[The following excerpt is published courtesy of DLRC Press and its author, Rick Tomaska. This information was originally published in 2002 in The Complete Guide to Franklin Half Dollars]
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This author does not have a crystal ball into the future, but will predict this much: The Franklin half dollar series, in both proof and mint state, is destined to be one of the most popular areas of numismatic interest for collectors of United States coinage going in to the 21st century.
DO YOU WANT THE BEST?
It is a very important question to ask, for in numismatics, as in real estate, jewelry, or any other form of collectible, quality is a primary consideration in one’s buying decision. Doing one’s best, being the best, owning the best…..is a basic human desire. Certainly, without that instinct or drive, the human race would not have progressed as it has over the past 10,000 years. And so it is the desire of most every collector to own the highest quality issue available of whatever it is they are collecting. Unfortunately, in most fields of collector interest, the very finest specimens are priced beyond the pocketbook of the average collector. There is only so much water-front property available in real estate, and there are only so many series in numismatics that offer the collector the opportunity of owning the best. However, while the most desirable beach-front property in the U.S. is beyond the pocketbook of the average buyer, there are still opportunities in numismatics. Certainly one of the brightest stars in the numismatic galaxy is the Franklin half dollar series in both mint state and proof condition – especially cameo proof. This series represents one of the last frontiers in U.S. numismatics, as few others offer so much in terms of beauty, quality, scarcity and eye-appeal – for so little, as top quality mint state and cameo proof Franklin halves. It is one of the few series’ left that offers the collector a chance to own scarce U.S. coins that represent the absolute ultimate in quality – often for a very modest price.
For most collectors and dealers, there are four primary considerations that help determine a coin’s desirability, value, and potential for future price appreciation. Not necessarily in order of importance, they are: 1. Eye-appeal, 2. Quality, 3. Rarity and 4. Price. Quite simply, cameo proof and mint state Franklin halves currently offer more of these attributes per numismatic dollar than any other U.S. coin series today. Let’s take a brief look at these four areas.
EYE APPEAL OF MINT STATE FRANKLINS
Most collectors and dealers are very familiar with BU Franklins. The majority of uncirculated BU Franklin half dollars on the market are extremely baggy and/or possess very heavy, unattractive brown or grey toning. These are ugly coins. The Franklin design is a work of art in its simplicity. The bust of Franklin on the obverse, and the famous Liberty Bell on the reverse, are beautiful when their surfaces are clear and unblemished. In addition, many were issued by the mint in cardboard mint sets. The sulphur from these paper products often created some of the most beautifully toned coins in all of U.S. coinage. While rare, Franklin halves toned in iridescent shades of purple, plum, burgundy, green, orange, gold – virtually every color of the rainbow – can sometimes be found on a single coin.
EYE APPEAL OF PROOF FRANKLINS
There are few coins as attractive as a cameo Franklin proof. This coin represents the state-of-the-art in minting techniques for its era. Not only is it struck from a proof die – a die that received special preparation and polishing to bring it to the highest possible state of perfection – but as a cameo, represents one of the very earliest strikes when that die was in its most pristine, unworn state. During certain periods in the history of the mint, part of the preparation process involved “acid-dipping” the dies before they were polished. The solution used during the 1950-1970 period was a bath consisting of 5% nitric acid and 95% alcohol. It created an acidetched appearance on the die. When the die was subsequently polished and buffed, the recessed portions of the die, the devices, retained their acid-etched cameo. The very first strikes off these new dies would possess a gorgeous, intense cameo effect very similar in quality to the proofs minted today. The raised portions of these early strikes, the devices (the bust of Franklin, the lettering, and date on the obverse, and the Liberty Bell and lettering on the reverse) would display a snow-white cameo effect that would stand in stark contrast to the deep mirrored fields surrounding them. The flawless, jewel-like quality of the best of these cameos almost look like works of art rather than mere coins. Indeed, to most collectors, these coins are works of art.
