by Frank Chiong


Franklin Half Instructional Series: Grading Uncirculated Franklins

From time to time we have discussed Franklins in every manner, from “Guess the Grade” to looking at toning, color and so forth. I’m encouraged by the fact that we are seeing more and more interest in this series, even though a lot of people scoff at poor old Frankies as either an ugly coin or a bullion coin. So be it. One of the wonderful things about this hobby is that no matter which coin you chose, there is likely to be a following for it. Personally I was always drawn to the Franklin because it is the first big coin that I was introduced to when I started collecting long ago. I remember looking at it and being taken by the fact that it was different from most of the coins that I had seen. It has IN GOD WE TRUST where the date should be, it doesn’t have a president or Miss Liberty on it, it’s got this big huge bell and this teeny little eagle on it. So slowly but surely good ol’ Franklin became a favorite and it still is.

Sources for this series generally include “An Analysis of Gem Franklins” by Jack Ehrmantraut and “The Complete Guide for Franklin Halves” by Rick Tomaska – two books which I feel every serious Franklin collector should read

Grading Uncirculated Franklin Half Dollars:

The key to grading Franklins, or any other series for that matter, lies in knowing the series by date. Franklins, as with many other coins, have subtle differences which characterize the coins by year and mint. This is one of the main reasons why new collectors should read up on a series, so they can understand the subtleties of coins offered by different years and mints. Which coins have what kind of luster? Which coins have strong strikes versus weak strikes? Which coins are more common with toning or without? Questions like these have to be answered by understanding a year by year analysis of any given series, which is why I embarked on the instructional series for those who have an interest in Franklins, and for those who want to learn more about this series.

First Impressions: Luster:

Whenever you look at Franklins, the first impression that the coin gives you is going to be a key to determining how you approach the coin for grading purposes. In my mind, the first thing that you look at when grading Franklins to determine uncirculated state is Luster. Franklins come in all different levels of luster by year and mintmark, but generally speaking, there is a certain look that coins have when they are in pristine condition, and this is the look that you want to go for when you first look at a Franklin. A question you should ask yourself is does the coin look brand new? Silver coins, especially large ones, tend to have what is called cartwheel luster. When you turn the coin under a light, you will see the coin reflect the light much like the way cartwheels would stop in old western movies. It is this kind of look, whether you’re looking at a brilliant coin, or a toned one, that you first want to discern. Truly uncirculated Franklins will almost always have this look. As the coin starts seeing wear or friction, this pattern starts to break up. And here is where you have the first clue on discerning lightly circulated coins from true MS coins.

On gem coins, whether white or toned, always look for “booming” luster:

When looking at a Franklin to determine the difference between AU and BU, first look for that characteristic luster pattern. The next areas of focus should be on the cheek bone, and the top of Franklins head on the obverse, and on the trestle of the bell on the reverse. Generally what I’ll do is turn the coin at a 45 degree angle to the light, and look for rub marks, or changes in the coloration between the fields immediately before and after these areas. On certain coins this will look like a dulling of the luster, so you will see a shiny field, then dull grayish color, then shine again. Other times you might see a frosted look, followed by a bright, almost polished or slick looking spot, followed by frost again. Either way, if you see a change in the way the coin looks, this should throw up a red flag for you.

For these reasons, it is important to use good lighting, and reasonable magnification as necessary when looking at these coins. A good 100 watt bulb will generally yield the type of illumination that you will want to have. For those of us with less than perfect vision, a 5X loupe provides enough magnification to view these details without getting so close that you lose sight of the entire coin.

Luster on Franklins will range from brilliant, to satiny, to granular, with an occasional semi-prooflike to prooflike coin thrown in just to stir the pot. Because of the fact that inadequate strike pressure was used in minting the coins, some coins, like the 1951S half, will run the gambit from awesome brilliance to an almost slick look when the dies were about to give out. It pays to look at as many slabbed coins as you can to learn the difference in brilliance status for Franklins.

In general terms then:

MS66 and 67 coins: Luster should grab your attention immediately – these coins just boom with luster that’s unmistakably mint fresh and original.

MS65 and 64 coins:
Luster should be above average to great – definitely noteworthy.

MS63 coins: Luster maybe good, but now it starts being impaired by marks. In other words, you see the marks before you notice the luster.

