Half Dollar Coin Hunting and Values


There was a time not too long ago when you could find a half dollar coin almost anywhere you looked. Never as beloved as the quarter, never as ubiquitous as the penny, and not as heavy as silver dollars, half-dollar pieces were nonetheless as much a part of everyday life as any other denomination.

In truth, they haven’t entirely gone away. Fifty-cent coins bearing John F. Kennedy’s profile are still produced by the U.S. Mint, albeit in very small batches and pretty much exclusively for collectors.

But they were very present throughout the 1970s and 1980s, with millions of coins minted in 1971, the most of any single year.

Collecting Half Dollar Coins

Any coin that has seemingly dropped off the face of the earth in recent years, such as 50-cent coins, will be eagerly hunted down in the collectibles marketplace. And half dollars in mint condition and higher grades can be worth tens of thousands of dollars.

The history of the 50-cent piece dates back to 1794, when the first coins were minted with silver. From the first minting to 1947, the half dollar coin featured a woman who symbolized Liberty with an eagle on the reverse design.

The hunt for half dollar coins could start right now in your own home. But first, you’ll need to know what you’re looking for.

The History of the 50-Cent Piece

The U.S. half-dollar coin has a history extending back to the country’s infancy. After heavy use in the early 20th Century, half dollar coins are becoming rarer in recent years.

The Kennedy Half-Dollar

After the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, Congress authorized a new half-dollar bearing the JFK profile on one side and the Presidential Seal on the reverse.

The design of the Kennedy bust was completed by Gilroy Roberts, who was an American sculptor and served as the ninth Chief Engraver of the United States Mint from 1948 to 1964.

On the reverse, it was Frank Gasparro who designed the intricate details of the Presidental Seal, including the words, “E Pluribus Unum,” Latin for, “out of many, one.” Gasparro also was the Chief Engraver overseeing the Susan B. Anthony dollar and the Eisenhower dollar.

The 1964 Kennedy Half Dollar

The Kennedy silver half dollars were turned around in remarkably short order in March 1964. The country was shocked by the assassination of the popular president. Less than four months after Kennedy’s death, the new Kennedy half-dollars were minted.

One of the most important things to remember on your hunt for half-dollar coins is the year 1964 silver Kennedy coins were minted using 90% silver. Only the 1964 Kennedy strikes contained .36169 ounces of silver.

1964 kennedy half dollar coin
The 1964 Kennedy Half Dollar

After that, beginning in 1965, the Kennedy halves were minted using only 40% silver, just .1479 ounces. You can see why it’s important to keep an eye out for the date on each coin while hunting half dollars.

Collectors aggressively hoarded the original President Kennedy halves, both for commemorative reasons and the silver content in the fifty-cent coin.

The price of silver was going up at the time, and some collectors even melted down the Kennedy dollars to harvest the silver. As a result, the coin wasn’t as widely circulated as earlier half-dollars.

half dollar coin
The 1968 Kennedy Half Dollar

In 1965, President Johnson announced the U.S. Mint would reduce the coin’s silver content to 40% and removed it entirely in favor of copper and nickel in 1971.

1971 Kennedy Half Dollar

The first year the US Mint issued Kennedy Half Dollars in a non silver state was 1971. With over 155 million 1971 Kennedy half dollar coins minted, values range between 50 cents to $15 bucks.

In 2014, a new Kennedy half-dollar — 99.99% pure gold — was produced at the Philadelphia Mint to commemorate the coin’s 50th anniversary. Only 73,772 were made.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Mint and Federal Reserve announced they ordered Kennedy half dollar coins for general circulation for the first time in 20 years.

half dollar coin
The 2014 Kennedy Half Dollar

The Flowing Hair Half-Dollar Coin

The first half-dollar coin was produced in December 1794 in a batch of about 5,300.

Known as the “Flowing Hair” half-dollar coin, the piece featured a relief of an anonymous woman with long locks of hair on the obverse side and one of the Heraldic Eagle on the reverse.

The word “Liberty” and twin arcs of stars appeared on the woman’s side, and “United States of America” and some apparent olive branches framed the bird’s side.