RARITY OF MINT STATE FRANKLINS
The design of the Franklin half, with the broad expanse of Franklin’s bust on the obverse, and the Liberty Bell on the reverse, is an easy target for bagmarks or abrasion. The simplicity of these surfaces also serves to magnify, or highlight, the smallest bagmark. The cheek of Franklin & the Liberty Bell make easy targets. The quality of the typical uncirculated Franklin is quite low.
WHAT ABOUT ANY HORDES OF GEM BU FRANKLINS
THAT HAVE YET TO SURFACE?
Original unsearched bags of BU Franklins? The last bag of BU Franklins this author acquired, 100 rolls of 1963-D’s (2,000 coins), resulted in financial disaster for my partner and I. Oh, the bag was original all right. All the rolls were in their original bank-wrappings and had obviously never been unwrapped. The coins in these rolls were beautiful, bright blazers. We submitted the 100+ nicest coins to PCGS and NGC for grading, figuring if we got 40 or 50 MS 65’s we’d make a profit. The result? 5 MS 65’s! The rest graded either MS 64 or MS 63. Why? The majority had a few too many bagmarks, or had a bit too much pitting on the high-points of the devices (a common problem with BU Franklins), or were too softly struck to grade MS 65 (another common problem with BU Franklins) or finally, had some very light hairline scratches, the result of having passed through a coin counter.
RARITY OF PROOF FRANKLINS
Exceptional cameo proof Franklins are rare for different reasons. The frosted devices of the Franklin cameo dies were quite delicate – one could easily scratch a bit of frost from the die with one’s fingernail, and were the first part of the die to wear. Each successive coin struck from one of these dies would exhibit somewhat less contrast than the coin before. Eventually, the intense pressure of die on planchet would wear the devices to the same smooth, brilliant appearance as the surrounding fields of the coin. These subsequent coins, brilliant proofs, have no discernible contrast between the devices and fields. These brilliant proofs are far more common than the earlier cameo strikes. In some years, only a couple of dozen of exceptional cameos might be struck per die pair before significant wear would set in. Most of these few dozen coins would either be heavily milk-spotted, hairlined or otherwise mishandled over the decades – or even melted down for silver. (Remember the silver/gold boom in 1979/80? Many a proof Franklin was sold as bullion)
In recognition of the collector demand for the more attractive cameos, the mint began experimenting with sandblasting techniques in the early 1970’s which helped create a much more durable cameo effect. The mint also began chrome plating the dies to further enhance their durability. By the late 1970’s, these techniques were perfected to the point that a typical die could strike many hundreds of exceptional “black & white” cameos before they would begin to exhibit noticeable frost-fade on the devices.
What is astonishing is that if one is patient and fortunate, one can occasionally find Franklin cameos minted from the earlier 1950-1963 era that possess the intense cameo contrast, quality, and eye-appeal of these later proofs. These very early strike Franklins, depending on the year, are obviously quite rare. When one considers the inferior cellophane packaging used for these earlier coins, it almost seems a miracle that any high quality cameo Franklins exist at all.
QUALITY OF MINT STATE FRANKLINS
Eye-Appeal and High Grade are not synonymous. There are many high grade MS 65-67 coins which lack eye appeal. Often these coins are heavily toned in rather drab, darker colors. This is especially true of many MS 65-66 Franklin halves. As scarce and underrated as these coins are in high grade, finding either attractively toned or untoned brilliant gems is far more difficult. When located, these are stunning coins. As mentioned previously, the more beautiful toned Franklins can sometimes be found in hues of blue, green, gold, burgundy, lavender – every color of the rainbow, and then some. Untoned, white Franklins with pristine, unmarked devices and bright radiating luster are beautiful in their simplicity and perfection. The great challenge for Franklin collectors is in locating these more attractive gems.