AU to MS62 coins: You definitely notice that the boom isn’t there. Marks or luster breaks take your attention away from the mint luster, especially when you compare these coins to MS65 and above coins.
Second – Strike Characteristics.

As I’ve talked about in previous instructional series, the master die on Franklin halves started deteriorating soon after 1949. As such, I divide the strike characteristics that you see on Franklins into five categories – 1948 to 49 coins, 1950 to 54 coins, 1955 to 59 coins, 1960’s coins, and “S” mint coins from 1949 to 54.

1948 and 49 coins generally have the best strike characteristics of any Franklins. On these you generally see all the intended details of the coins when you’re looking at full gem status coins. Hair detail is crisp, the JRS initials on the truncation of the bust are well defined, and the three wisps of hair by Franklin’s ear are there. On the reverse, the bell lines are bold and well defined, the eagle’s feathers are distinct, and the “Pass and Stow” is visible to the naked eye. If you get a coin in this condition, combined with great luster, you are half way to a knockout coin.

On 1950 to 54 coins, one of the first places you start seeing loss of detail is in Franklin’s hair. Instead of crisp defined locks, they start bunching together. In addition, particularly on “P” and “S” mint coins, you start seeing the three wisps of hair begin to disappear. On the reverse, the eagle’s feathers start losing detail, “Pass and Stow” becomes mushier, and of course the bell lines start to disappear more frequently. Thus you have dates like 1950P and D, where the incidence of Full Bell Line coins is about 60 to 70 percent. As you go on up the line, toward 1953 and 54, the bell line detail fails more and more. A lot of this had to do with the mintages and the strike pressure that the presses were set at. Philadelphia coins seem to have fallen prey to less than ideal strike pressure and the over use of dies. This is one reason that finding a solid 1953P is so very difficult. On the other hand, Denver coins from this period, except for 1950, tended to be very well struck. The thinking is that, even though mintages tended to be high, dies were not used until they were totally exhausted, and heavier striking pressure was used as well.

On 1955 to 59 coins, the condition of the master die was noticeably failing. Less detail is seen on most of the features of the coins. You’ll be hard pressed to find a Franklin with the three wisps of hair showing clearly. In addition, Pass and Stow is generally blurred, and the eagle’s feathers are many times not very clear. For these reasons, over a period of time, the grading of Franklins got away from looking at these areas for fully struck coins, they just weren’t available. In addition to the above, I find that the bell lines, even on Full Bell Line coins, are definitely weaker than in earlier years. Yes you will find FBL coins obviously given the populations, but they’re not as bold as in the early years. The thinking here is that when new dies were put in the presses, you got Full Bell Lines, as the die wore off, you’d start seeing the bell lines degrade, and you’d also start seeing the granularity that is typical in average uncirculated offerings from these dates.
In 1960 the dies were reworked, and you have more detail returned to Franklin halves, although this time the coins come in a slightly lower relief.

Because of the lower relief utilized, the bell lines were not as bold as in the past, so what you see is a myriad of very nicely struck coins, but with lack of bell line detail, thus making 1960’s FBL coins very hard to find. Only those struck with fresh dies would show full bell lines. Add to this the huge mintages, the poor handling, and the weaker design, and you begin to understand why it’s so hard to find fully struck coins from this period.

The final category that I lump Franklins into as far as strike characteristics are the “S” mint coins from 1949 to 1954. For most Frankie collectors, the “S” mints are the heartbreakers in the series. The reason, lack of pressure from the mint presses, As a result of this, most “S” mint coins come with weak detail at best, and almost always without Full Bell Lines. Obviously this is not always the case, but in general what you find with these coins is that very few sport the characteristics of their P and D counterparts. While mint frost is fairly good on these coins for the most part, a great majority of the coins will have granularity on Franklin’s portrait and on the bell due to lack of metal flow to the deepest recesses of the die. In addition, in many coins, particularly on 1954S offerings, you see upper bell line detail fade, especially in the upper right quadrant of the bell lines.

So, taking all of this into consideration, here’s how I look at Franklins as far as strike characteristics:

MS66 and 67 coins: Should have a very solid strike given the characteristics of the date. In many cases, even considering the striking characteristics of the date, you will still be hard pressed to give coins minted after 1958 grades above MS65.

