CoinWeek Podcast #48: Ron Landis and the Return of the Hobo Nickel

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This week on the CoinWeek Podcast, we talk hobo nickels with master engraver Ron Landis. Landis was a pioneer of the new school of carving, which has not only reinvigorated the classic American folk art, but also broadened the scope and appeal of hobo nickels internationally. We featured one of Landis’ innovative designs in Cool Coins! 2016 Episode 4. You’ll definitely want to check that design out!


The following is a transcript of Charles and Ron’s discussion:

Charles Morgan: Hi Ron, Thanks for joining me on the CoinWeek Podcast.

Ron Landis: Thanks for having me.

CM: I’ve always been interested in the folk art aspect of hobo nickels, but to collectors out there, who may not be familiar with the craft and its history, What is a hobo nickel?

RL: A hobo nickel is an altered nickel, usually a buffalo nickel is the traditional format. And back, probably as far back as 1913 when the coin was first released, people would start altering… usually the Indian head and they would change it into a hobo with a beard and a hat. And they were novelty items, I would guess. And [they] caught on and several people were carving them for many years and never stopped carving them. There has been [a] resurgence in them lately.

CM: And the myth that has developed around them is that they were a form of alternative currency created by transients.

RL: The folklore behind it is that hobos used to do this and they traded for meals and train rides and things like that. I think a lot of them were probably done by engravers with a little extra time. Or, kind of like it is today, there’s just hobbyists getting into it because it’s a fun thing to do. I don’t know if everyone that carved one were card carrying hobos. But it certainly adds to the folklore. I certainly use a lot of hobo themes in my carvings.

Generally, that is what that is.

Today, the term hobo nickel refers to any carved coin. Because the artists today are using coins from all over the world. Modern coins. World coins. But still, the traditional format is the hobo nickel.

CM: What was it about that coin that made it such a canvas for this kind of folk art?

RL: Well, it’s a soft metal. It’s a copper-based alloy; it’s 75% copper and 25% nickel. It’s pretty soft to carve. It’s got a large head on it, which is conducive to altering and different faces. And its also a fairly thick coin, so you’ve got room to carve in there.

I don’t know who did the first one, but it probably caught on, and its such a different thing… I can imagine that… I kind of think it was sort of a gag… Hobo art was kind of a fun thing to do back then. There were a lot of postcards that depicted hobos in them, and cartoons and things like that, so… I would think that there would have been a gag behind it. Like if you had to have one of these you could probably buy it for a couple of dollars, maybe… and you’d show it to your buddies, and you’d go, “Hey, look! They hired a hobo down at the Mint,” or something… and get a yuk out of it, or whatever. I think that’s kind of how it started. It was just sort of a novelty thing, a fun thing. And people started changing things with the reverse now. Now they are carving the buffalo into a donkey or an elephant or some other animal. Or, a hiking hobo, they’ll turn it on its side. And some more risqué subjects, too. They’ll have a hobo sitting on a toilet, maybe. Or, this type of thing.

The original folk art, they considered the originals being carved from the period of about 1913 to the 1980s. When there was a hobo that carved coins. His name was George Washington Hughes and he goes by the name of “Bo.” And they consider when he died, it was the end of the original era. But people were still carving coins all the way up until I started picking it up. But the art had pretty much degraded down to, well… there were a couple of people doing crude work with punches. So there was a very distinctive style, but it was not very artistic like Bo would carve or some of these others.

You can see some pretty talented work in some of these early carvings. And you can see the use of professional jewelry engraving tools, liner engravers that would engrave a series of parallel lines. These are professional engraving tools, which tells me that a lot of these guys had a little more skill then a hobo carrying around a sharpened screwdriver, or something.

CM: … and what art style do you see predominately?

RL: Of course, you see all kinds of art and in between. From a very crude knife carving, which probably were done by hobos just screwing around with a knife… from very amateurish work to very professional work. And some of these guys did a lot of work. We see the same style over and over. There was an engraver out there that had a certain style of hobo that he would carve into it and he would do it over and over.

Well we can now identify these guys. If we get three matching coins that look distinctively like they were done by the same artists, it’s like a fingerprint. And, so… part of what we do at the Original Hobo Nickel Society, is we’ll compare and find coins that look similar, so that we can identify some of these early carvers… and since they didn’t sign their work, we give them names. And it’s usually something that’s descriptive of their style. Like, if there’s a flat nose and a peanut ear… and we name these after the style of the carving that’s on there.

