the 1960s when the Kennedy Half Dollar was first struck.  PCGS reports grading 15 specimens across all grades, and this coin with satin-like surfaces and exquisite strike continues bewildering numismatists decades after its discovery.

Kennedy Half Dollar, 1964 50C SMS, PCGS SP68. Click image to enlarge.

Why were they made?  How many were struck?  Were they prototypes of the 1965 SMS coins struck the following year for public release in Special Mint Sets?  Did they have anything to do with the mysterious 1964-D Peace Dollars (all 316,106 of which were reported melted)?  Whatever the origin story behind the 1964 SMS Kennedy Half Dollars, they are by far the rarest of all coins in the series.  They are also the most expensive.  The record price for the coin is claimed by a PCGS SP68 specimen that crossed the block in a 2019 Stack's Bowers Galleries auction for a whopping $156,000!

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