It was around 1982 or 1983 that my career in cameos began. I had been a full-time coin dealer since early 1981, having started out as a wholesaler selling prooflike Morgan dollars. I originally became interested in prooflike Morgans around 1979, when I walked into a coin shop in La Jolla, California, and saw a book on the shelf by Jim Osbon, The Silver Dollar Encyclopedia.
Reading through the book, I became fascinated with the coins called prooflike. It was the practice during that era to polish commercial dies in a manner that early strikes off these dies would display deeply mirrored fields with frosted cameo devices, very similar in appearance to Proof Morgan dollars. The prooflikes were not polished to the same degree as Proof coins, so the mirrors were not quite the quality of Proofs, and the prooflikes also did not display the razor-sharp strike of Proofs. Prooflikes also had bagmarks, since the coins were intended for commercial use and were dumped into Mint bags for shipment, where they were abraded as they rubbed against other coins.
They seemed like a series with tremendous potential for collectors, with the finest examples offering the best possible eye appeal along with a high degree of rarity, for a most reasonable cost—at that time, a superb gem prooflike 1880-S could be acquired for under $100.
And that was what really attracted me. Aside from the fact that I was just beginning and was on a very limited budget, it seemed a no-brainer that the combination of exceptional eye appeal, rarity, and affordability offered tremendous potential for future price appreciation for the collectors of the day.
If I took the time to scour enough dealers’ inventories, occasionally a prooflike that ranked among the earlier strikes off a polished die, and had relatively few bagmarks—a “gem”—would turn up. Usually the date would be an 1879-S or, more often, an 1880-S. But they were stunning. I really loved owning those finest prooflike Morgan dollars.
And it was always a little disturbing when I sold the coin to another dealer, because I never had the opportunity to sell it to a collector, who would actually enjoy and appreciate the coin as much as I did.
So in 1981 I started selling directly to the public, what is sometimes termed retail in today’s parlance. This is a misnomer. To me, selling to the collector is really where it’s at. For without the collector—the end user—there would be no numismatics as we know it.
I was doing a pretty good business in those early days specializing in exceptional prooflike Morgan dollars. It was the early 1980s, and Morgans were red-hot in general. I quickly built a dedicated clientele who appreciated the quality of the prooflikes I was able to offer.
But I began having a little problem. While there were plenty of prooflikes still available in the marketplace, I noticed a gradual but steady deterioration of the quality. Even the most common date, 1880-S, was getting difficult to find in minimally marked “black-and-white” cameo condition. I could find 1880-S Morgans in prooflike, but the really deep-mirrored pieces had more bagmarks than the coins I had been selling, and the prooflikes that were true gem quality did not have the same depth of mirror as the examples I had been selling. Astute collectors were wisely salting away the finest prooflikes, and like most collectors, when they sold coins from their collection, they would rarely part with their finest pieces. They would instead sell their second- and third-finest examples of a given date—and that is what I felt was generally available on the market: quality that was less than the best.
And that presented a problem for a coin business that I had built around the philosophy of offering collectors the finest, most visually appealing coins of a series. When the finest was no longer available, what was I to do?
It was at a Long Beach coin show in the early 1980s that the answer came. At that time, “The Beach,” held three times a year, ranked among the biggest shows in the country. I was roaming the aisles looking for something to catch my eye, perhaps a splendid dream Morgan like a black-and-white gem 1889-P prooflike, when a 1967 Special Mint Set caught my eye.
At that time a Special Mint Set (SMS) from the 1965–1967 era ranked pretty much near the bottom of the desirability spectrum among collectors. The government had discontinued the sets after only a three-year run because of declining sales, and nothing had changed since. An SMS coin wasn’t really a Proof, but it wasn’t exactly a business strike either.
But the 1967 SMS set I was looking at seemed to me to be something truly special—a true special Mint set. Most SMS coins I had seen to that point displayed a fully brilliant, mono-colored look, with no cameo contrast between the fields and devices. This was unlike the most recent Proof coins of the time, all of which displayed fabulous black-and-white cameo contrast featuring snow-white devices and the deepest possible fields, which gave them a black appearance when viewed straight on. But the set I was looking at contained a Kennedy half that looked very much like the most modern cameo Proofs of the early 1980s.
The difference, of course, is that virtually all Proof Kennedy half dollars from 1977 on display this ultimate level of cameo contrast in this condition. It was apparent to me that the 1967 Kennedy was quite rare in this condition, merely from the fact that I had never seen such a spectacular coin before. The devices offered exceptional icy-white frost. And the coin was a superb gem, with only the most minimal surface ticks to disturb its otherwise flawless surfaces.
I needed to own that coin.
The typical 1967 SMS set at that time sold for around $5. I asked the dealer how much he wanted for his, thinking he might ask a premium, given the quality of the half dollar, and I was prepared to pay him $15 or $20 if I had to.
“Seventy-five dollars,” he shot back. Seventy-five? That was quite a bit more than I was prepared to pay. Who would I sell the coin to? Who would be willing to give me a profit on this coin, when the typical 1967 SMS Kennedy could be acquired for around $5?
Well, I bought it anyway. Even if I couldn’t sell it for a profit, it seemed a good coin to hold onto, one that would someday be worth more than what I had paid.
That stunning cameo 1967 SMS Kennedy was not as difficult to sell as I had thought it would be. I gave the coin a good write-up, explaining in detail the rarity and quality the coin offered, and pointing out that at this price level it offered tremendous opportunity for a collector willing to tuck it away. My philosophy has always been to buy the finest, most visually appealing rare coins possible so that I could sell them by simply telling their story, feeling that the rest would take care of itself.
So it was with the 1967 SMS Kennedy, a coin that today, in MS-68 DC/UC condition, sells for $6,000 to $12,000.
In the weeks, months, and years that followed, I hunted out the very finest cameo Franklin and Kennedy half dollars, Washington quarters, Roosevelt dimes, Jefferson nickels, and Lincoln cents. I could once again offer my clientele coins that boasted the finest possible quality and eye appeal, that were very rare, and that were affordable.
But that first SMS Kennedy half was the coin that started it all, that first stirred my passion in a field that ranks among the most significant areas of collector interest today.
This article is excerpted from A Guide Book of Franklin & Kennedy Half Dollars.