And we’ve [identified] gosh… I don’t know how many that we’ve identified and given nicknames to. But there’s a lot of them because this was a pretty popular folk art at one time… and like I said, it kind of died off until I started picking it up.

CM: When did you start?

RL: I started carving in 1993 and I was the only one doing high-quality carvings at that time. There was a few other people doing kind of crude work with punches and the market was kind of set at $5. You would order from a style chart and say, “Well, I want a style number 23″, and there’d be maybe 40 styles, you know, of different subjects that they would carve in them and the market was $5.

So when I started doing this, I quickly discovered that there’s no market in it. “I can’t compete with this. I can’t engrave these for $5.” So I kind of put it aside until I went to the American Numismatic Association Summer Seminar and listened to Bill Fivaz talk on hobo nickels and he was showing slides of some really nice carvings. And it just piqued my interest again and I thought, “Wow! This looks like a lot of fun. I am going to go back and I’m going to forget about the $5 market and I’m just going to do what I want to do with them and see what happens.”

So, I found a few buyers and the people, who were supporting my work and buying pretty much whatever I put out. I never had any problems selling them. It’s just, I’d carve a batch of them… and I was just trying to do quick carvings… but trying to do them in a high relief with nice detail… But I wasn’t trying to spend weeks on them. I do now. I spend several weeks to months on a single carving now. Because the market has changed. With a better market, engravers put more time into them. Today we are seeing some really outstanding artwork coming through from engravers from all over the world. It’s amazing the way its taken off.

And it’s really market driven. When people started to find out the kind of prices my early carvings were bringing in auctions, it started attracting some really well-known firearms engravers, jewelry engravers, other die engravers… and just people just starting – they wanted to learn engraving, so they could do these nickels. There were a lot of people that just started from scratch, so they could do these.

So it’s done a lot for the art. Like I said, when I just started carving, I was the only one for about three years doing high-quality carving with real engraving tools. And now there are… jeez, I dunno, I can’t count ‘em. I can’t keep track. It seems that every week, there are three or four new carvers coming on the scene and doing some amazing stuff.

CM: Now when you started carving hobo nickels, the idea that modern carvers would be making hobo nickels was seen by the collecting community as a little bit outrageous. Can you explain why there was a controversy surrounding modern carving?

RL: Well, it was different and I think that people… It was just a different atmosphere. There seemed to be a different mindset that this was somehow destroying the history, or… I dunno, I think people just didn’t understand it. I think the fear was, that it would upset the market. They couldn’t tell, if you copied an older style that it would somehow mess up the market. Like, how could you tell a new carving from an old carving?

My response to that has always been it doesn’t matter. If it’s a good carving, there’s an artist that spent a lot of time on that. The cream will always rise to the top and a lot of collectors now have changed their mindset about that. There’s people that are very set on just collecting the originals, and I guess that it could cause a problem from them, if they can’t tell the difference. But most artists put their initials into it and sign their work, and they’re not trying to deceive anybody. And I think that’s where the fear was because when the first books started coming out on hobo nickels, there were people that were copying the old ones and not signing their name. And it was confusing. But really, their work is really easy to identify. Again, they had a distinct style, like Frank Brazzell was doing a number of carvings – and he was a real engraver. He used real engraving tools and again, he sold them for about $5 a piece. I understand he made about $4,000 a year.

And there was another guy, I think, named John Dorusa. He was another one who started copying some of the older carvings. And he would even sign Bo’s initials on them. And now, that’s wrong. So, I think he kind of messed it up and gave modern carvers a bad name, because he was trying to copy and sell them as old ones. He didn’t need to. His work could stand on its own… And eventually, he was talked into doing that and on his later carvings, he signed them.

But that kind of a fear that it would mess up the market, that uh… but really, I mean, modern carvings really go on par with older ones. It’s all about quality and eye appeal. Of course, if you have a signed piece from a known original carving, like a Bo or something… these can bring a lot of money. And I don’t think there’s a whole lot of trouble of people trying to copy his work. Again, you can kind of tell. People, who look at these enough, they can tell if it’s a real Bo just by the way it’s finished, the patina on it. And older ones have a certain patina that you just can’t copy that.

So, it’s never really caused a problem. I tried to change the way… when I first started doing that, I got into it… well, a few people didn’t care for what I was doing. They thought that I was marring history and so forth. I just, I dunno, I was just signing them, dating them, numbering them. I didn’t want to cause a problem. I just wanted to sell this art and it’s been a great thing for the hobby, I think. Now we have all of these carvers coming in, we have new collectors, too… and I think that hobo nickels can be a nice gateway into more serious coin collecting. You gain an appreciation for the art of engraving and that’s a good foundation for getting into other aspects of numismatics.

