The long-running Kennedy Half Dollar series kicked off production in January 1964, literally weeks after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated by self-proclaimed American Marxist Lee Harvey Oswald during a presidential procession in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963. A mourning nation hoarded the new Kennedy Half Dollar from the moment it was officially released to the public on March 24, 1964.
Public demand for the new Kennedy Half Dollar prompted the United States Mint to strike more than 430 million 1964-dated Kennedy Half Dollars – a number more than double the amount needed to provide all 195 million men, women, and children living in the United States at the time with an example of their own. But the coin was largely viewed as a 50-cent memento of the beloved president, and the public collectively stockpiled virtually all examples they could get their hands on.
The Disappearance of Kennedy Half Dollars
Within months, a denomination that had circulated widely and freely throughout the United States prior to carrying Kennedy’s likeness had suddenly disappeared from circulation. It was a situation exacerbated further still from the ongoing speculation in silver bullion, which had hit then-record prices of $1.29 around 1963 and induced millions of Americans to accumulate silver coins, including dimes, quarters, and halves, whose 90% silver compositions were suddenly worth more than the face values of those coins.
The United States government debased the Kennedy half dollar in the following years, first in 1965 when the half dollar’s composition was switched to a 40% silver clad format then again in 1971 when silver was eliminated completely in lieu of a copper-nickel clad profile. Yet, the public continued saving Kennedy Half Dollars.
There was – and remains to this day among many non-numismatists – a fallacious perception that all Kennedy Half Dollars regardless of their condition are worth more than face value. Perhaps this belief arose from the general lack of Kennedy half dollars (or any half dollars) in circulation. Or maybe it was connected to the understanding that 1960s Kennedy Half Dollars contain silver – and therefore perhaps all do (of course, most issues made since 1971 don’t). Or there could be other factors contributing to the public’s longstanding general view that Kennedy half dollars are something that should be saved.
At any rate, the Kennedy Half Dollar became a circulating novelty by no later than the early 1980s, and 1983 saw the last cumulative mintage of more than 60 million circulating pieces struck during any single year. Bank demand for the denomination was dropping precipitously during the late 1970s and early ‘80s, and fewer people were encountering half dollars in circulation. By that time, the United States Mint had already skipped one year of circulating production for the Kennedy series, and other stretches of non-circulating strikings were to come for the half dollar.
The first of the business-strike Kennedy Half Dollars not issued for circulation was the 1970-D. It marks the last year of the 40% silver clad composition that began in 1965 and was seen only in the uncirculated sets issued for coin collectors that year. With a production figure of only 2,150,000, the 1970-D Kennedy Half Dollar took the reign as the lowest-mintage business strike of the series (for several decades at least) and still serves as its key coin. The issue price for the 1970 Mint Set was $2.50, and today MS65 specimens of the 1970-D Kennedy Half Dollar regularly take $40. PCGS has graded only 18 in the finest-known grade of MS67, a threshold at which specimens command nearly $5,000 apiece.
The next year when Kennedy Half Dollars were issued only for collectors came in 1987, arguably a full decade or more since halves were last regularly seen in circulation. By that time, bank orders for the coin were deeply dwindling in number and the supply of Kennedy Half Dollars in circulation was deemed sufficient for current needs. Still, both the Philadelphia and Denver Mint produced business strikes, most of which were included in the 1987 Mint Set, distributed to the tune of 2,890,758 units at an issue price of $7 each.
The 1987-P and 1987-D Kennedy Half Dollars remain to this day among the scarcest pre-2002 issues in the series and are commonly seen in the MS65 to MS66 range, where they take between $7 and $10; just one 1987-P is known in PCGS MS68, and this piece lists in PCGS CoinFacts at $4,000, while the 1987-D fields half a dozen PCGS-graded examples in MS68 listing at $2,600.
The last time Kennedy Half Dollars were minted for circulation was in 2001, certainly two decades after real demand for the coin in commerce had all but disintegrated. The United States Mint announced that beginning in 2002 all Kennedy Half Dollars would be struck only for numismatic purposes, a situation that remains today.
While the Kennedy Half Dollar is still struck as a legal-tender coin and can be spent as regular money, commercial demand for the coin is almost non-existent. Relatively few vending machines made in recent decades are calibrated to accept half dollars, and even newer cash tills have dropped a designated slot for half dollars. The half dollar does turn up in pocket change on rare occasions, though its domain today is largely limited to banks, novelty stores, and coin shops.
As all Kennedy Half Dollars made since 2002 have been issued only in uncirculated sets, numismatic rolls, or other special collector products, availability of these coins in Gem Mint State grades is plentiful. And despite mintages that rival in scarceness or even fall well under production figures of the 1970-D or 1987 Kennedy Half Dollars, virtually all standard post-2001 Kennedy Half Dollars are extremely affordable in grades up through at least MS65.