Altering coins into love tokens, hobo nickels and rings creates collectible art

Artistic alteration: Love tokens often feature intricate engravings or significant dates
By , Coin World
Published : 01/20/17
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The following is the first of four parts from the cover feature of the Feb. 6, 2017, monthly issue of Coin World:

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 nickelHobo 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.

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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