The Flowing Hair design was used on every U.S. coin at the time, including half-dimes and dollars coins. Moneychangers identified the specific currency by its size since that corresponded to its silver content.

The Flowing Hair half-dollar coin was made from 89% silver and 11% copper.

The Draped Bust and Capped Bust Half-Dollar Coins

For reasons unknown — we blame the mutated eagle-swan — almost everybody in the country hated the Flowing Hair coin.

Congress decreed a new design in 1796 called the “Draped Bust.” This also featured a relief of the long-haired woman with a somewhat sharper definition.

The first 1796-97 Draped Bust run kept the scrawny bird from the Flowing Hair coin. However, in the second run from 1801-1807, the Eagle got a potent overhaul.

The new design was a replication of the Great Seal of the United States, the eagle’s wings entire wing spread, claws clutching a handful of arrows, positioned behind a shield and a banner reading “E Pluribus Unum.” Far more intimidating!

half dollar coin

A variation on the design, the “Capped Bust,” was minted concurrently with the Draped Bust and continued being minted until 1836.

The profile of the woman — “Lady Liberty” at this point — was reversed, and she sported a headband with the word “Liberty” engraved upon it. The eagle side was also redesigned with the bird in a more angled position.

All Bust mints had the same 89% silver content as the Flowing Hairpiece. As with the Flowing Hair coins, the same design was used for all coin denominations at the time.

However, the 50-cent pieces also had the lettering “FIFTY CENTS OR HALF A DOLLAR” along the edge.

Additionally, lettering on the base of the Capped Bust coins on the reverse side reads either “HALF DOLLAR” or “50 C.”

The Seated Liberty, Walking Liberty, and Barber Half-Dollars

In 1839, the “Seated Liberty” half-dollar coin put Lady Liberty in a sitting pose on the obverse, holding a flag and surrounded by 12 stars. The reverse was a slight variation of the eagle from the Capped Bust coins.

The Liberty Seated half dollars were minted until 1891, with occasional minor changes in the design.

In 1916, the U.S. Mint produced a new half-dollar coin on which Lady Liberty got out of her chair. Designed by Adolph Weinman, the Walking Liberty half dollars were eventually used for American Eagle’s one-ounce silver bullion coin.

Walking Liberty Half Dollar Coin

The eagle on the reverse side was also completely redone, taking up about 80% of the coin’s surface shown in a starker profile.

It’s by far the brawniest eagle any U.S. half-dollar ever had before or since. Walking Liberty coins in top grade or high grade condition could be valued at more than $30,000.

Between the Liberty variations was a half-dollar coin designed by U.S. Mint Chief Engraver Charles E. Barber.

These pieces were reinterpretations of the Bust series, with Liberty’s modified headshot on the obverse and the Great Seal on the reverse. The Barber half dollars were minted between 1892 and 1915.

All half-dollar mints from 1839 through 1965 had a silver-to-copper ratio of 90% to 10%.

The Franklin Half Dollars

The most drastic revamping of the 50-cent piece came in 1948.

Designed by John R. Sinnock, the new coins featured a relief portrait of founding father Benjamin Franklin with the “In God We Trust” slogan on one side and the cracked Liberty Bell on the reverse.

The eagle — whose appearance on 50-cent pieces was a legal requirement — was decidedly smaller and positioned to the right of the Bell.

The Franklin mint half dollars stirred up some controversy upon their release in 1948. Hyper-aware patriots believed the barely detectable etching “JRS” in Franklin’s shoulder was a secret tribute to Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

In actuality, they were designer Sinnock’s initials serving as a kind of artist’s signature. The argument didn’t hold up, as Stalin’s middle name was Vissarionovich.

The San Francisco Oakland Bay Bridge Half Dollar

When the Bay Bridge in San Francisco opened in 1936, a commemorative coin was authorized by Congress and passed into law by Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Jacques Schnier designed a half dollar coin with the symbol of California, a grizzly bear on one side, and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge on the other.

A total mintage figure of just over 100,000 Bay Bridge half dollars was struck at the San Francisco Mint in 1936.

Although Congress authorized 200,000 Bay Bridge half dollars to be coined, the total circulating coins turned out to be only half that number.

