There was a time not too long ago where you could find half dollar coins 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
As with any item with a history of pervasive presence that has seemingly dropped off the face of the earth, certain 50-cent coins are eagerly hunted down in the collectibles marketplace. And half dollars in mint condition and higher grades can be world tens of thousands of dollars.
Today, we’ll discuss the history of the 50-cent piece, track down the most valuable, and tell you where to begin your search. 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 his profile on the obverse and the Great Seal on the reverse. The design 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.
The Kennedy silver half dollars were turned around in remarkably short order in March 1964, less than four months after Kennedy’s death.
Collectors aggressively hoarded the original Kennedy halves, both for commemorative reasons and the coin’s silver content.
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.
In 1965 the U.S. Mint reduced the coin’s silver content to 40% and removed it completely 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 both announced they ordered Kennedy half dollar coins for general circulation for the first time in 20 years.
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. To be totally honest, the eagle looks more like a swan, but it was probably hard to get an eagle to pose for pictures in those days!
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 full wing spread, claws clutching a handful of arrows, positioned behind a shield and a banner reading “E Pluribus Unum.” Far more intimidating!
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
Beginning 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 dollar design was eventually used for American Eagle’s one-ounce silver bullion 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.
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 series was 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 Ben Franklin on the obverse and one of the cracked Liberty Bell on the other side.
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. Besides, 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.
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 in times 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.
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 what mints are most valuable 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 minted in New Orleans; all other half-dollar coins were minted in Philadelphia.
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.
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.
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 as well, 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 half-dollars is still much more than the 50 cent face value it denotes, depending on current silver prices.
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 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 just 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.
Actually, 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 a very unlikely 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 just might find a few mint sets of American half-dollar U.S. coins.