J.S.G. Boggs Makes Money the Old-Fashioned Way: He Draws It

I first heard about J.S.G. Boggs a few years ago while watching a Nova episode about counterfeiting. But for some reason the subject of his particular brand of loony performance art came up in conversation the other day, so I googled him and have a few links to pass along.

Boggs’ story goes something like this: He was fascinated with the artwork on currency, so he started drawing his own. At a certain point this evolved into the following: He goes to some retail establishment or restaurant and tries to get the clerk or waitress or whatever to accept, in lieu of actual payment, a hand-drawn bill, signed by him, for the amount he owes. He explains that all artwork’s valuation is more or less arbitrary, so he has set the value of his artwork at the face value of whatever bill he’s reproducing.

More often than you’d think, the clerk or waitress agrees to the deal, which is where it gets interesting. Boggs takes the receipt and gives it to one of the many collectors of his work, who in turn tracks down the bill’s recipient and buys it, often at many times the face value. This American Life’s Ira Glass wrote this about it in Meeting J.S.G. Boggs, the counterfeit artist:

What I love about this is that it’s a con game, run in reverse. If the person falls for the game, they come out of it far wealthier than they went in. As Weschler puts it in his joyous little book, Boggs operates “a sort of floating aesthetical ethical crap game. Or else a sort of fairy-tale virtue test, in which the worthy agreed to sacrifice and [are] subsequently rewarded a hundredfold.”

Naturally this has led to Boggs being the focus of law-enforcement attention. He’s been charged with counterfeiting, and acquitted, in Great Britain, and has had the US Secret Service show up at his door and confiscate extensive “samples” of his work. Interestingly, despite the fact that the Justice Department decided it had better things to do than prosecute an artist whose “counterfeit” bills are only drawn on one side (the back of the bill gets Boggs’ thumbprint and signature), the Secret Service refused to return his confiscated materials, arguing that they were “contraband” under federal law, and that even without actually prosecuting Boggs for anything, they were entitled to keep them.

Boggs sued for the return of his artwork, and the suit eventuallly made it as far as the US district court of appeals. You can read an actually-pretty-interesting transcript of the ensuing oral arguments on Boggs’ web site.

I’m not sure how all that eventually turned out, but I’m curious. And I love the following observation from Glass’s article:

I don’t feel like I’m leaving the territory of journalistic objectivity to say that somehow this does not seem fair. Our government is seizing his property without any trial, any chance to argue his case, any due process at all. He’s trying to generate some press about all this, but so far the attention he’s got is modest. What’s crazy about the whole thing is that he’s convinced he’d have stopped drawing U.S. currency years ago, because he’s got tired of it, but now he has to keep doing it to keep his income up for this lawsuit.

The money drawings are the only thing he creates that earns him the kind of real cash he needs right now. But he’s weary of drawing money. He’s tried every variation on it. He’s ready to move on to other kinds of artistic creation. In short: If the Treasury Department weren’t harassing him, trying to bully him into quitting his money drawings, he’d have quit years ago.

Anyway, there you go: A temporary reprieve from my recent Kerry/Bush/Swift boat obsession.

One Response to “J.S.G. Boggs Makes Money the Old-Fashioned Way: He Draws It”

  1. rick pietz Says:

    I wish my dollars would wind up being worth more that face value rather than just having their purchasing power depreciate even as they sit in my wallet.

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