Over time, collectors began to realize the value of the rare Bay Bridge half dollar series, and by 1980, each Bay Bridge half dollar was worth several hundred dollars each.

Years later, an exceptional example of the coin sold for more than $20,000.

half dollar coin
The Bay Bridge Half Dollar Coin

1776 to 1976 Half Dollar Value

The 200th anniversary of the United States brought about a special Kennedy half dollar. The 1776 to 1976 half dollar coin.

The Treasury Department held a competition for the design of the coin, open to all U.S. citizens.

There were 884 entries, and a group of five judges selected the winning designs. Seth G. Huntington was the winner of the bicentennial Kennedy half-dollar design.

Huntington, who had never worked for the U.S. Mint, submitted a design for the reverse of the coin to feature Independence Hall in Philidelphia.

For the next year and a half, over 500 million 1776 to 1976 half dollar Bicentennial Kennedy coins were struck in the Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco mints.

The 1976 Bicentennial Kennedy Half Dollar Coin

How Much is a 1976 Bicentennial Half Dollar Worth?

The 1776 to 1976 half dollar value in average circulated condition is only worth face value, or $0.50. But in uncirculated condition, the coins will be worth more.

Uncirculated examples of the 1776 to 1976 half dollar value range between $4 and $5. Values are pretty close to the same for coins with no mint mark, and coins from the Denver Mint. (D mint mark)

Values for the 1776 to 1976 S Proof half dollar might be worth slightly more, around $5. Why is the “S” Bicentennial half dollar worth more than all the others? One word – Silver.

Does the 1776 to 1976 Half Dollar Have Silver?

Even though U.S. Mints produced a mind-blowing 500 million 1776 to 1976 half dollars for the Bicentennial tribute, there’s one coin to search for among the 500 million.

The 1776 to 1976 half dollars struck at the San Francisco Mint (“S” mint mark) were made with 40% silver.

These coins were sold directly to collectors, and are now valued at around $5 each, compared to just face value for other mint mark coins.

1776 to 1976 Half Dollar values
1776 to 1976 Half Dollar – Notice the “S” mint mark below Kennedy’s neck. This coin was stuck at the San Francisco Mint using 40% Silver.
1776 to 1976 Half Dollar values
1776 to 1976 Half Dollar

The Most Valuable Half-Dollar Coins

Half-dollar coins don’t possess quite as much romance for collectors as, say, silver dollars. But thanks to their historic scarcity in circulation — even when they were actively minted — many of them are worth quite a chunk of change.

As you might expect, it’s the older mints that have the most worth on the collectibles market.

According to USA Coin Book, the most valuable half-dollar coin is a 1797 Draped Bust minted in Philadelphia, with 15 stars surrounding Lady Liberty on the obverse.

Such a coin in merely “good” condition can be worth more than $37,000, while one in “extremely fine” condition can net over $188,000.

Uncirculated

If the coin is designated as uncirculated — “mint state” (MS) — its value explodes to almost ridiculous proportions.

In the case of the 1797 Draped Bust, an uncirculated coin with a quality designation of MS-60 can fetch over $530,000, and one with the higher ranking of MS-63 is worth over $1,600,000.

The designation of the most valuable mint mark can be tricky to figure out, at least online.

CoinTrackers identifies the 1838-O Capped Bust half-dollar as the most valuable, quoting a mint-state price of $750,000. The “O” indicates the coin was stamped at the New Orleans mint; all other half-dollar coins were minted in Philadelphia.

1838 capped bust half dollar coin
1838 Capped Bust Half Dollar Coin

The site lists the above-referenced 1797 Draped Bust half-dollar as only the third most valuable at around $500,000.

Other half-dollar mints on the higher end of the value scale include the 1853-O Seated Liberty, the 1796 Draped Bust, and the 1839 Capped Bust.

Factors that Determine a Half-Dollar Coin’s Value

The conditions that affect how much a half-dollar coin is worth on the collectibles market aren’t much different from other denominations. The most obvious is the physical condition of the coin.

