US Coins

How hobo nickels are enjoying a numismatic resurgence

The following is the second of four parts from the cover feature of the Feb. 6, 2017, monthly issue of Coin World:

Examples of Trade dollars and like-size silver coins have been altered into what are referred to as “box dollars” or sometimes “opium dollars.” To make one, a coin is sliced apart, its interior metal is removed to accommodate hiding a small item, and the parts are hinged together.

Since Trade dollars circulated heavily in the Orient, a source of opium, it has been imagined that the hollowed out coins could have been used to secretly transport the drug or at least carry a personal supply.

However, contemporary advertising reveals the coins were also privately altered in the United States for sale as lockets

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An example of a box dollar and love token combination was offered in a September 2007 sale by Heritage Auctions where it realized $276.

A regular 1877-S Trade dollar was converted into a locket and on the inside of the lid is engraved in three lines, G H / “SPUDS”/ 10-20. Also included is a period picture of a young lady circa the 1890s. The box dollar offered was described as a well-executed piece, with a working hinge.

Luxury timepieces are known to have been fabricated using struck coins.

For example, Swiss watchmaker Audemars Piguet circa 1925 produced a gold watch fashioned from a French 1869-A gold 100-franc coin with its obverse portrait of Napoleon III. 

The coin is made of .900 fine gold, and inside is an 18-karat gold inner case holding the watch movement. The watch realized $4,000 in an Oct. 27, 2016, sale by Heritage Auctions.

Hobo nickels

The Indian Head 5-cent coin, often called a Buffalo nickel, has often been the coin of choice for carving a hobo nickel.

According to the Original Hobo Nickel Society website: “A hobo nickel is carved as opposed to engraved. Little by little metal is shaved away or mounded to create a miniature bas relief sculpture. 

“Historically these coins were made by hoboes, itinerant workers, who often traveled by hopping freight trains. The hobo’s tools were primitive and consisted of awls, nails, pocket knives, a small hammer, screwdrivers, and even found pieces of metal which were manipulated into makeshift tools.

“A metal ‘punch’ was also hammered into the coin to create a divot for an eye, an expanded nostril, or texture for hair.”

A finished hobo nickel could sometimes be exchanged for a hot meal or a night’s lodging in lieu of higher payment in cash.

According to the OHNS website: “An early date high grade coin may help date or identify an artist but collectors are most interested in the carving quality. Desirable attributes include: deep carving, unusual subjects, altered facial features, raised or pushed metal (often a hat brim), and well smoothed fields. While the date is not that important, it is preferable to have the date and/or ‘LIBERTY’ retained in the design.”

Hobo nickels dated and made between 1913 and 1940 are deemed “classic” or “original.” Specialists in this collectible field are often able to discern between the craftsmanship and style of many of the known artists.

Leading the field of original hobo nickel artists are Bertram “Bert” Weigand and fellow hobo and protégé George Washington “Bo” Hughes. Hobo nickels made by the hands of both artists are highly prized by collectors and generate significant premiums.

The years from the 1940s through the early 1980s are considered transitional, as the coin of choice for the hobo nickel canvas gradually moved to the Jefferson 5-cent coin, introduced in 1938.

Additional hobo nickel artists entered the field during these decades as the availability of Indian Head 5-cent coins dwindled.

Hobo nickels from 1980 to date are considered to be modern era creations.

The number of modern artists continues to grow. Some artists kick up the quality of their artistry a few notches with the use of modern tools. Others stick to the rustic, primitive tools of their forbearers.

Modern carvings are found on coins of all denominations, in sharp contrast to the classic hobo nickels executed in the early decades of the 20th century on 5-cent pieces.

A resurgence in making contemporary hobo nickels and collecting them from all time frames and genres came in 1992, when collector Bill Fivaz founded the Original Hobo Nickel Society at the American Numismatic Association Summer Seminar.

OHNS holds its annual membership meeting, open to members and nonmembers, during the Florida United Numismatists convention each January.

Activities also include an annual auction — open to members only — for the sale of several dozen hobo nickels consigned by members.

Over the years, examples trading hands have gone from auction prices as high as a few hundred dollars each to now as much as several thousand dollars each for pedigreed originals.

Keep reading this series on collectible coin art:

Engraved love tokenAltering coins into love tokens, hobo nickels and rings creates collectible art:Federal statutes make it a crime to purposely deface United States coins to intentionally pass them off as something they are not. But art is another matter.

Elongated coinThe art of elongating a coin more than a century-old practice:The field of elongated coin collecting is in a state of perpetual expansion as many new designs are issued annually.

Repoussé gold coinPop-out or repoussé, high relief from a different angle:An unusual altered coin collecting specialty focuses on pieces referred to as pop-out, pushed-out or repoussé coins.

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