Jim Bisognani: A Franklin Saved Is a Franklin Earned

Posted on 9/26/2019

From concept to cartoon variant, the pedigree of the Franklin Half Dollar is a story for the numismatic ages.

The proverbial and literal die for modern American coins was cast by the turn of the 20th century as our country’s standard circulating denominations, which until then featured allegorical figures, were slowly being replaced by actual Americans from history.

The first regular issue coin to receive a facelift was the cent. A befitting inaugural to this transformation, Victor David Brenner’s rendering of Abraham Lincoln was chosen to replace the 50-year reign of the proud and popular Indian Head Cent in 1909. This redesign also commemorated the 100th anniversary of our 16th president’s birth.

A little over two decades later, John Flanagan took the spotlight with the unveiling of the new Washington Quarter. This replaced the elegant, yet somewhat controversial, Standing Liberty design. The new 1932 issue, released during the depths of the Great Depression, was technically our second commemorative quarter, the first being the 1893 Isabella. It was originally produced as a bicentennial-themed commemoration of the Father of Our Country’s birth.

Designer Felix Schlag’s Thomas Jefferson made his patriotic first appearance (donning that fashionable 18th century peruke wig) on the nickel in 1938, replacing the popular Buffalo Nickel.

Who knows for sure what path the venerated Mercury Dime would have taken had it not been for the death of FDR in 1945. Certainly, President Roosevelt’s courageous battle with polio and the befitting March of Dimes campaign made the newly designed John Sinnock Dime an appropriate choice.

The progression of coin revamps from 1909 to 1948
Click image to enlarge.

Franklin’s journey to the Half Dollar

By the end of the Second World War, the overhaul and virtual metamorphosis of our circulating coinage was all but complete. The lone holdout was Adolph Weinman’s famed Walking Liberty Half Dollar, which had become eligible for renovation as early as July 1, 1941.

Now taking center stage was the first woman appointed Director of the US Mint, the honorable Nellie Tayloe Ross, who by her own admission, had a strong fondness for Benjamin Franklin. Driven by personal affinity and patriotic sense, her mission was to have both Ben and the Liberty Bell on the coin—two icons of American freedom represented on one regular issue.

Official documents confirm Ms. Ross had contemplated such an endeavor honoring Franklin ever since accepting the position of Mint Director in 1933. It was then that she cast her eyes upon a US Mint medal prepared in Franklin's honor by John R. Sinnock, the Mint's chief sculptor-engraver. Further evidence suggests that Ross may have initiated the change in the early 1940s, when the Half Dollar's Walking Liberty design, used for the constitutional minimum of 25 years, became eligible for replacement.

Franklin medal designed by John R. Sinnock
Click images to enlarge.

Yet, perhaps as a befitting tribute to Lady Liberty, for at least four more years the United States and the world were too busy securing democracy to be concerned about pursuing a trivial numismatic matter.

Achieving a design befitting Franklin

At the conclusion of World War II, Ross was finally able to task Sinnock with producing some working models for the Franklin Half Dollar. Ultimately, the chief engraver’s interpretation was accomplished in the spring of 1947, but, unfortunately, it would be Sinnock’s last official act. He submitted his final renderings and casts to Ross just a few weeks before his untimely death in May of 1947.

Assistant Mint Engraver Gilroy Roberts was charged with completing Sinnock’s work, which necessitated some minor tweaking. These tweaks included the addition of a symbolic eagle, which was placed to the right of the Liberty Bell on the reverse. This feature had been mandated by law since 1792 for silver coins in the realm of Half Dollar size and larger.

Triumphantly, on November 17, 1947, lead impressions were sent to the US Commission of Fine Arts for their blessing. However, a few weeks later, the first response from the commission was one of disapproval. The reverse of the coin was said to feature a scrawny little eagle and a large crack running through the Liberty Bell, which some believed might lead to “puns and statements derogatory to United States coinage.”

Perhaps the design would have been approved on the spot if the eagle was dominantly featured on the reverse instead of the Liberty Bell. However, because Franklin was more closely associated with Philadelphia, the choice of the Liberty Bell seemed more appropriate to Ms. Ross. (To take it one step further, if Mr. Franklin had a say in the matter, he would probably have chosen a turkey over both, as that was his personal recommendation for our national bird.)

Nonetheless, fueled by Mint Director Ross’s dogged determination, her Franklin Half Dollar was about to become reality, as the Treasury Department eventually approved the coin with cracked bell and scrawny eagle to boot.

Standing the test of time

The year 1948 was one of transition and prosperity for many Americans during the post-World War II boom. For Harry Truman, his narrow defeat of Thomas Dewey gave him a new four-year lease on his home on Pennsylvania Avenue. For another, whose name is synonymous with Pennsylvania, one Benjamin Franklin—he made his debut on the newly minted Half Dollar.

The 1948 Franklin Half Dollar
Click images to enlarge.

Production commenced for this proud silver coin on April 15, 1948, and it was distributed through banks for its national release on April 30. Undeniably, this was a great choice for our largest circulating coin at the time. Mr. Franklin’s allure and exploits are well-known, and he lived a long and productive life. This patriot, postmaster, author, publisher and inventor extraordinaire not only influenced many of his contemporaries, his wit and wisdom transcends today. Perhaps, in the truest sense, he is our first American hero.

With its simplistic yet effective design, the Franklin Half Dollar also stands as the last regular US issue from the numismatic overhaul produced during the first half of the 20th century and features an American who was not a previous resident of the White House.

My history with the Franklin Half Dollar

I have always admired this coin. In my youth, I made an all-out attempt to collect this series because I, too, respected Ben Franklin. However, each coin was equal to what I would normally receive as a bi-weekly allowance, so my mission was quite time consuming.

