The following is the first of four parts from the cover feature of
the Feb. 6, 2017, monthly issue of
Federal statutes make it a crime to purposely deface United States
coins and intentionally pass them off as something they are not.
Section 331 of Title 18 of the United States Code reads: “Whoever
fraudulently alters, defaces, mutilates, impairs, diminishes,
falsifies, scales or lightens any of the coins coined at the mints of
the United States, or any foreign coins which are by law made current
or are in actual use or circulation as money within the United States;
or whoever fraudulently possesses, passes, utters, publishes, or
sells, or attempts to pass, utter, publish, or sell, or brings into
the United States, any such coin, knowing the same to be altered,
defaced, mutilated, impaired, diminished, falsified, scaled or
lightened — shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more
than five years, or both.”
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The key word now appears to be “fraudulently,” as the U.S. Mint
website at www.usmint.gov makes clear in the following statement:
“Section 331 of Title 18 of the United States code provides criminal
penalties for anyone who ‘fraudulently alters, defaces, mutilates
impairs, diminishes, falsifies, scales, or lightens any of the coins
coined at the Mints of the United States.’ This statute means that you
may be violating the law if you change the appearance of the coin and
fraudulently represent it to be other than the altered coin that it
is. As a matter of policy, the U.S. Mint does not promote coloring,
plating or altering U.S. coinage: however, there are no sanctions
against such activity absent fraudulent intent.”
This explanation opens the door for collectors to acquire repurposed
coins that have been transformed to look often quite different from
the way they appeared when originally struck in a U.S. Mint production facility.
The federal law seemingly provides no sanction against, among other
possibilities, cut-out coins for use as jewelry; engraved coins and
love tokens; encased coins; hobo nickels; coins used in other ways in
jewelry; coins that are reformed into coin rings; punch-out or pop-out
coins, also referred to as repoussé; lockets and watches; elongates;
and other coin art for wall or cabinet display.
Many older examples of artistically altered pieces still available
to collectors today were fabricated well before any federal statute on
mutilated and altered coins was enacted.
Engraved coins, love tokens
The art of hand-engraving love tokens on previously struck coins has
existed since at least the early 18th century.
According to author Lloyd L. Entenmann in his 1991 tome, Love
Tokens as Engraved Coins, the hand-engraved coin as a token of
love usually bears a name, initials, pictorial, message or scene
intended to show affection for a particular person.
Each token is unique because of these personalized features. As
Entenmann notes, little history is recorded about individual examples
because the stories behind them are personal, often between people who
would have evoked no broad public interest.
Love tokens are believed to have originated in Great Britain,
although the exact time is unknown. In the United States, they
appeared during the 1820s, at a time when talented engravers were
abundant and U.S. dimes were the most plentiful coin in circulation.
The relative softness of the silver made the dime the easiest of the
era’s circulating coinage to engrave.
However, examples of love tokens on U.S. coins are likely available
in all denominations and compositions.
Love tokens remained a popular gift until 1909, when Congress made
it illegal to mutilate a coin, after which the art of engraving love
tokens was never truly revived.
The most common designs featured on love tokens are initials or names.
Often these engravings are so ornate that the lettering is difficult
to decipher — on some both the initials and their order is
questionable, especially if a token features more than two letters
(although the presenters and recipients certainly knew what was intended).
Some engraved pieces bear dates important to a couple or family.
Others were used as makeshift military dog tags in wartime.
Some Civil War era pieces, for example, are engraved with not only
the name and unit of the soldier but also the battles in which he was involved.
While Congress passed legislation banning the mutilation of U.S.
coinage, and the Treasury Department has enforced those statutes
against such popularly collected items as love tokens and elongated
coins, officials since the 1960s have demonstrated a more relaxed
attitude toward coinage mutilation as long as the alteration is not
for fraudulent purposes.
Love token collectors interested in associating with hobbyists with
similar interests may consider the Love Token Society.
Keep reading this series on collectible coin art:
Hobo nickels enjoying numismatic resurgence, as
new artists start carving:
The Indian Head 5-cent coin, often called a Buffalo nickel, has
often been the coin of choice for carving a hobo nickel.
The art of elongating a coin more than a
The field of elongated coin collecting is in a state of perpetual
expansion as many new designs are issued annually.
Pop-out or repoussé, high relief from a
An unusual altered coin collecting specialty focuses on pieces
referred to as pop-out, pushed-out or repoussé coins.