MS65 and 64 coins:
Coins should be well struck given the minting characteristics of the coins, depending on when they were struck. Although I don’t necessarily agree that an MS65 coin should have nearly no bell details as you see on some 1960’s MS65 coins, you will see this on occasion. To me, coins in this category should offer as much detail as possible with some consideration to the above mentioned items.

MS63 coins and below: Average to below average strikes, mushy details, some MS coins may even look like they have been slightly circulated.

Third – Marks and Wear:

Because Franklins are large coins, this has been one of the main reasons why it is so hard to find Franklins in pristine MS65 condition and above for many dates. Poor handling at the mint, high mintages, and poor after market care of these coins have all contributed to the relative scarcity of full gem condition coins for this series.

When looking at Franklins, my baseline is an MS65 coin. In my mind an MS65 coin is exactly half way between a beat up MS60, and a perfect MS70. As such, an MS65 will be gem quality, but may have a few marks that will detract its grade. When I look at a Franklin half for marks, I will look at the coin with the naked eye first to see what impression I get from the coin. Does the coin look mark free, or are there marks, particularly on Franklin’s cheek, on the field immediately in front of the bust, or on the bell, that attract my attention right away. If the coin has larger marks that I can immediately catch with the naked eye, especially in the aforementioned areas, it is immediately relegated to a grade MS64 or below.

The next step I take is to look at the coin under 10X magnification, to see how many marks there are and where they’re located. The prime areas of focus are the face of the bust, the shoulder, the field in front and behind the bust on the obverse, and the bell and the fields surrounding the bell on the reverse. Because Franklins are such simply designed coins with lots of open space, these areas are very evident, and as such leaves almost the entire coin vulnerable to hits. Again, using MS65 as my baseline, I generally allow for a few “ticks” on the coin, and perhaps one minor hit in one of the near one of the focal areas. OK so what the hell does that mean? To me it means that I will not accept a coin with a big gash, or more say 7 or 8 small ticks to grade MS65 or above. If under a 10X loupe you see a noticeable hit or reed mark on the face or on the bell, it goes to MS64 or below. The same applies if you see more ticks than you’re comfortable with. The focal points and the fields should be primarily free of distractions. Once distractions become evident, then the coin gets downgraded.

The best way to judge marks is to just look at a lot of graded coins and get a feel for what the coins should look like:

MS66 and 67 coins: MS67 coins are about as perfect as you can get with a Franklin. Maybe one or two minute marks in hidden places, otherwise the coin should look as if someone practically caught it as it was being released from the presses. An MS66 coin can have maybe three or four tick marks on the hair or shoulder or on the lettering in the obverse, or on the lettering or trestle on the reverse, but the face needs to be just about blemish free. A few very very minor distractions can be found on the bell itself.

MS65 and 64 coins: On MS65 coins you would see maybe a few more ticks than on an MS66, with maybe one noticeable mark in the hair, the lettering, the trestle, or the bell clapper. To me any noticeable mark on Franklin’s face, or on the field around in front of the bust, would preclude the coin from an MS65 grade. You can get away with one noticeable mark on the reverse, depending on how big it is, if for example you have an MS66 obverse and an MS64 reverse. On MS64 coins, you generally start seeing a noticeable hit on Franklin’s cheek, or on the bell, plus noticeable chatter, although it can still be a very nice coin.

MS63 coins and below are the typical offering that you see on Franklins. Lots of chatter and hits determine the grade in which the coins will fall into and at this level you’re basically looking at bullion priced coins.

True gem coins have to have luster, strike, and a minimal number of hits to make them truly exceptional.






One final observation that I will make is on the overall eye appeal of Franklins. Some people have a general dislike for these coins, and as such will never even give old Ben a second thought. For those of us who appreciate these coins, we know that overall eye appeal can be very important. In this series, more than any other I think, you can have great looking coins in MS63 or 64 because of luster and toning combined, or you can have horrid looking coins in MS65 or 66 coins because technically they meet the grade, but toning in particular is awful. To this I say you have to pick out coins which are pleasing to you and which you feel proud to display in your collections. Whether you love white coins, or coins with great toning, the most important thing is that you like the coins you have.

Hopefully you will find this diatribe helpful. I’ve been holding off on posting on this subject because it is a long and convoluted discussion, but for those of you who enjoy the series, I feel it’s important to know what to look for in great Franklins. I hope some of you will chime in and give your opinions on this subject. Until then – Enjoy collecting Frankies!



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