In a grim irony, the president that was assassinated on November 22, 1963 by a half dollar's worth of bullets ended up killing half dollar circulation with his commemorative coin. NGC Grader Jay Turner leaves the conspiracy theories to Oliver Stone and instead explores the fascinating numismatic effect of the Kennedy tragedy.
It was November 22, 1963 when the unthinkable happened: President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. A young president's legacy was forever sealed on that day and born from this tragedy was the Kennedy Half Dollar.
While the nation was grieving the death of the president, the plan to commemorate his life was immediately underway. It is rumored that plans for a Kennedy coin began on November 22, 1963, the very day he died. Though a quarter, half dollar and dollar coin were all considered, the half dollar was eventually chosen. Designs were developed that would most fit the coin's aspiration as a memorial, with a portrait of the former president on the obverse and the presidential seal eagle on the reverse.
There was one problem that would keep the Kennedy Half Dollar from being produced at that time. According to the coinage laws of 1963, circulating coin designs could not be changed more often than every 25 years. The half dollar being minted at the time, the Franklin Half Dollar, had only been coined for 15 years. Special legislation would be needed to approve the production of the Kennedy Half Dollar. Congress passed such legislation - the Act of December 30, 1963 - in only a few weeks.
The first Kennedy Half Dollars minted were proofs coined in early 1964. Using the original design, these coins had what would be termed "Accented Hair." For some reason, the design was modified after the first production. It is rumored that the former first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, disliked the heavy hair lines above the ear. Another motive may have been to weaken the design for production purposes. Regardless, the Kennedy Half Dollar was extremely popular with collectors and the general public. Proof set sales were high and in late January, early February, the circulation-issue coins were released.
Ironically, the Kennedy Half Dollar killed half dollar circulation. Meant to be a circulating coin, the Kennedy Half dollar was hoarded by the public and few were actually spent. Before 1964, half dollars were a regular part of American commerce and every cash drawer had space for half dollars. After the release of the Kennedy Half Dollar, the general public hoarded most of the production and created a shortage. In 1965, the United States removed silver from circulating coinage except for the Kennedy, which was issued with a lower silver content. Because of this, all half dollars, as well as pre-1965 dimes and quarters were hoarded for their silver content, creating a further shortage. By 1971, when silver was removed from the half dollar, demand and use for the coins had dramatically diminished.
The 1964 Kennedy Half dollar was abundantly hoarded, yet it still remains a desired collector coin. While circulation examples trade at about silver value, coins in exceptional gem quality are hard to find. Thus far, NGC has graded less than 60 examples MS67 from both mints. These pieces can fetch anywhere from $1200 to $2800. Proof examples are abundant since so many were minted and sold to meet demand. However, high-end Cameo and Ultra Cameo coins are scarce. This is especially true of the accented hair variety of which there is only one PF69 Ultra Cameo coin graded to date. A Proof 68 Ultra Cameo accented hair can bring close to $5,000. In contrast a PF69 Ultra Cameo non-accented hair can trade as high as $3,600.
The Kennedy Half Dollar was born out of the grief of the nation and became an instant collectible. Had Kennedy not been assassinated that fateful day, and lived to carry out his term as president, many believe the world would be a dramatically different place. Had this happened, we might still be spending Franklin Half Dollars today.