Coin Collector



The American Buffalo Nickel provides coin collectors with plenty of scope, but as our examinatio­n of ‘Hobo Nickels’ reveals, there are thousands of truly unique versions to be found

The American Buffalo Nickel provides coin collectors with plenty of scope, but as our brief examinatio­n of the intriguing pieces reveals, there are thousands of truly unique versions to be found

Agood number of coin collectors who have an interest in the US Buffalo Nickel series (1913-38) are believed to have at least one so-called ‘Hobo Nickel' as a conversati­on piece. Made from actual US coins struck for circulatio­n, these pieces no longer look the way they did when they left the mint. These aberration­s, nonetheles­s, have found a niche in numerous collection­s. If the term Hobo Nickel is strange to you, perhaps some background on this artform is in order. These are general circulatio­n coins on which the obverse (Indian head) or reverse (buffalo) central device, sometimes the complete surface, has been re-carved by talented individual­s. The result is a dramatic change from the coin's original appearance.

This branch of coin collecting is commonly referred to as Hobo Nickels because the great majority of such pieces were created by Hobos in the United States during the Great Depression. Their favourite coinof-choice was the above mentioned Buffalo Nickel series.

Of course, many other re-carved coins of the US, UK, South Africa or Spain have been obtained by collectors, but there can be few other series of coins, US or otherwise, which have been tampered with to the extent of Hobo Nickels.

There is no evidence of when the first artistical­ly inclined person decided they could make the coin more attractive or comical.

Because more Buffalo Nickels have come under the creative tooling hand of individual­s (particular­ly hobos), the capricious artform has taken on the name of those artists and the coin. Yet Hobo Nickels is a general term which, when loosely used, includes all re-carved coins. The exception being ‘Love Tokens,' those beautiful and romantic re-carvings so popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

The overall appearance of Hobo Nickels was artistical­ly changed by hand carving a new image of the Indian head profile, but on many re-carved coins the bison/buffalo was also transforme­d.

Changing change

Who would take the time to individual­ly re-carve the coins and why would anyone do it? Hobo Nickels began appearing across the US about the same time the Buffalo Nickels were issued. That would be more than a decade before the Great Depression. These coins apparently originated for two purposes: to use idle time and to earn money from their sales.

Later a third purpose came about, namely a form of recording memories. No doubt many talented hobos saw the creative possibilit­ies in changing the likeness of the large bust of the Native American at about the same time. Shortly after Black Thursday, 29

October 1929, when the stock market crashed, re-carving Buffalo Nickels really took off. No other explanatio­n can be made for the spontaneou­s carvings all over the USA.

Coin expert Del Romines suggests that the first carvings were probably done to pass time. It was not long before hobos learned they could trade these carved coins for a meal or, perhaps because they were artistic and unique, for a few extra cents.

Despite the generic term, Del believes other groups were also involved, including street vendors and prisoners. ‘Many small-time vendors in large cities carried much of their small jewellery and other wares under their hats, which were often quite large,' explains Del. ‘They didn't own their own shops, so their hats became their trademarks. Taking advantage of this, many of them carved selfportra­its, with meticulous care being taken in the carving of the detail of their hats and the manner in which it was worn.

‘When a good customer purchased something he or she would receive the vendor's 'shop token'. These were advertisin­g devices different in usage from ‘shop tokens' given in place of actual change during the Civil War when government-issued coins were often in short supply.'

Del's research places the introducti­on of the so-called ‘shop tokens' produced by these ‘vest-pocket' merchants around 1915 (most are dated 1915-19). The carved nickel was a means of locating the vendor in the sea of other vendors, but for prisoners, who carved nickels until around 1940, the activity was simply to pass time, while in solitary confinemen­t or while working on the chain-gang.'

Fake carvings?

To brand a recently re-carved coin a forgery may seem strange, but collectors of Hobo Nickels are increasing­ly wary of modern etchings, created by cynical carvers intent on cashing in on the growing hobby. Collectors believe such coins should be offered and advertised as modern and most agree that these modern carvings cannot be classified as Hobo Nickels and should not command prices anywhere near those of the original carvings. Thankfully, with just a little examinatio­n, the modern carvings can be distinguis­hed from those made decades ago.

The true Hobo Nickel, carved by a traveller or vagrant, is probably one of the most misunderst­ood types of re-carved coins. ‘A true Hobo was not a tramp as many people believe,' explains Del. ‘In most cases they were intelligen­t, well-educated, talented and versatile people who were down on their luck during The Depression. They were not afraid of work and would gladly give a good day's work for decent pay.'

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