Meet The Money Covered With Booby Traps — And You Thought Bitcoin Was Bad

A viral video of ornately engraved coins with elaborate mechanical movements is drawing renewed attention to an artist working in a medium with a long folk tradition.

Russian artist and master engraver Roman Booteen creates hobo nickels, coins transformed with hand tools, so-called because it was a popular pastime among migrant workers and vagrants in the early 20th century United States, who favored U.S. nickel coins for their size and the relative softness of the coins' metal.

A GIF compilation trending on Reddit highlights some of Booteen's work, including a coin with another coin inlaid at its center, which activates snapping, bear-trap jaws when triggered. Other coins emulate a Mayan art style, with booby trap spikes that slide out when the gold idol in its center is pressed, or dramatize the Arthurian quest for the Holy Grail with a sliding panel revealing the chalice. But beyond mechanical elaborations—like the coin with a blinking version of the pyramidal "Eye of Providence" found on the U.S. one-dollar bill—Booteen's work also features finely detailed engravings.

Booteen shares many of his creations on his Instagram account, where he also highlights the watchmaker's level of precision that goes into his coins.

"I would rather not sell my work, but must do so by necessity," Booteen said in an Instagram Q&A, during which he revealed that his mechanical coins typically sell for between $10,000 and $17,000. "I don't make copies of my work. Not even for myself. All pieces are original."

Even replicas of Booteen's coins (which he doesn't profit from), including the "trap coin" combining the U.S. "Morgan" dollar coin (the coin used in Booteen's original was minted in 1921) and a 1945 Mexican Dos Peso gold coin, sell for between $700 and a $1,000.

Booteen created the original trap coin in 2017 and emblazoned it with a Latin quotation from Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott—AURUM MULTO MAGIS ANIMAS PERDIDIT QUAM FERRUM CORPORA CECIDIT—"Gold has killed more souls than iron." It sold at auction for $10,101.

The origin of hobo coins or hobo nickels precedes even their namesake, stretching back to the 1700s at least. But the folk art really took off when U.S. coins started featuring the "Seated Liberty" portrait, which portrays a woman—the figure of Liberty—seated on a rock and bearing various symbols of freedom. The portrait appeared on various dime, quarter, half dollar, silver dollar and half dime coins from 1836 to 1891.

While loaded with elevated sentiment and Neoclassical symbolism, the real strength of "Seated Liberty" coins—for idle engravers at least—was how easy it was to take off her clothes and put her on a chamber pot. Fad "potty coins" exploded in the 1850s, creating a durable craft art form that could be practiced by just about anybody.

A 1913 ad promoting Iron Tail's contribution to the Buffalo Nickel. Photo by Buyenlarge/Getty Images

In 1913, the U.S. mint released the Buffalo nickel. With its copper-nickel blend and full-head portrait of a Native American (a composite of three tribal chiefs, most famously Oglala Lakota Chief Iron Tail), it was both easy to carve and had a large portrait subject to manipulate.

It became a hobo nickel institution, preferred by a generation of migrant worker artists like George Washington "Bo" Hughes and "Bert" Wiegand. Today, Booteen continues the tradition.