The Kennedy Half Dollar—A Numismatic Tribute to a Slain President

In the days following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the U.S. Treasury Department was immediately bombarded with calls, letters and telegrams strongly suggesting that a coin be struck in Kennedy’s honor.

Amazingly, it has been 50 years today.

For many of us, it may be difficult to remember where we were, or what we did yesterday. However young or old, those of us who lived through the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963, all have vivid memories of where we were, what we were doing, to this day. Whether the news of President Kennedy’s assassination was first heard over the local radio airwaves or on television during Walter Cronkite’s gut-wrenching news bulletin, we all shared a common grief.

I had just entered first grade and can still recall hearing screams and sobbing echoing down the halls at my school, teachers trying to console each other. Even at my young age I understood the gravity of the moment and that time line is forever seared into my memory . Our country, the world was in shock as we desperately sought to find out why and how this could have happened. Action was swift to get a meaningful tribute on the table. The U.S. Treasury Department was immediately bombarded with calls, letters and telegrams strongly suggesting that a coin be struck in Kennedy’s honor.

Eva Adams, the director of the Mint, concurred with the outpouring of public sentiment, and telephoned the chief engraver at the Philadelphia Mint, Gilroy Roberts, and explained to him that serious consideration had been given to placing President Kennedy’s portrait on a new U.S. silver coin and that the quarter, half or even dollar were all under immediate review. Only five days after the Dallas nightmare, the half dollar had been chosen for Kennedy’s profile.

A slightly modified version of Gilroy Roberts’ Presidential Inaugural medal was to be used on the obverse and the reverse would feature the presidential seal designed by Frank Gasparro. Using his existing models for JFK’s presidential medal as a guide, Roberts completed his initial adaptation of the half dollar within days of its commissioning. Trial strikes of the Kennedy Half Dollar were produced and dispatched to Mint Director Adams. A few days later, these prototypes were viewed by the President’s widow, Jackie, and his brother, Robert F. Kennedy for their approval.

President Kennedy is being presented with the official Inaugural medal with the Gilroy Roberts and Frank Gasparro designs on Jan. 27 in the Oval Office. Co-chairman of the Inaugural Parade Committee Bruce Sundlun is standing and Edward Foley, chairman of the Inaugural Committee, is holding the medal. (Photo: JFK Presidential Library and Museum)

Partisan political disputes were largely set aside in recognition of the country’s loss and public outcries. The Act of Dec. 30, 1963, made the Kennedy half dollar a reality. Simultaneous striking ceremonies were held in Philadelphia and Denver on Feb. 11, 1964. The first Kennedy halves were slated for release to the public, amid much expectation and fanfare, on March 24, 1964. Despite limiting the number of coins that they would sell to each individual, banks and other financial institutions were quickly stripped of their supplies; few of the coins from the first few months of production ever achieved actual circulation. 

The reverse of the Kennedy half dollar.

From its very inception, the Kennedy half dollar became a valued and cherished keepsake, not only by the American public but by the late President’s many foreign admirers, as well. The number of Kennedy halves produced during 1964 was massive in comparison to previous half dollar mintages. Despite this, the coins continued to disappear from tellers’ drawers as fast as they were delivered. The public still felt that this was a “rare” coin. With the nationwide shortage of the new Kennedy half, Congress enacted a law which permitted freezing the 1964 date on U.S. coins until such time as the crisis passed and the coins began to circulate more freely.

Although originally slated for around 90 million coins to be minted in 1964, nearly 430 million were struck bearing the 1964 date, combined, at Philadelphia and Denver. It is estimated that more than half of this mind-boggling total was produced in 1965 and 1966. It was hoped that by minting such massive quantities and maintaining the 1964 date that the temptation to hoard the coin would be alleviated. Unfortunately, this did little to deter the overwhelming sentiment that the Kennedy half was a “rare” coin. Not surprisingly, proof set orders were also unprecedented, as nearly four million sets were produced for collectors in 1964 alone; a record that would not be eclipsed until our bicentennial year of 1976.

Due to the rising market value of silver and the vast hoarding of nearly all silver coins, Congress opted to eliminate silver from the dime and quarter beginning in 1965, minting them in a copper- nickel clad or “sandwich” coin containing no silver. It later reached a compromise with the Kennedy half dollar, reducing the coins silver content to 40 percent. It was thought that these “silver-clad” pieces, which were coined from 1965 through 1970, would be less of an attraction to collectors, hoarders and speculators because of the drastic precious metal reduction. Despite these various measures—the massive mintages and reduction of silver content—the Kennedy half dollars still failed to circulate to any great extent. 

A slightly modified version of Gilroy Roberts’ Presidential Inaugural medal was to be used on the obverse of the half dollar.

Finally, a bill was passed near the end of 1970 which called for the Kennedy half to follow suit of the dime and quarter and also be coined only in the copper-nickel clad. Despite the fact that regular issues no longer contain any precious metal at all, the Kennedy remains very precious to many collectors and enthusiasts. Perhaps it is not all that remarkable that the Kennedy Half remains one of our country’s most popular and prized issues. Nearly four billion have been minted since 1964, yet collectors worldwide are still desirous of this historic coin today and still find it somewhat magical.

When I see a Kennedy half being given out as change today, the recipient invariably says, “wow, you don’t see many of them anymore.”

Although none are rare, all Kennedy halves are still deemed highly collectible and, in recent years, the mammoth mintages have curtailed quite dramatically. It should also be noted that even though none of the issues can be classified as scarce or rare, conditionally, many of the coins can be quite hard to come by. However, complete sets of every issue from 1964 to date, including proofs, can still be put together for a modest price.

If you don’t already own a set, , I can’t think of a better time to get started. It is a great way to get acquainted with the numismatic hobby and can be heartily recommended for both young and old.

Until next time, happy collecting!

Jim Bisognani has written extensively on U.S. coin market trends and values and was the market analyst and writer for a major pricing guide for many years. He currently resides in New England and frequently attends major coin shows and auctions.

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