Paper Money

Artist and note ’counterfeiter’ J.S.G. Boggs dies

J.S.G. Boggs, a skilled artist or a counterfeiter, depending on one’s point of view, died Jan. 22 at a hotel in Tampa, Fla. He was 62 years old.

As Coin World editor-at-large Steve Roach wrote in a 2016 issue, “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.”

As an artist, Mr. Boggs used his signature pieces, hand-drawn replicas of current money called “Boggs bills,” to purchase goods and services from recipients willing to accept the artwork as payment. “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,” Roach wrote.

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While his art endeared him to the numismatic community and the art world, it also drew unfavorable reactions from government agencies. In 1992 the Secret Service and U.S. Attorney’s Office  stepped in to end Mr. Boggs’ “ ‘Project Pittsburgh,’ where Boggs planned to trade $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,” according to Roach. Government agents raided his home and studio and seized some 1,300 objects as part of the government’s legal case against him.

“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,” Roach wrote, adding, “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.’ ”

In creating his money-based performance art, Mr. Boggs would typically proffer one of his hand-drawn notes in payment at face value for a service or goods, while taking pains to describe the “note” as a work of art and not legal tender currency. In return, he would ask for any change due him to be paid him in legal tender currency along with a receipt. 

He would then sell the “paper trail” created by the receipt to one of the people who collected his art, which that buyer could use to track down the original hand-drawn bill in an effort to purchase it as well. 

His work titled October Rent ($500) from 1991 was complete, featuring “a $500 ‘Boggs bill’ with a portrait of William McKinley, though named Willie on the note, consistent with the artist’s practice of changing certain details or wording,” as reported in a different Coin World article in 2015. “Also included is the change — a genuine contemporary $50 Federal Reserve note — along with the original receipt signed by the landlord, a brass numeral “5” of the type found on an apartment door, the store package for the numeral, a bottle cap, Lipton tea wrapper, real estate business card, and a portion of the October calendar for that year.”

The framed work of art was offered by Okemos, Mich., Numismatic Auctions LLC in November 2015. 

It sold for $16,100, exceeding the estimate of $7,500 to $15,000.

In his oft-told story that may be apocryphal, Mr. Boggs claimed that his art was born in 1984 when he was doodling on a paper napkin in a diner. The waitress offered to buy the sketch but he instead offered her the note sketch in payment for his 90-cent bill. She agreed.

As he pursued his art form, he encountered legal troubles in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, and while he was charged and tried in the latter two countries, he was acquitted of counterfeiting. 

As Wayne Homren wrote in the newsletter E-Sylum upon Mr. Boggs’ death, “He was always a dreamer and an artist to the core. He had his personal demons, and was the very model of the classic tortured artist. I liked to say that he danced in the grey area at the edge of the law, a silver-tongued con man who could talk his way in or out of any situation.”

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