Artist or counterfeiter?: Considering the controversial J.S.G. Boggs

Drawn money tackles questions of value and worth
By , Coin World
Published : 08/19/16
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Working both within and outside of the confines of the law, American artist James Stephen George Boggs — better known as J.S.G. Boggs — is an enigma. 

His signature pieces are hand-drawn replicas of current money called “Boggs bills” that he uses to purchase goods and services. His work combines visual art and performance art, with his bills and the documentation of the transaction serving as a core element of his artistic practice.

Boggs was born in Woodbury, N.J., in 1955 and rose to fame with his one-man exhibition titled “smart money (HARD CURRENCY)” that traveled the country. He isn’t represented by  traditional galleries and his work generally has to be acquired through a transaction with the artist. This exclusivity adds to his mystique.

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He works to question the value of paper money, but in creating these close replicas he has challenged counterfeiting laws in the United States and Great Britain. In a key case that was decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia, a judge wrote, “Art is supposed to imitate life, but when the subject matter is money, if it imitates life too closely it becomes counterfeiting.”

At the core of the U.S. legal conflict was “Project Pittsburgh,” where Boggs planned to spend $1 million in his bills in the Pittsburgh area and would ask recipients to pass the bill five times before taking it out of circulation. In November 1992 the Secret Service and U.S. Attorney’s Office decided that the plan could not continue and the Secret Service would soon seize more than 1,300 items from Boggs’s home and studio. He requested that his property be returned and a multi-year legal battle followed. 

Boggs challenged the confiscation in court, contending that his bills were protected by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and he challenged the standard used in determining that his bills were counterfeit. The Appeals Court noted that Boggs does not intend to defraud those who are engaging in a transaction with him using Boggs bills, and saw value in the artist’s exploration of the value of money and the social and political institutions that underlie a system of exchange. 

However, the Appeals Court agreed with a lower court’s finding that the “Boggs bills” were contraband, defined as objects inherently unlawful to possess, and that they were not entitled to First Amendment protections. A footnote in the dissent summarized the issue elegantly: “Labeling a counterfeit bill ‘art’ will not save it from the Secret Service’s incinerator, but at some point, an artwork’s loose resemblance to currency will not strip it of First Amendment protection.”

A collector’s encounter

Pennsylvania collector Wayne Homren wrote in the May 1994 issue of The Numismatist about his encounter with Boggs as he planned for the artist’s attendance at the October 1993 Pennsylvania Association of Numismatists convention. 

Homren wrote that while he had seen Boggs’s photograph, he did not know what to expect nor now Boggs would mix with coin collectors. 

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