The Art of the Deal

J.S.G. Boggs draws money for a living. What's his exchange rate?


Artist J.S.G. Boggs is famous for drawing intricate but slightly skewed versions of the national currency, asking businesses to accept one of these bills in lieu of ordinary dollars, then asking for the correct change. Anyone willing to take this leap of faith and accept the bill will soon find collectors offering him thousands of Treasury-approved dollars for it. In a sense, Boggs is issuing his own currency, backed by the full faith and credit of the fickle art market. If it sounds a bit like a confidence game, that may be because it's public confidence that gives money value in the first place.

Critics and journalists love Boggs' work, but lawmen are sometimes less tolerant. In 1986, the British government charged him with counterfeiting, even though he has never represented his work as "real" money. He won that case, but that hasn't kept other police forces from harassing him. Late in 1992, the U.S. Secret Service raided his workshop, confiscating drawings, receipts, even press clippings. Eight years later, they've neither filed charges against the artist nor returned his property.

More recently, Boggs has designed an electronic image–or rather, a rapidly shifting flux of images–for an encrypted online currency to be unveiled later this year by Blue Spike Inc. And the University of Chicago Press has published an excellent book about the man, his art, and the issues his art raises: Boggs: A Comedy of Values, by Lawrence Weschler.

Boggs, 45, divides his time between New York City and St. Petersburg, Florida, where I reached him by telephone.

Q: What's the status of your conflict with the Secret Service?

A: They confiscated over 1,300 items of my property. But when I went to collect them, there were only a couple of hundred items in the box–and they wouldn't even allow me to inventory them. So I'm going to have to go back to court.

Q: Isn't there a sense in which fights like that magnify the point your art is making?

A: It magnifies several points. One is that art in this country is not properly understood, respected, or valued. Another is the discrepancy between what we represent as our beliefs and what we actually practice. In this country, we're supposed to have due process, and we're supposed to have respect for private property.

Q: If I drew a dollar bill and signed your name to it, would I be a forger or a counterfeiter?

A: A forger. I don't make money; I make works of fine art.

Q: Have you ever drawn a currency that was subsequently devalued?

A: Yes.

Q: Did the price of your drawing drop after the devaluation?

A: No–my work has a nasty tendency to keep appreciating.

Q: What's the oddest thing you've ever bought with a Boggs bill?

A: I've bought everything with Boggs bills. Hot dogs, watches, airplane tickets, rent, clothing, jewelry–anything.

Q: Have you ever drawn a campaign contribution?

A: No, but I've drawn a charitable contribution. I drew a $1 bill, which I gave to the New York Dance Company as a donation valued at $1. They put it up for auction and sold it for $5,000. The person who bought it sold it for $10,000. Last I heard, the current owner was offered $25,000 but declined to accept it.