20 June 2021
The American Buffalo Nickel provides coin collectors with plenty of varieties to pursue, but as our brief examination of 'hobo coins' reveals, there are thousands of truly unique versions to be found.
A good 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.
What are Hobo Coins?
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 Coin' or 'Hobo Nickel' is strange to you, perhaps some background on this art-form 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 coin-of-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.
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When were hobo coins first created?
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.
Why did people create the hobo coins?
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.
Beware of fake hobo coins
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 coin expert Del Romines. ‘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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