James Stephen George Boggs was born in New Jersey
. His biological parents divorced when he was very young; "Boggs" is actually the last name of his stepfather, who adopted him when he was five. It is now the name he prefers to go by. He was never particularly interested in school
and dropped out in eleventh grade. Nevertheless, he attended several colleges and universities for brief periods before becoming a full-time artist
. He moved to London
He is most well known for a certain type of drawing, the "Boggs bill." What he does is draw very detailed almost-duplicates of one side of a bill in the currency of a nation on high-quality paper, assign those drawings a sale value equal to the face value of the bill that's being imitated, and offer people in restaurants, stores, hotels, and anywhere one would normally spend money a chance to accept the drawing as payment for the goods and services he wants. He does not attempt to pass off the drawing as official money, but makes it clear that they are his creations. But the art he shows in exhibitions is not just the drawings; a piece will be made up of a drawing, the objects (or photographs of the services) he was able to purchase with the drawing, the receipts from the transaction, and even the official money he received in change (when paying for an eighty-seven dollar dinner with a drawing of a one-hundred dollar bill, he does get his thirteen dollars change in "real" money). Hence, a drawing of a one-hundred Swiss franc note, four shirts purchased with it, change and receipts, all in frames, might sell at an art gallery for $2000 (the price asked at a 1987 New York exhibition).
Boggs' rule is that he will only spend his drawings of individual bills; he will not sell them directly to collectors (though large paintings of oversized bills, or pastiche bills that don't resemble any particular currency, have been sold directly). Boggs will, however, sell the receipts/change/objects/documentation that he gathers to a collector along with the information on where he "spent" the drawing, so that the collector can go and try to buy the remaining part of the complete "piece" from whoever has it. Some collectors have been finicky enough that they were only interested in certain transactions -- one wanted only a fifty-dollar bill drawing and a transaction involving clothing.
Boggs feels that "money is easily more beautiful and developed and aesthetically satisfying than the print works of all but a few modern artists. And a dollar bill is a print; it's a unique, numbered edition." He has always liked numbers and has previously done "wild, expressionist renditions of twisted three-dimensional numerals," but the currency series started as a doodle on a Chicago diner napkin in 1984. The waitress liked the drawing enough to offer to buy it, and after being told it wasn't for sale, to accept it as payment for his food. When Boggs told a friend about the story, the friend said that kind of thing would never happen in England, so Boggs drew a five-pound note and eventually found a pub that would accept it. He didn't try it again for two years, but then was able to spend three drawings in one night in Switzerland. Collectors wanted to buy some of his drawings, but Boggs was only able to offer them the receipts. So one collector went on the radio to announce that his gallery would buy any drawings at ten times the face value of the bill depicted. (At least one person tried to sell the gallery his own drawing of a bill, and was offered the face value of the bill but refused because it had taken him so much time and effort to make the drawing.)
Apparently exchanging art for items is nothing new; Pablo Picasso doodled on the back of his checks and most people kept the Picasso rather than cashing it, and Marcel Duchamp gave a completely hand-drawn check for $115 to his dentist which was treated as art rather than cashable money. In the late 1960s, artist Ed Kienholz made watercolor/stencils which read "For a new oven and range" or "For $1.00" and people would actually exchange his paintings for the items named (rather to his surprise). And an 1880s American artist, William Harnett, was actually arrested and questioned by the Secret Service as a possible counterfeiter because he had done four trompe l'oeil paintings which depicted dollar bills. They were looking for a counterfeiter who was drawing bills and successfully passing them off as real; the man who did this, Emmanuel Ninger, was caught almost a decade later.
Boggs notes that the special pens and paper for his drawings cost quite a lot in addition to the time it takes to do the detailed drawings. The drawings always differ from the bills they imitate in small ways: his own signature where the Secretary of the Treasury's would be on an American bill, for example.
In 1986, Boggs wrote to the Bank of England, which issues English money, asking permission to duplicate their bills, due to an English law which forbids anyone to "reproduce, on any substance whatsoever, and whether or not to the correct scale, any British currency note" without the Bank of England's permission. He was denied permission even after explaining the situation, and was later arrested at a show of his work and the parts of the show that were drawings of English money were confiscated. Scotland Yard were ready to drop the charges after hearing his explanation and seeing that the drawings were not intended as counterfeit money, but the Bank of England continued to prosecute privately and even attempted (unsuccessfully) to get other countries to join in the prosecution. The case went to trial in 1987; the prosecution made it clear that they were not trying to convict Boggs of counterfeiting or forgery, just "reproduction," and much of the trial consisted of debate over what constituted reproduction and whether art could be reproduction. The judge actually gave the jury directions which seemed intended to leave them no alternative but to find Boggs guilty, but nonetheless their verdict was not guilty on all counts.
After the trial, Boggs tried the experiment of living an entire year by spending only his drawings and no official money; he noted later "I stank a lot, being unable to make use of laundromats. Got lots of parking tickets." After the end of that year, he and his girlfriend moved back to the U.S. and then tried to relax on a vacation to Australia, but he couldn't resist the unfamiliar bills. Drawing Australian money and spending it at the best hotel in Sydney got him arrested by the Australian Federal Currency Squad, but when that case went to trial it was thrown out almost immediately and the judge awarded Boggs $20,000 for his inconvenience. In 1990, the American Secret Service finally took notice of the artist; though he has not been prosecuted, the U.S. government kept numerous drawings (and Boggs' attempts to get them back were the subject of a BBC documentary).
In the years since, he has tried spending lithographs, engravings, and even photocopies of his drawings, and in 1993, started a project of two-sided Boggs bills which he encouraged people to keep in circulation. The back of these bills had spaces for five thumbprints which people who receive them are to fill in succession. This last earned him another visit from the Secret Service with a search of his office at Carnegie Mellon University, confiscating his art and "matchbook covers, a plastic shopping bag, magazines, video tapes, a calculator,
postcards, receipts, “real” money, and the artist’s underwear. " They also visited dealers, collectors, and anyone who might be predicted to want his money, threatening them with dire consequences. So that project did not continue long. He has also been audited by the Internal Revenue Service, but was told afterwards by an agent "You're the cleanest thing we've ever seen."
At the end of 1993, a civil suit was filed trying to get back the drawings confiscated in 1990 and 1993. Boggs' side asked the judge to declare that Boggs' work was self-evidently not counterfeiting, and for the government to either press criminal charges or return his work. The original hearing ended with a ruling that the drawings did fall afoul of U.S. law forbidding the imitation of U.S. currency, and declined to rule on the other part of the case. The appeal upheld that first ruling and sent the other portion back to the circuit court level. The second try at circuit court ruled again that the drawings were illegal -- apparently the judge compared them to child porn in their "obvious" illegality. Another appeal is pending.
His website currently features a "United States of Florida" bill which he advises people to print three copies of and come to any speaking engagement. He will co-sign the bills with the person who printed them, and says,
- "1 is for you to keep and frame, or redeem for its face value.
- 1 is for The Archives of JSG Boggs.
- 1 is for Boggs."
Weschler, Lawrence. Boggs: A Comedy of Values. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1999.