In that regard, uncirculated mint state coins are pursued the most. Gradations between mint coins reflect the appearance or lack of scuffs on the surface. An MS-70 coin practically gleams like a star; one ranked at MS-60 might be less luminescent.

Circulated coins aren’t worth potential millions, but those in the best condition can still pull in large numbers when sold.

With circulated half-dollars, those with clear lettering, imagery, and virtually no wear and tear — crisp detail on the eagle wings, sharp representation of the words — are inherently more valuable.

What is the Rarest Kennedy Half Dollar?

If you’re wondering what the value of a 1964 Kennedy half dollar coin would be, look no further than a recent Heritage Auctions sale.

One of a dozen special issue 1964 Kennedy Half Dollar coins sold for $108,000, a new record for any 1964 Kennedy coin.

The pristine coin was a special mint set coin, not intended as business strikes or general circulation. The special mint set is known for its great strike quality and pristine press.

It’s a coin with 90% precious metals (silver) and could be one of the most difficult pieces for half dollar hunters looking to complete collections of the rare set for their display cases.

The top 5 most valuable Kennedy half dollars you should be looking for.

The scale goes all the way down to coins with smoothed-out features, but as long as one can still see the date clearly, it’s considered to be in good condition. Heavily damaged or smoothed-out coins that aren’t recognizable carry little or no worth.

It’s All in the Details

Differing design details between different mints also affect half-dollar coins’ value. For example, the 1853-0 Seated Liberty coins described above — only four of which are known to exist — lacked certain design features that other mints had.

The 1796 Draped Bust half-dollar was minted with either 15 or 16 stars on the obverse; the ones with 16 are the more valuable coins.

Anything from the absence of eagle arrows to the serif on one of the numbers in the date can make a difference in coin value.

As with stamps, errors on the coin can make it extraordinarily valuable, though only the most meticulous coin experts are likely to detect some of the flaws.

Since silver content was reduced in 1965 and completely removed in 1971, half-dollars minted before 1964 are far more valuable than later versions.

The “melt value” (read: intrinsic value) of silver coins in half-dollars is still much more than the 50 cent face value it denotes, depending on current silver prices.


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How to Find Rare Half-Dollar Coins

Fifty-cent pieces are technically still good as currency, of course. You’re likely to come across a half-dollar coin in general circulation at least once every few years.

But if the cashier at the 7-Eleven doesn’t casually drop a Walking Liberty coin in your palm as change for your Super Big Gulp, here are some other avenues you may choose to pursue.

Visit a Dealer, Auction House, or Coin Club

These outlets are the easiest route for finding rare coins of all denominations. However, they’re usually the most expensive.

Some of the more informal dealers — pawn shops, antique stores — might have a bargain bin you can sift through, which could very well have a few older series rare coins.

Coin collecting clubs may also have a few on hand or at least be able to give you more guidance on where to get them.

Visit a Website That Sells Coins

Search on Google for any of the 50-cent coins mentioned in this post, and you’ll get lots of results for sites that will sell them to you directly.

Coin values vary greatly depending on the year and condition, so use caution if you’re beginning your coin collection adventure.

As you can imagine, scam artists and fraudulent websites are commonplace in the coin collecting world. No different than anything else.

eBay usually has a few half-dollar coins among its sale items, so you may try that — all “buyer beware” warnings in force, of course.

Talk with Older Relatives or Friends

Some of our older-generation folks, especially those who have lived in the same house for generations, may have rare or old coins rattling around in their attics and wouldn’t mind you rustling through them.

You should probably offer them a cut of the action if you wind up selling the coin for big bucks! Coin collections can be discovered almost anywhere.

Exchange Your Bills for 50-Cent Coin Rolls at the Bank

This, quite admittedly, is an improbable shot in the dark. But if you’re so inclined — and not afraid to annoy tellers — a large bank may have enough 50-cent coins to warrant their own rolls, and some of them may have one of the rarer Kennedy silver half-dollars.

The chances are slim, but if you’re bored, you could do worse. You might find a few mint sets of American half-dollar U.S. coins.


Here’s a great introduction to Kennedy Half Dollars. If you’re going to collect half dollars, you need to know the basics. Silver content, condition, years, and circulation numbers.

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