Yet, through perseverance, luck and searching through many a bankroll of halves, I was able to locate all but the key 1949-S and 1950-D. These were later purchased from a local coin dealer in the summer of 1966 at $2 each for Choice Mint State examples. I then proudly displayed my collection in a blue cardboard holder produced by Whitman. Ah, the innocence of the early 1960s.

It may be somewhat difficult to fathom today, but during the “Red Scare” hysteria in the early 1950s, there was a contention that the designer’s initials “JRS” at the base of Franklin’s shoulder were a reference and tribute to the brutal Russian Communist leader Joseph Stalin. Incredibly, at this time, when conceivably there was a Communist lurking in every closet, or one or two hiding under the bed, a categorical official denial by the government had to be issued in order to squelch these feebleminded Machiavellian muckrakers.

The "JRS" initials at the base of Franklin's shoulder
Click images to enlarge.

A short-lived but well-loved series

Most assuredly due to that tragic day in Dallas in November 1963, Franklin Half Dollars are one of our shortest-lived series. Spanning but 16 years and all of 35 coins, this is a collection that is very easy to complete in average circulated condition. As a matter of fact, with spot silver around $18.50 per ounce, a complete average circulated set could be assembled for a very modest premium above the set’s melt value, which currently is about $230! How can the novice collector go wrong here?

For those slightly advanced enthusiasts wanting a Mint State assembly, a “BU” collection (MS 60 to MS 62) will currently set the collector back around $775. This equates to just a little over $22 per coin, and if you were to up the ante to around $26 per coin, you would be the proud owner of a Choice MS 63 collection.

Truly, there doesn’t seem to be much downside when it comes to collecting Franklin Half Dollars. The attraction for this series is vast, especially amongst the true baby boomers. This was their coin. Everyone remembers it fondly, whether as the aforementioned allowance, weekly lunch money or just hearing that unmistakable “ring” when it would plop on the counter in the course of day-to-day commerce.

What’s up, doc?

In 1955, a peculiar die defect on Franklin’s face and mouth area created what well-known Midwest dealers Aubrey & Adeline Bebee called the “Bugs Bunny” variety. From their coin shop in Omaha, the Bebees’ widely advertised these numismatic novelties. The slightly bucktoothed Franklin gathered collector momentum rather quickly and was responsible for bringing a measure of new excitement and popularity to the series.

The 1955 Franklin "Bugs Bunny" Half Dollar
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These coins are still readily available today, and a Very Choice specimen can be had for under $40. Luckily for most numismatists, there are no rare dates to agonize about or lose sleep over in this collection process. Somewhat amazingly, although the mintages are historically low by modern-day standards, we find the 1953 Philly reports the lowest output at nearly 2.8 million. The high was delivered with the 1963-D series swansong, as the presses hummed en route to some 67 million coins. Part of the reason for the availability of all the dates in this issue is the fact that collecting by bank-wrapped rolls was very popular during the Franklin’s heyday in the 1950s and ’60s.

When I was a kid, the key issue in Gem (now MS 65) was always considered to be the 1949-S, while the 1949 and 1951-S were not far behind. Over time and NGC Census reassessment, the king 1949-S, has been easily dethroned, replaced by the 1949-D as far as MS 65 designees are concerned. The current NGC Census dramatically verifies this assertion, as there are over 10 times as many 49-Ss than 49-Ds, and with a $485 NGC US Price Guide valuation, this second-year Franklin in MS 65 is the true key to the series within the regular MS designation.

For whom the Full Bell Lines toll

There is such a vast exposed area in the Franklin’s obverse design that locating raw or certified full Gems is quite the challenge. Upping the ante (and I’m not sure for whom the Full Bell Lines tolled), an enterprising dealer or darling collector saw fit to qualify the grading standard for Franklins.

Sometime during the previous market madness and grand eruption of the 1980s, Franklin Halves exhibiting a full strike on the reverse—or, more precisely, Full Bell Lines (FBL)—made their mark in the coin arena. Thus, fully struck examples that display six lines running unimpeded across the lower four quadrants of the famed Liberty Bell were given this new designation.

LEFT: Reverse of 1952-S Franklin Half Dollar, graded NGC MS 65. RIGHT: Reverse of 1948 Franklin Half Dollar, graded NGC MS 66 FBL.
Click images to enlarge.

Technically, for me, it’s hard to qualify any Franklin examples as “FBL” because all the coins have a rather large crack dissecting through the lower portion of the Liberty Bell, making it quite impossible to say that the lines continue unimpeded. Nonetheless, collecting these desirable early-strike Franklin coins certified as “FBL” is big business and can be an enormous obstacle for the collector to overcome, especially in Gem or better.

Show stoppers

Delving into auction appearances will reveal that an MS 66 FBL Franklin collection will stop all but the most well-heeled enthusiasts. For starters, 16 Franklins (nearly half of the series) making this lofty grade designation are in the NGC US Coin Price Guide at over $1,000. This includes five coins that command well over $5,000!

Topping the FBLs is a true modern-day condition rarity: the grand 1953-S reporting in at $43,000! A quick scan of the NGC Census reveals a total of only 14 1953-S Franklins have been designated as FBL, with only a single coin achieving MS 66 FBL!

The 1953-S Franklin graded MS 66 FBL
Click images to enlarge.

For those of you ready to get started on your Franklin collection, I wish you luck! Remember, whether your preference and budget nets you a lightly circulated assembly, a gleaming MS 63 series or an Ultra-Gem FBL set, every Franklin earned is a Franklin saved!

Until next time, happy collecting!

Jim Bisognani is an NGC Price Guide Analyst, having previously served for many years as an analyst and writer for another major price guide. He has written extensively on US coin market trends and values.

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