1971 Half Dollar: The Ultimate Collector’s Guide
The 1971 Kennedy half dollar bears the distinction as the first of the series not to have silver within its composition.
But, it’s the legacy of the Kennedy half dollar as a whole which gives this issue its unique gravitas and importance.
Within mere hours of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963, a call was placed from Mint Director Eva Adams to Chief Engraver Gilroy Roberts to inform him that Kennedy was under serious consideration to be placed on one of the United States Mint’s larger silver coins – the quarter dollar, half dollar, or silver dollar.
It was Jacqueline Kennedy who made the call between the three, preferring that her husband replace Benjamin Franklin on the half dollar rather than potentially dishonoring George Washington with replacement on the quarter.
The project was authorized just five days after Kennedy’s assassination with a fixed striking date of January 1964. Designers Gilroy Roberts and Frank Gasparro rushed to modify existing designs for the new coin, and striking commenced as and when planned.
Upon their release in March 1964, collectors hoarded the new coins for both their silver content and to keep an official memento of the late President.
The 1964 Kennedy silver dollar was 90% silver, leading to many being melted for their silver content.
The composition was changed to 40% silver in 1965, but circulation of the coins remained sparse and hoarding persisted despite solid production numbers.
To counter this, silver was completely removed from the composition starting with the 1971 Kennedy half dollar in favor of a copper-nickel clad design.
This improved circulation of the coin, but even ample supply of the coin has not led to much of a circulation imprint.
The Kennedy half dollar is minted in reduced quantities to this day, with most banks having plenty on hand in spite of the relatively low circulation numbers.
Mints: Philadelphia, Denver, San Francisco
- Overall: 460,482,197
- Philadelphia: 155,164,000
- Denver: 302,097,424
- San Francisco: 3,220,773
Weight: 11.34 g
Diameter: 30.6 mm
Edge Type: Reeded
Composition: 0.917 copper, 0.083 nickel
Designer: Gilroy Roberts, Frank Gasparro
Obverse Features: With just over a month to work with between the wake of Kennedy’s assassination and the targeted mintage date of January 1964, Chief Engraver Gilroy Roberts modified a bust he had already created for the Kennedy medal of the Mint’s Presidential series.
Roberts’ depiction of Kennedy was approved by Kennedy himself for use on the medal (Gasparro’s was also approved), but Kennedy offered no opinion on it otherwise.
From a viewer’s perspective, its simplicity is belied by deft line work which captures Kennedy in a contemplative, yet affable state.
Full profile and half profile versions were proposed in its place, but Roberts shot those down due to the time constraints placed on him.
The phrase “LIBERTY” is spaced out in generous fashion and rainbows the top half of the obverse’s rim, with the “B” slightly obstructed by Kennedy’s hair.
The “E” and the “R” are much more obstructed, giving the coin a depth of perspective and pushing Kennedy’s visage to the forefront.
The phrase “IN GOD WE TRUST” is cut in two on a horizontal line at the bottom of Kennedy’s neck, with “IN GOD” in front of his neck and “WE TRUST” behind.
The mintage date is spaced out in similar fashion to that of “LIBERTY” on the bottom rim of the coin under Kennedy’s bust.
A mint mark for San Francisco (“S”) and Denver (“D”) coins can be found in small font behind the nape of Kennedy’s neck just above the mintage date.
Reverse Features: Designer Frank Gasparro’s design for the reverse is an adaptation from the same Presidential series medal approved by Kennedy himself.
Gasparro’s modified presidential seal depicts the usual heraldic bald eagle with an American shield on its breast, holding an olive branch and 13 arrows in its talons.
Parallel and geometrically interesting rays, clouds, and stars protrude from the eagle’s shoulders upwards, with a flowing ribbon attached bearing the phrase “E PLURIBUS UNUM.”
In the space between the shield and the eagle’s right leg are the initials “FG” for Frank Gasparro in tiny font.
50 stars surround the eagle in a full circle, with the phrases “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” and “HALF DOLLAR” in rainbows on the outer rim of the coin at the top and bottom of the reverse respectively.
Errors and Variations
Even though silver was supposed to be completely removed from the composition of the 1971 Kennedy half dollar, some 40% silver planchets slipped through the cracks at the Denver Mint and were struck with a 1971 mintage date.
According to numismatic speculation, this error likely occurred when some of the older 40% silver planchets got stuck in the receptacle used to move the new planchets to the machines for striking.
The silver planchets were shuffled in with the new planchets, leading them to being struck and distributed.
Outside of collections not for sale, the estimated number of 1971-D Kennedy silver half dollars still floating around lies at about 20 or less.
A recent auction of one graded at AU-55 sold for just over $6,000.
There are also a wealth of known doubled-die, die gouge, and off-center errors due to the record mintage numbers for the 1971 Kennedy half dollar.
These vary in collector’s value based on the pervasiveness of the error and the overall condition of the coin.
Grading and Condition Issues
The most telling detail for grading a 1971 Kennedy half dollar is the condition of Kennedy’s bust on the obverse, with his cheek and jawbone holding the real overall key.
The more wear and detail loss on the cheek and jawbone, the lower the grade.
For circulated coins, the top of the spectrum (Extremely Fine, EF-40) will show just minor wear on the cheek and jawbone, along with some wear at the high points of Kennedy’s hair under his part.
Coins in lesser condition will show significant wear in these areas, along with a loss of detail and wear on the arrow heads of the reverse.
Top uncirculated 1971 Kennedy half dollars are extremely hard to find, with surviving examples at MS-66 or above said to be hovering at less than 200.
These rarities maintain their full mint luster and will have just a minor blemish or two, likely from handling.
If you’re lucky enough to find one of these on the market, the current average price sits at about $225.
The 1971 Kennedy half dollar is perhaps the most historically significant edition in the series, but its huge mintage numbers, lack of silver, and modern mintage date makes it mostly collector’s bust as it pertains to pure monetary value.
Uncirculated and Choice Uncirculated coins carry a small value spike at around two to four times face value.
As stated before, there are very few examples left of 1971 Kennedy half dollars graded higher than MS-63.
Their rarity makes them the true collector’s items of the mintage year, along with the aforementioned errors.
Good (G-4) to Uncirculated (MS-60): $0.50 - $1.00
Uncirculated (MS-63): $2.11
Choice Uncirculated (MS-65): $40.00