Let’s say you’re going through some old coins and one of the Indian Head nickels catches your eye. Something’s not quite right. On closer inspection, you notice the man portrayed on the front of the coin is wearing a cap instead of the usual feathered braid. Or has a beard. What sort of coin is this? Is it real? Counterfeit? Legal? The answer is yes…and no, because you may be holding a Hobo Coin.
What is a Hobo Coin?
A hobo coin is a generic term applied a certain type of coin that has been altered to change the appearance of the subject on the coin. It may have been done artistically, or perhaps as a joke. Or both. And while it isn’t only done by hobos, it was especially popular among the transients of the post-WWI and Depression eras, who have given the coins their popular name, along with Hobo Nickels, even though other coins were often used as well.
How Long Have Hobo Coins Been Around?
Even though the so-called hobo coins are associated with the early 20th-century US, artistically altered coins have been crafted since at least the mid-1700s. While primarily a US phenomenon, altered coins were also popular in England, France, and South Africa. And hobo coins continue to be made to this day.
The answer is simple—they’re easier to work with and don’t cost much. The Indian Head portrait on the nickel from 1913-1938 is much larger than earlier coins, occupying about 80% of the surface, giving artists a larger, higher-relief image to work with. The coin is also larger and thicker than other low-denomination coins, making it easier to handle. Plus, with a male subject, it has larger, thicker features to work with. And the bison on the reverse offered creative possibilities, too.
Are Hobo Coins Legal?
In a word, yes. It’s illegal to alter or deface a coin for fraudulent purposes, but hobo coins weren’t made to defraud. They were typically traded or sold as artwork, but hardly ever spent as nickels. And today they’re worth a lot more than five cents to collectors.
Are Hobo Coins Valuable, Then?
Commonly found during the Depression era, genuine hobo nickels are relatively rare finds today and are highly sought by some collectors. Some original hobo nickels sell in the 100-300-dollar range, but others have brought as much as $24,000. Modern knock-offs are out there, too, as are high-quality pieces from contemporary artists. But even the “new” originals are seldom worth as much the vintage coins. But there are exceptions.
Are Hobo Coins Art?
Sure they are, but like any art form, there is both good and bad. When you consider that the better hobo nickels took as much as 100 hours to craft, it’s hard call them anything but art. The work could range from serious to satirical and even scandalous. One theme took Seated Liberty coins and altered them to appear as if Miss Liberty were seated on a chamber pot instead of a boulder.
Some hobo nickel artists even rose to prominence, and their work, if identifiable, commands top prices. Most famous of the vintage artists is a man named George Washington Hughes, better known by his nickname, Bo. His mentor, Bertram “Bert” Wiegand, is also highly collected.
A few modern artists such as Sam Alfano and Ron Landis carry on the tradition today, and their work is highly respected.
Where Can I Learn More About Hobo Coins?
As with any coin purchase, it’s important to know what you’re buying. Internet searches will turn up lots of information, some better than other. If you’re serious about learning about hobo nickels, there’s an organization devoted to the subject, the Original Hobo Nickel Society, with plenty of information on their website, www.hobonickels.org.