I know a lot of people, who weren’t coin collectors before but they got in through the hobo nickel aspect. Besides, I think it’s a good thing for the hobby over all.

CM: Do you have any favorite designs that you’ve executed?

RL: Well, I like to keep it… I’m a musician as well. But, I like to use musical themes in my work and I do. I try to keep kind of like a hobo theme in it. I like to do hobo jungle scenes with hobos playing instruments or hitchhiking with an instrument, or something like that. And uh, it’s uh, I used to do that kind of stuff. So, you know, they tell writers “Write what you know.” And I think it’s the same thing for artists: you should paint what you know, carve what you know, design what you know. If you do what you love, it’s going to show in the work. So that’s why I don’t carve a lot unless I get inspired and I really want to do something. I don’t produce just to be putting out carvings. I kind of got to get inspired… and if I get a good idea and I get excited about it and I want to do it. And it shows in the work, I think.

CM: We did a Cool Coins! Video segment at the FUN Show earlier this year at the Original Hobo Nickel Society Booth and I believe they had one of your pieces on an American Silver Eagle. Do you remember this piece?

RL: Oh yeah! That was a piece. I did three of those. They are all different, but they were kind of similar. They were all donated for different organizations. One was donated to the Original Hobo Nickel Society, and I believe that was the one on display. And I also did one for the American Numismatic Association. And I did one for the Britt, Iowa Hobo Museum. And I did them all the same year and they all had similar themes, hobo themes to them. And they were donated as fundraisers for all those organizations. And yeah, they are some of my better carvings from that period. They were some of my early ones and I did them on big silver eagles.

CM: Was that an easy canvas to work with?

RL: Well, it’s big. And silver is really soft. You would think that that’s a good thing, but it’s really not. You want a kind of crisper metal. I prefer steel for carving because the softer metal can get squirrely. It doesn’t cut real crisp. It can mush out. So it’s tricky to work with. With big areas, it’s hard to get a good smooth field. When I do a carving, I like the field to look like the coin was struck like that. I don’t just fill it out with textures. I really get in there and try to level that thing out. And that’s difficult to do from the positive. Especially, if you are going around letters, or something. And sometimes, I change the lettering. So you have to carve the whole field down smooth and then carve the field around the new lettering, so it all looks like it’s on the same plane. So it looks like the coin was struck like that. It’s more difficult. That’s the little things that you don’t see is sometimes the hardest to accomplish. Like changing lettering like that. It’s really hard to do. That’s why they pay me the big bucks!

CM: I saw that coin dealer John Kraljevich had another piece that was attributed to you, which getting to what you were saying about doing designs that look “as struck”… This was a really nice piece with a great basin out of which popped out a high-relief effigy of George Washington.

RL: Yeah! And that’s a really early carving, too! Yeah, thank you. I did. That was a period where I was doing that. I was doing high-relief carvings. I think I did a Lincoln as well. Oh, I did several presidents, actually. But, yeah, that’s what I liked to do in a field. And after a while of experimenting around with… I would carve… you know that might be one of those… was the field actually polished, like a Proof? That may not have been, but I was doing that. I would get in there and I would polish the field, which is tricky to do, because it’s hard to polish up into the little crevices next to the portrait. But I did that for a while and then I would brush over or mask off and sandblast the portrait to make it look like a proof coin. And I did this… I did several of them like that and then I finally decided that, that’s going overboard. This is like a folk art and to turn it into a Proof is kind of like gilding a lily, or something. And I just, I dunno, I kind of lost favor in doing those. For one, it’s a lot of hard work. I really like the look of matte finish coins. Even in regular coins, I like uncirculated coins more than Proofs.

CM: Well, speaking of gilding lilies, have you ever applied your craft to gold coins?

RL: I have. Yes, one of my first ones was a Krugerrand. I did it for a local collector here. Where it said South Africa, I changed it to South Eureka Springs and changed… I carved it into a hobo. Not one of my better carvings. And I did a double portrait of my mother and father for their 50th anniversary and made a nice case for it.

CM: So, with the individual nature of this type of art – and the fact that these are not mass produced by some state mint with real regulatory power – have you ever encountered, or heard of collectors encountering false Landis pieces out there?

RL: Oh, I’ve seen them. I mean, I’ve seen people copy my compositions before. But not that I know of, that have successfully copied one of mine and tried to sell it as mine. I saw a couple on eBay, that were definitely copies of my compositions. But they weren’t selling it as mine. Have you ever heard of anything like that?