QUALITY OF PROOF FRANKLINS
The finest proof Franklins, the cameos, being early strikes off proof dies, are quite simply “the best of the best,” for they are not only struck from proof dies, the finest possible dies, but are struck from those dies when they were in their most pristine, unworn state. There could not be a more striking difference between one of these first cameo strikes and a coin struck much later off that die – a brilliant proof. If one did not know better, one would think that the cameo and brilliant proofs were struck from two entirely different dies. In a sense they were. More correctly, they were both struck from the same die, but one coin was struck before that die had experienced the wearing effect of hundreds of tons of pressure of metal on metal, while the other was struck after that die had experienced those wearing effects. The opportunity of owning scarce, attractive coins that also are the ultimate in quality for their era has a very special appeal. It also gives these coins tremendous “upside” potential, as it is very hard to pay too much for coins that offer the collector the opportunity to own the ultimate.
VALUE OF MINT STATE FRANKLINS
Compare the populations and values of the following MS 65 to MS 67 Walking Liberty half dollars, from lowest population to highest population between 1933 & 1947, to the representative Franklin half dollar dates of the same grade:
* Certified populations of PCGS & NGC combined
** Approximate values for coins with typical toning and eye-appeal for the date and grade. In the case of mint state Franklins, some dates are much rarer in gem brilliant condition than in gem toned condition. For those issues, brilliant specimens may command considerably more. Also, any examples with exceptional color toning can be expected to command more than the approximate values listed.
Note: Compared to Walking Liberty Halves, there are very few BU Franklins graded as high as MS 67, hence the abbreviated comparison.
Despite having populations a fraction of those of the Walking Liberty halves in gem condition, gem Franklins are currently priced well below the levels Walkers are currently selling at. Additionally, if one wished to compare the populations of untoned, brilliant MS 65 Walkers to untoned, brilliant MS 65 Franklins, the population differences would be even more striking in favor of the Franklins.
These comparisons are not intended to denigrate Gem BU Walking Liberty half dollars. Quite the contrary, it is the author’s opinion that at today’s low levels, gem Walking Liberty halves represent excellent value. However, Gem BU Franklin halves of similar or greater comparable rarity are currently selling for much less than the Walkers, as the above comparison illustrates. Truly, these Franklins represent a great value in today’s market.
VALUE OF PROOF FRANKLINS
Try locating a 1957 proof Franklin in NGC ULTRA CAMEO or PCGS DEEP CAMEO in proof 65 condition. A proof 65 or proof 66 NGC ULTRA or PCGS DCAM can be acquired for anywhere from $300-$600, and yet fewer than 25 coins have been graded to date. What other U.S. half dollar proof coin offers so much eye-appeal, quality and rarity, for so little?
There are many other dates in the cameo Franklin series as undervalued as the 1957. The series is loaded with “sleepers” (see the tables on pages 165-166). The Franklin cameo proof series is one of the last frontiers in U.S. numismatics, for it is one of the last areas of ‘beach front’ property available to the average collector. Where else can a collector hope to find coins as rare, attractive, and of ultimate quality as the cameo Franklin series, for the prices these coins can currently be acquired? The biggest challenge is in finding these rare, undervalued coins.
The last half dollar series minted exclusively in 90% silver, the mint state and proof Franklin series represents the end of an era, and offers the collector of today a unique opportunity to own beautiful, high grade, scarce (or rare) U.S. coins for an affordable price.
In the mint state series, despite the scarcity of many issues in gem, the 1948-1963 Franklin series is the only U.S. half dollar series minted in 90% silver the average collector of today can hope to complete in MS 65 grade. While there are many very scarce issues, there as yet are no dates which are prohibitively priced.
Proof Franklins offer the collector the opportunity to complete a set of rare U.S. coinage that represents the ultimate in quality and eye appeal for the era they were minted. In many ways, the minting techniques used to strike the 1950-1963 proof Franklins more closely resembled the techniques used at the turn of the century, than the techniques of today. As a result, high quality cameo proof Franklin halves are scarce or extremely scarce for many dates, and the finest examples – those earliest strikes off new proof dies earning the PCGS “DCAM” or NGC “ULTRA CAM” designation, are for many dates extremely rare. Yet, there are only 14 dates in the series. With a bit of patience, (and perhaps a little luck) a determined collector still has a chance to assemble one of the finest complete proof silver half dollar sets in U.S. coinage in existence. Where else does one have that opportunity?