Hobo nickel sets a record price in Heritage auction
By Paul Gilkes , Coin World Published: Mar 1, 2021, 10 AM
A hobo nickel engraved by renowned hobo artist Bertram “Bert” Wiegand of his friend Elizabeth, garnered a record price of $31,800 in an auction conducted Jan. 22 by Heritage Auctions.
The record price includes the buyer’s fee added to the closing hammer price.
Ralph “Bazoo” Winter, editor of Bo Tales, the journal for the Original Hobo Nickel Society, reports in the spring 2021 issue that the auction result is 31 percent higher than the last record set in 2013.
Winter told Coin World that fewer than a half dozen advanced collectors were the winning bidders on the bulk of the hobo nickel lots.
A hobo nickel is an example of folk art where a knife, nail, or other sharp implement is used to transform one or both sides, usually of an Indian Head 5-cent coin, into designs other than originally struck on the coin.
Hobos like Wiegand and fellow hobo artist George Washington “Bo” Hughes traveled the country by rail during the first half of the 20th century, catching rides in box cars. The carved coins were often sold by the artists or exchanged directly for food and/or lodging along the way.
Hobo nickels carved by Wiegand and Hughes are highly sought after by knowledgeable collectors.
On the hobo nickel that generated the record price in January, the portrait of the Native American chief is feminized with long sweeping hair and a bun gathered at the back.
Because the hair obliterates the coin’s date, Wiegand carved incuse the numerals 39 next to where LIBERTY was inscribed, likely an indicator of the year the carving was executed.
Wiegand removed the letters, L, I and Y, leaving BERT. The reverse, which was not modified, bears the Bison design and the D Mint mark of the Denver Mint.
Wiegand is known to have signed pieces by manipulating the inscribed letters or carved the letters into the artwork.
Hughes often signed his work by carving incuse the letters GH, GWH or in one instance, BO.
Even without the signature, hobo nickel enthusiasts are able to discern the style of work by both Wiegand and Hughes.
The previous hobo nickel record was $24,200 set for the two-sided DICER hobo nickel by Hughes. That coin sold in January 2013 in Florida during the OHNS club auction held in conjunction with the Florida United Numismatists convention in Orlando.
Other hobo nickels from Heritage’s January sale include a Hughes cameo carving that realized $20,400.
A carved 1913 Indian Head 5-cent coin with the portrait fashioned into a rabbi wearing a hat, credited to an artist nicknamed “Apple Cheek,” realized $3,480.
Another Hughes carving with the coin portrait transported into an older bald man with extensive facial hair realized $12,000. It is believed to have been carved circa 1950.
Another 1913 hobo nickel carved by Hughes was transformed into a Jewish man with a beard and wearing a yarmulke. The piece realized $9,600.
According to original hobo nickel researcher Stephen P. Alpert, Bert Weigan was Bo Hughes’ friend and mentor, who taught Bo how to make hobo nickels in the late 1910s. The early works of Bert and Bo are very similar in style and are often difficult to tell apart. Bert signed many of his hobo nickels by removing the LI and Y of LIBERTY, which left “BERT.”
Many of Bert’s works are very finely detailed, and they are highly prized by collectors, as they are very rare (compared to the many known pieces by Bo).
Bert was born circa 1890, began carving hobo nickels in 1913, spent some time in prison in the 1930s (where he continued making hobo nickels for the guards), and was last seen in the late 1940s, selling hobo nickels at flea markets.
According to Del Romines, author of Hobo Nickels, “Bo” was the youngest of 10 or 11 children, and the son of a freed slave. He was born circa 1900 and left home about 1915. He led the life of a hobo right up to the time he disappeared in 1980. Bo made his first hobo nickels in the late 1910’s.
Hughes’ best works are considered by many to be the cameo carvings he made in the early 1950s. In 1957, he suffered a crippling hand injury while making a hobo nickel. From 1958 to 1963, he had to re-learn hobo nickel carving by adopting a new technique using punches and limited carving.
By the mid 1960s until the end of his career, Hughes was able to resume making nice totally carved hobo nickels.
Most of Hughes’ hobo nickels are unsigned, but he did sign some GH or GWH. Only one specimen is known upon which he signed his nickname BO.
Bo toned many of the post 1957 hobo nickels he created by carrying them in a tobacco tin. The coins took on a darkened golden to orange-brown color.