Grading Franklin Half Dollars (1948-1963)
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A portrait of Ben Franklin originally was proposed for the dime back in 1938, but World War II interrupted this scheme. Franklin didn't get his due until 10 years later, when his image was chosen to replace Adolph Weinman's Walking Liberty design on the half dollar.
The Franklin/Liberty Bell half dollar bears a simple design, one coined in fairly high relief. Its principal elements are centered, leaving ample, exposed fields, particularly on the obverse. All these factors contributed to the coin's susceptibility to highly visible contact marks. To aggravate this situation even further, many of the later dates in the series (1957-63) were hoarded and traded as bullion coins. Frequent moving about in canvas bags or other bulk containers has resulted in a very small percentage of gems for these dates, despite their great abundance in mint state. The NGC Census Report reveals that several dates are scarce in gem condition; 1949-D, 1950-D, and 1951-D are notable in this regard. Even though none of these issues are scarce overall in mint state, few of the coins seen are aesthetically pleasing.
Another problem with Franklin halves is their quality of strike. Only those struck from reasonably fresh dies display full details — their high relief resulted in rapid erosion of the dies from excessive metal displacement. This is particularly true of the obverse, though it's the reverse that draws the attention of specialists. It's here that Franklin half dollar enthusiasts search for examples displaying full, horizontal lines across the Liberty Bell. The lower bell lines often are incomplete, and those coins that have full bell lines (abbreviated as FBL) are highly sought.
The master hubs for the Franklin half, particularly the obverse master, became noticeably worn after 1951. Coins struck from that point until 1960, when a master hub of sharper design and lower relief was introduced, lack the sharpness in the detail of Franklin's hair evident on most coins dated 1948-50 and some of those dated 1951. Even the proofs dated 1952-59 will not have the same sharpness as earlier issues. The reverse hub became worn, and it was replaced with a sharper one during the course of the 1956 minting. The new reverse hub was used inconsistently throughout the remainder of the series, alternating with the old one. This change seems to have had little effect on whether a coin showed full bell lines, as fresh dies of both types possessed this feature.
Certain dates are more troubling with regard to striking sharpness. With the exception of 1949-S, all halves coined at the San Francisco Mint typically are softly struck, often from badly worn dies. This condition imparted a charming quality to their luster, though it left the coins bereft of high-point detail. If not a serious problem, a coin's strike quality does not weigh heavily in determining its grade, as evidenced by the fairly large number of gem S-Mint Franklins certified by NGC. The most consistently well struck coins seem to be those from the Denver Mint. The ones most often encountered with minimal contact marks are those produced by the Philadelphia Mint, and this is most evident by comparing the later dates (1957-63) from the Philadelphia and Denver Mints.
Franklin halves have one appealing quality that makes them favorites with collectors—the simple design with its open fields, though susceptible to nicks and abrasions, also has resulted in many coins with truly outstanding toning. Attractive, evenly layered colors are often seen on coins that have been stored for years in coin albums or in the cardboard mint set holders used by the Treasury Department from 1947 through 1958.
From One to Seventy originally ran in The Numismatist, official publication of the American Numismatic Association (www.money.org)
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