1971 was meant to mark a significant change in the life of the Kennedy half dollar.
Introduced in 1964 to honor the recently-assassinated president John F. Kennedy, the Kennedy half dollar replaced former United States Mint Chief Engraver John R. Sinnock’s design featuring Founding Father Benjamin Franklin that had been in use since 1948.
And in the following year, the half dollar’s composition was changed from the 90% silver and 10% copper standard fineness of circulating subsidiary coinage to 40% silver and 60% copper–an alloy referred to as “silver-clad”. The silver-clad half dollar retained Gilroy Roberts’ bust of Kennedy on the obverse and Frank Gasparro’s heraldic eagle on the reverse.
A few years later, silver was eliminated from the denomination altogether by the bill authorizing the creation of the Eisenhower dollar (though that bill called for the production of silver-clad dollar coins to be sold to collectors).
The Coinage Act of 1969, which called for the creation of a dollar coin honoring the late president and World War II general Dwight D. Eisenhower and removing silver from the Kennedy half, was attached as an amendment to the One Bank Holding Act of 1970.
The law was signed by President Richard M. Nixon minutes before midnight on December 31, 1970; had he waited until after midnight, a pocket veto would have killed the bill. A 25% nickel and 75% copper metallic composition known as copper-nickel clad was used for the half dollar for the first time in 1971.
The composition was introduced for the dime and quarter in 1965. Roberts’ and Gasparro’s designs remained unchanged. So, too, did the size of the coin. The weight, however, was decreased from 11.5 to 11.3 grams. Yet despite all the attention that Congress was giving to the denomination, use of the half dollar in daily transactions had declined significantly by the late 1960s.
One factor was the perhaps predictable hoarding of Kennedy half dollars by an American public that held the late president in high esteem. And regardless of design, 90% silver half dollars were plucked from circulation for their bullion value beginning in the early-to-mid 1960s.
The public hoarded the silver-clad coins too, though in the mid-to-late 1960s, the silver in each coin was worth less than 50 cents; PCGS claims that the silver-clad coins’ silver bullion value did not exceed face until 1974. By 1971, half dollars were no longer a major part of most consumers’ lives and became silver (or silver and/or copper-nickel clad) curios squirreled away in drawers.
1970 Kennedy halves, the last of the silver-clad composition, were not struck for circulation but rather for inclusion only in Mint Sets. Vending machines didn’t accept half dollars, and many cashier’s tills no longer had space dedicated to the denomination. The Mint would stop striking half dollars for circulation entirely in 2002. But that was years down the road.
In 1971, 155,164,000 business strike Kennedy halves were struck at the Philadelphia Mint, though no mint mark was applied to Philadelphia half dollars until 1980.
The 1971-P Kennedy Half Dollar in Today’s Market The first date with the new copper-nickel clad composition is affordable and accessible for virtually all collectors.
Raw 1971 Kennedy halves are regularly offered on eBay for a few dollars or less. Half dollars dated 1971 can be purchased at face value if a collector is willing to dig through rolls.
CoinWeek writer Josh McMorrow-Hernandez did just that in his August 2018 article, finding 355 of them (more than any other date) out of 2,000 half dollars purchased from a bank. The majority of the coins he found were copper-nickel clad, struck in the 1970s, and in average circulated condition.
Most surviving Mint State examples of the 1971-P Kennedy half dollar will grade between MS64 and MS65 if submitted to the grading services.
A collector looking for an example in Gem Uncirculated grades or higher, certified MS-65 and MS-66, should be ready to spend $20 to $65. Collectors seeking coins in the top end of the market, however, should be ready to spend more than $1,000.
The finest-known 1971 half dollars grade MS-67, with both NGC and PCGS certifying seven at that grade.
The record public auction price for a certified 1971-P Kennedy half dollar was realized on November 11, 2018 (the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, coincidentally) in a Heritage Auctions sale when an example certified MS-67 by NGC crossed the block for $1,560 USD.
But keep in mind, vast numbers of Mint State (and Mint Set) 1971 half dollars have yet to be submitted for grading.
Design of the Kennedy Half Dollar Obverse: The obverse of the Kennedy half dollar was designed by Gilroy Roberts, Chief Engraver of the United States Mint from July 22, 1948, to February 11, 1965. Roberts also designed President Kennedy’s inaugural medal, which served as the basis of the present design.
The central motif is an effigy of the 35th President of the United States, the late John Fitzgerald Kennedy. A war hero and (at the time) the youngest person ever elected president, Kennedy was inaugurated on January 20, 1961, and assassinated on November 22, 1963.
The nation’s grief was such that Congress and the U.S. Mint rushed through a design change on the half dollar denomination to commemorate the bereaved president.
Atop the upper half of the rim is the inscription LIBERTY, with Kennedy’s hair covering the bottom portions of the letters “B”, “E”, and “R”. The date 1971 is cradled at the bottom of the coin, while the national motto IN GOD WE TRUST is inscribed in a straight line above the year but divided by the sharp truncation of Kennedy’s neck.
Gilroy Roberts’ initials are located on the truncation line of Kennedy’s bust, above the “WE” on the bottom right side of the coin.
Reverse: Roberts’ assistant (and soon-to-be replacement) Frank Gasparro designed the reverse. He based the heraldic eagle on the presidential coat of arms from the Seal of the President of the United States, which itself is based on the obverse of the Great Seal of the United States.
The presidential seal in its current form was finalized by President Harry S. Truman in 1945, though the number of stars on the seal (and hence the coin) went from 48 to 50 as the states of Alaska and Hawaii entered the Union.
The eagle’s wings and legs are spread in four directions. The left talon (viewer’s right) holds a bunch of arrows, a symbol of war, while the right claw (viewer’s left) holds an olive branch, a symbol of peace.
It is tradition to have the eagle face one side or the other relative to national circumstances at the time of striking; in this instance, the eagle faces towards the olive branch despite America’s involvement in Vietnam and other conflicts around the world.
Frank Gasparro’s initials (“FG”) are located between the eagle’s left leg and its tail feathers. A Union shield covers the eagle’s breast. Vertical bars representing the 13 red and white stripes of the American flag run down most of its face, the stripes representing the original 13 colonies of the United States.
The top of the shield (a horizontal band otherwise known in heraldry as a “chief”) features no stars. They are represented beneath the clouds in a space known as the “glory”.
Nine stars are located in a row at the top. Four zigzag beneath the ribbon on the right side of the eagle’s head. Immediately above the eagle’s head is a scroll featuring the motto E PLURIBUS UNUM.
The design behind and above the eagle, which consists of 15 rays, nine stars, and a mass of clouds, is called a “glory” and is a common design element of both heraldry and an earlier period of numismatics.
The inscription UNITED STATES OF AMERICA runs clockwise along the top rim of the reverse, while the denomination HALF DOLLAR runs counterclockwise along the bottom. Dots are placed between the two inscriptions at both ends.
Surrounding the eagle is a ring of 50 stars, representing the 50 states of the Union at the time of the coin’s production. Edge: The edge of the 1969-D Kennedy half dollar is reeded. Designer(s): Gilroy Roberts was the ninth Chief Engraver of the U.S. Mint, serving from 1948-1965.
He is best remembered for his design of the Kennedy half dollar obverse. Frank Gasparro was an American medalist and coin designer.
He became Chief Engraver of the United States Mint on February 11, 1965, after Roberts’ work with the Franklin Mint caused the U.S. Mint to let Roberts go. Having served as an assistant engraver to Roberts for three years, he was the 10th Chief Engraver of the United States Mint until his retirement in 1981 (View Designer’s Profile).