The Short-Lived Franklin Half Dollar
by Al Doyle for CoinWeek ………
With a lifespan of just 15 years (1948-63) and no high-priced key dates even in Mint State grades, the Franklin half dollar is an ideal series for budget-conscious collectors.
The 35-piece date set contains 12.66 ounces of silver, and it can be pursued by everyone from those with meager funds to numismatists who prefer upper-end certified coins. How cheap can the hunt for Franklins go? Is something near melt value inexpensive enough? With a little patience, just about every date in the series (including lower mintages) can be pulled from the “junk silver” buckets found at most coin shops. The 1949-S (mintage 3,744,000) may be the exception to the rule, but having to pay more than melt for one coin is hardly a financial mountain.
Even thrifty collectors can usually afford to obtain uncirculated Franklins. The 1956 to 1963-dated pieces typically sell for $12 to $20 in basic BU, and the price sometimes includes a bit of attractive toning. It won’t cost a great deal more for certified half dollars in MS-63 and MS-64, while slabbed MS-65s for dates such as the 1956, 1957, 1958, 1958-D, 1961 and 1963 can be had for $50 or less.
In coin collecting along with other areas of life, it pays to be an informed contrarian. Franklins aren’t a hot or trendy series at the moment, which means prices are lower than they have been in the past. The 1953 and 1955 are Exhibits A and B of how a cost-conscious shopper can pursue these chunks of silver with little financial commitment or risk. The mintages of 2,668,120 and 2,498,381 (proofs not included) are the lowest in the series. Even with that honor, it shouldn’t cost more than $65 total to obtain the pair in MS-60 to MS-63.
Earlier dates raise the price bar a bit, but the cost is hardly prohibitive. All of the pre-1955 Franklins are available for less than $100 (and typically less than $50 apiece) in MS-63 and MS-64. Although they aren’t known for exceptional luster, a nicely matched set of these 50-cent pieces can be an eye catcher. For those who are fascinated by mintage figures, nine dates were struck in quantities of 5 million or less along with eight dates in the under 10 million category.
So how can this affordable Everyman series become an expensive pursuit? It starts and ends with the Liberty Bell on the reverse.
Any Franklin with complete, unbroken lines on the bell qualifies for the full bell line designation. So what’s the problem? It takes a strong strike for the all the lines to come through, and the series is plagued with weakly struck pieces. Premiums for FBL specimens can be eye popping, and here are some examples.
Instead of spending $100 or so for the 1949-S in MS-65, make it $450 for the same coin with full bell lines. Coming up with $125 for a certified MS-65 example of the 1953-S is feasible for the average collector, but $800 or more for an FBL specimen is a very different story. The spread for the 1952 is tighter, but still a big hurdle.
P-mint Franklins of the 1960s are anything but scarce unless full bell lines are the desired feature. The 1961 is less than $75 in MS-65 – and more than $1,000 with all the reverse details. Make that $2,000 for a slabbed MS-65 FBL half dollar. The 1963 Franklin may be an exceptionally common item, but few exist in high grades with precise details. That’s why $1,000 isn’t enough for a coin with all the right stuff, as in MS-65 with a full strike.
All of the above dates are merely an opening act for the Big Kahuna of the series. The PCGS price guide lists the 1953-S at a supremely affordable $50 in MS-64, with something of a premium for full bell lines. How much more? Multiply that $50 by 375 to come up with $18,750. On the positive side, the spread in MS-65 shrinks to a mere 300 to 1 ratio, as in $100 and $30,000. Saying that the ’53-S is all but nonexistent with a full strike and prominent bell lines is numismatic understatement.
The only MS-66 FBL 1953-S certified by a major grading service (PCGS in this case) went for $69,000 at auction in January 2001. It would be interesting to see what this condition rarity would bring in the current era of Registry sets.
Proofs of 1950 to 1963 can expand the set to 49 pieces. Pre-1954 issues are going to cost noticeably more than other dates. So why did the Franklin series have such an abbreviated run?
U.S. coinage law declares that all series have a minimum 25-year lifespan, but the shocking assassination of John F. Kennedy 50 years ago this month (November 22, 1963) resulted in public demand for a significant remembrance to honor a popular president. Legislation to create the Kennedy half dollar was signed into law on December 30, 1963, and that finished off the Franklin. It also marked another end for the 50-cent piece.
The denomination had a minor but steady role in commerce, as half dollars circulated and were used by Americans. That ended when Americans and millions in other nations gobbled up newly minted Kennedy halves as keepsakes. From dirt cheap to expensive for a full bell line set, the Franklin half dollar is a “something for everyone” series.