Hardscrabble Art

Hobo nickels

It?s obvious that there?s a story behind every hobo-engraved nickel; and yet the artists? own stories are mysteries. That?s what drew 65-year-old Las Vegan Stephen Alpert, a former geology professor, to start his collection.

Buffalo, or Indian Head, nickels were first minted in 1913. The relatively big and unadorned Indian head on one side and buffalo on the other made the coin the perfect canvas for ad-hoc engravers. By the Great Depression, out-of-work train-hoppers made a hobby out of carving pictures into the coins using pocketknives, nails or screwdrivers. They?d give the work-of-folk-art coins in thanks for someone letting them sleep in their barn, or for making them a meal, Alpert says.

Collectors now trade thse ?hobo nickels? for hundreds of dollars?one even drew $22,000 recently?and a whole new crop of modern-day engravers has emerged. But the actual life stories of the classic makers are rarely known, leaving much to the collectors? imagination.

?We know them by the recurring themes in their work,? Alpert says. ?One guy always made the ear look like a peanut, so he?s ?Peanut Ear.? Alpert has amassed his 300-coin collection over several decades; in 2001, he published The Original Hobo Nickel Society Hobo Nickel Guidebook.

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The Beat Within

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It’s not the size of Paul Gary’s collection that makes it noteworthy, but instead the rich musical history it evokes. He still has five programs from the iconic Fillmore East auditorium, promoter Bill Graham’s New York venue that during its three-year run featured some of the biggest acts in rock history, including Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, the Doors, the Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd and Janis Joplin. Gary’s earliest program is from February 1970, when the then-16-year-old rode the train from Long Island to see a four-band bill headed by Ten Years After.