US Coins

Heritage offers Dempsey Collection of Hobo nickels

Hobo nickels — broadly described as examples of the Indian Head 5-cent piece with other designs carved on one or both sides after the “Buffalo nickel” has left the U.S. Mint — are a popular and specialized area with an excited collector base. Heritage will offer selections the Chris Dempsey Collection at a June 18 session of its U.S. Coins auction in Dallas.

Heritage describes the offering as “simply spectacular” and the consignment as “one of the finest Hobo nickel collections ever formed.” Additional selections from the Dempsey Collection will highlight upcoming sales.

The catalog’s introduction adds, “The popularity of these rare and uniquely interesting nickels continues to grow by leaps and bounds,” anticipating that the collection will attract collectors of the genre, and perhaps introduce new people to this area.

The collection’s “masterwork” is “what is perhaps the best-known and most important example of the famed carver known as “Bo.” Heritage calls it “nothing short of legendary among Hobo nickel enthusiasts.” It is carved on both sides of a 1935-dated host coin.

Heritage’s cataloger adds, “This 1939-carved DICER nickel is unique among all of Bo’s documented nickels, and it is far more ambitious than most of his other well-known works.”

The obverse features a typical transformation of James Earle Fraser’s Native American into a “hobo” with a neat beard, carved ear, re-shaped nose, and hat with a raised brim that Heritage suggests “foreshadows some of Bo’s later carvings, with fully dressed, dished fields and a carefully executed portrait replete with large areas of pushed and raised metal.”

The reverse is wonderfully described by John Sculley who wrote that the design is “a raucous celebration of life on the rails — three carefree hoboes have hopped a hot shot (DICER is ‘hobo-speak’ for a fast freight train). Two domed-hat gents are perched on the roof for a bird’s-eye view of the scenery, while a third hobo lounges within the car, its door wide open to fan his beard in the breeze. A circle with an angled slash is symbolic of a ‘safe route,’ unimpeded by the railroad bulls looking to toss them from the train (or worse).”

Bo and Bertram “Bert” Weigand are the best-known original hobo nickel carvers active in the early-to-mid-20th century.

When the coin was offered in the 2013 Original Hobo Nickel Society Auction 23, it set a world-record price for a hobo nickel. Its record was broken when a carving by Bert sold for $31,200 at auction. Heritage anticipates that this piece by Bo will set a new record in its upcoming auction appearance.

Carved on the reverse

The Dempsey Collection is especially strong in examples that are carved on the reverse, transforming Fraser’s bison into a variety of different forms. A 1930 host nickel has a carved reverse by Bo, depicting a traveler with a walking stick. Heritage calls it one of Bo’s finest reverse carvings, adding, “The nickel features exceptionally high relief, with multiple areas of raised metal and removed metal, as well as beautifully dressed fields for outstanding eye appeal.”

The word TIRED is carved where FIVE CENTS would normally be, “although we do not know if Bo was simply worn out from carving the intricate details seen throughout the hobo’s face and attire, or if the hobo himself was simply tuckered out from a long journey,” Sculley explains. Delightful accents like a checkered handkerchief in his pocket, patches in his coat and a lumpy, whale-like knapsack add to the charm.

The latter part of UNITED STATES OF AMERICA is obscured, with simply the term UNITED left intact, open to various possible interpretations. Joyce Ann Romines in her book on Hobo nickels, suggests that the use of the word meant that hobos were “united” in their way of life.

The bison was turned into a menagerie of animals in the hands of Bo and his peers, with a donkey and mule being most common, but occasional transformations to a turtle or horse’s head, or even elephant, can be found.

Heritage writes, “The idea of a mule came from his childhood home, while a circus may have inspired the elephant.” In a nod to his entrepreneurial nature, “During election years, the mule became a donkey, and they were popular political keepsakes among Bo’s customers.”

The offered example is carved on a 1937-S host coin, comes with an early Del Romines OHNS certificate, #R-001 dated Feb. 1, 1994, and it was recently offered at Heritage’s June 2019 sale of the Jack Royse Collection of Hobo Nickels, where it sold for $1,680.

The catalog for the Chris Dempsey Collection can be found online at https://coins.ha.com/. Bidding in the auction is now underway and closes June 18.

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