US Coins

Hobo nickels in Heritage FUN auction

Although six- and seven-figure rare coins typically grab the headlines about Heritage’s big Florida United Numismatists auctions in January, one upcoming collection being offered has more of a personal touch.

The Don “H2O” Haley Hobo Nickel Collection includes more than 1,100 of these charming carvings on Indian Head 5-cent pieces, including nearly 300 by classic-era carvers (pre-1940), with some later carvings by “Bo” Hughes included in that number. The balance of the hobo nickels were created by transitional, early-modern, and modern carvers.

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Haley, who says he is “80 years young,” was introduced to collecting hobo nickels in 1988 by his friend Charles Kirkley, through Coin World, and later through the Original Hobo Nickel Society in 1992, shortly after the society was formed. He was given membership number 9 and says, “I chose my hobo moniker ‘H2O’ because I was working in the field of Water Treatment at the time.”

Hobo nickels combine numismatics, history and the handcrafted nature of folk art. As the OHNS website states, “The Indian head nickel is one of the most admired of all U.S. coins. Its design is true Americana! The years of its reign, 1913 to 1938, takes us through some of the most memorable periods in the history of the United States; the first World War, Prohibition and the Roaring 20’s, and the Great Depression. These are times we must not forget. Each hobo nickel is unique as they were all individually hand carved, using the design of either the Indian or the buffalo as a base, and altering it to another design altogether.”

The Haley Collection provides a broad overview including many facets of this collecting area.

Gorgeous portraits

Chief among the known classic-era hobo nickel carvers is Washington “Bo” Hughes, who researcher Del Romines writes was the youngest of 10 or 11 children and the son of a freed slave. While details of “Bo’s” life remain unclear, it seems that he was born around 1900, left home around 1915 and took on the life of a hobo until his disappearance in 1980. He learned carving from his mentor, fellow hobo Bertram “Bert” Wiegand, and both men signed many of their carvings. While “Bo” left many of his creations unsigned, he signed some with the initials GH or GWH. His works are often classified as pre- or post-1957, when he crippled his hand while carving a nickel. The Haley Collection includes more than 30 carvings by “Bo” and at least seven by “Bert.”

Among the most beautiful in the offering is a full cameo-carved “Bo” self-portrait, signed GH 52. Heritage writes, “There is little debate that Bo Hughes’ best work was done from the early 1950s until his 1957 hand injury (while carving a nickel). The pinnacle of his work is a series of full cameo carvings, with deeply carved fields leaving a raised rim, the date and LIBERTY removed, and impeccable carving of the subject. Most of the pieces were signed by Bo on the neck truncation, above where the date was removed.”

His carvings of this style often use high-grade coins — this host coin from the Denver Mint grades at least About Uncirculated — and the offered coin is highlighted with ice-blue and gold toning.

Heritage concludes, “Cameo carvings such as this 1952 rendition rank among the most desired of all hobo nickels,” and the piece is considered “Superior Quality” among hobo nickel enthusiasts.

A later “Bo” carving showing his revised technique, which used punches rather than fine carving, depicts the biblical figure Methuselah. It was previously offered in the OHNS Auction 3 in January 1996, where it was attributed to 1958 to 1960 when “Bo” was experimenting with his new style, adapting to his limitations. Heritage writes, “This is perhaps the most interesting of the early fully punched pieces, a testament to Bo’s perseverance.”

Clever adaptations

Carvers could do many things to change the profile of James Earle Fraser’s Native American, including transforming the headdress to a hat, altering the profile or date, changing beard and hair details, and adding jaunty collars and other fashion elements. A carved hobo nickel by “Bo’s” teacher “Bert” transformed the figure to a railroad engineer, shortening LIBERTY to BERT to serve as a signature.

Heritage writes, “Bert is in transit to — or has arrived at — Joplin, Missouri, with the message inscribed on the engineer’s collar. This is a fully carved piece, with careful strokes to create the pinstripe engineer’s hat. The hair and sideburns are longer than the sparse beard. The eyes, nose, and mouth are altered, perhaps to depict his friend and student, Bo Hughes.”

Indeed, the autobiographical element is important to collectors of hobo nickels and this “Who, What, Where, and When Nickel by ‘Bert’ ” is plated in Del Romines’ first hobo nickel book.

Perhaps carved by “Bo” around the same time is a 1913 Indian Head, Bison on Mound 5-cent coin signed GH21 on the collar. The Heritage cataloger writes, “The fields display partial cameo qualities, with LIBERTY removed and meticulous attention is paid to the carving details,” observing, “A largely unaltered profile sits beneath the smoothly dressed domed hat, which has a simple, straight brim.”

In it one sees many of the elements that “Bo” would further develop in his career to create his famed cameo type pieces, such as the previously described self-portrait.

Hobo nickel carvers weren’t content to alter only the portrait side. Occasionally they transformed the bison into other creatures. One of Haley’s nickels is a 1938-D/D Indian Head 5-cent piece with a prominent repunched Denver Mint mark. The artist transformed the bison into a mule or donkey, with “FDR in 40” above, promoting the re-election campaign of Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The offered coin, which is plated in Del Romines’ book The Hobo Nickel, is the sole listing of its kind and a classic political nickel by “Bo.”

A carver could also make the bison into an elephant to appeal to Republican buyers, widening his customer base.

More affordable

More affordable are carvings by modern artists working in the tradition of classic hobo nickel carvers, and the sale includes many group lots that allow collectors an instant collection. 

A group of 16 hobo nickels by modern artist Mike Pezak, also known as “The Hobo Nickel Guy,” shows the artist utilizing modern techniques to provide new twists on traditional themes.

The group lot includes one carving where the coin, when rotated, reorients the bison into a standing hobo, complete with a knapsack on stick, a beard, wide hat and broad nose. Other hobo nickels in the lot turn the Native American into a variety of figures that serve as a sort of retrospective of hobo nickel subjects.

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