CM: No, I haven’t heard of any pieces specifically being falsely or mistakenly attributed as your work. I just think that the potential exists based on the mechanics of the art form itself and the profit motive that exists in the marketplace.

RL: My later ones are kind of like that. My earlier ones, though, probably could be copied. But again, there’s kind of a fingerprint to them. I look at them… and I know I can see my style in there. I think people, who look at them a lot, I think they have a pretty sharp eye on that kind of stuff. It’s just like discovering any fake.

You know, you see ancient coins faked… and there’s something not right about it, you just can’t put your finger on it. And probably more so with carvings, I would think, because it is more of a personal style.

CM: Are there any contemporary designers, whose work you really admire?

RL: Oh, hobo nickels? There’s quite a few of them. Aleksey Saburov is probably the most amazing guy. He’s just doing some really artistic work and mixing metals. He comes from a jewelry background. He’s doing all kind of stuff. He’s done die work. He does knives. I don’t know if he does firearms, or not, I’m sure he could. Jewelry engraving. He’s an amazing artist. And there’s a couple Russian engravers that are doing some amazing work.

There’s also, I like Paolo Curcio. He’s a carver in Barcelona. And there’s a few carvers in Spain. And there’s Sean Hughes … doing kind of a love token kind of thing. He’s in Great Britain. There’s a lot of guys are doing stuff… Keith Pedersen does some really classic style stuff that I like…

And there’s some cruder things that I really like. There’s a guy, J.D. Sharum, and he does kind of crude-looking stuff, but it’s very fantasy oriented. And the scenes he puts into them are really cute and, I dunno, I get a kick out of his stuff. But it’s probably more like pure folk art, where some of these guys are doing amazing medallic sculpture on these things.

So you see the whole spectrum of different styles, with hundreds of artists that are out there. I’m sure there a lot of people that I didn’t mention. But it’s fun to see it blossom like this, because for many years I tried to start a museum and just preserve the numismatic arts. And I wanted to put in an apprentice program and teach people how to do die sinking and that didn’t really work out, but by accident I sort of reignited an art form and kind of turned it into a whole different thing. It’s amazing how this thing has grown in the past 10 years. It sort of blows me away.

I was so used to being the one that started it and I did really good work and I was getting good auction prices, but now I’m just another guy in the crowd. There’s some amazing artists out there doing really nice stuff. So, yeah, it’s pretty neat the way it’s all come together.

CM: So what’s your opinion on the actual original design of the Buffalo nickel?

RL: You mean Fraser’s design? Oh it’s a beautiful piece of numismatic art. It’s one of the best U.S. coin designs that we ever had. I really love that coin. All of the coins of that period: the Mercury dime, the Walking Liberty half dollar. These were the things that got me interesting in coins to begin with. These were beautiful and inspirational designs. As a kid, I used to stare at these things and put myself in that little world. It just, uh, I dunno. Unfortunately, we can’t have those type of designs circulating again. After the Presidential takeover of coin designs, it’s gotten pretty stagnant. And unfortunately, it’s going to stay that way because there is no politician that wants to touch those issues. They are hot button issues that nobody wants to be the one that suggests taking Jefferson off the nickel. Or taking Washington off the quarter, even though he was very opposed to putting presidents on coins. It’s become a sacred cow, I think, to suggest taking these presidents off might be considered disrespectful. So that’s why, unfortunately, I think we are stuck with these designs.

CM: Let me put you on the spot and throw a couple coins at you and you give me your Rohrschach Test answer as to what could be done to that coin to hobo-fy it. What about the Baseball Hall of Fame dollar?

RL: Oh gosh! What would you do? You know what I would do on that? A high-relief portrait on that. And I’ve done this before, sort of like a popout coin. That kind of relief.

CM: What about the Richard Nixon Presidential dollar?

RL: Heh. I’d probably make some sort of satirical token out of it. I wouldn’t change his portrait, but maybe change the lettering and make it some sort of satirical piece, maybe.

CM: Ok, last one… What about the 2009 Ultra High Relief gold coin?

RL: Oh, yeah. I have an idea for that one. I want to put an ultra-high-relief portrait of Saint-Gaudens on that… and it would have to be done by adding a piece of gold in it to keep the rest of the lettering in there. In fact, I’ve had that planned ever since the coin came out. But I’m not sure I can even do it. There’s a lot of technical problems in laying soft metal on soft metal like that, but I think it would be a great tribute to Saint-Gaudens.

CM: Ok, thanks Ron for joining us on the CoinWeek Podcast.

* * *

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