Vol.1 / Issue 3

Boggs We Trust

by Olav Velthuis

An earlier, abridged version of this article was published in:
Dagblad Trouw (Dutch National Newspaper), Saturday February 24, 2001

Click to enlarge
Figure 1
J.S.G. Boggs

When Marcel Duchamp was asked why he stopped painting at an early age, his answer was: "I don't want to copy myself, like all the others. Do you think they enjoy painting the same thing fifty or a hundred times? Not at all, they no longer make pictures; they make checks." Now that the art world revolves around more money than ever before, and the commodification of art has reached neurotic levels, Duchamp's statement is hard to disagree with. But what if Duchamp had met J.S.G. Boggs (Fig. 1), an artist who actually makes bills, checks, and recently coins? As a moneymaker, Boggs seems to be the epitome of the commercial, repetitive artist Duchamp had in mind. Nevertheless, my guess is that he would take an interest in Boggs' bills. In fact, Duchamp made some checks himself--to pay for the services of his Parisian dentist Tzanck in 1919, to help his friend John Cage raise funds for the advancement of performance art, and to satisfy a personal fan's request for a signature at a New York gallery in 1965.

Click to enlarge
Figure 2
Marcel Duchamp,
Tzanck Check, 1919
Figure 3
J.S.G. Boggs, $1 Fun Bill,
date unknown

The parallels between the Tzanck Check (Fig. 2) in particular and Boggs' bills go further than the laborious production process that these painstakingly precise copies spring from. Like Duchamp, Boggs documents conceptions of value that inform the art world, and investigates how worth comes into being (even though enlightenment about these matters can hardly be expected). Furthermore, he plays with economic systems as if they were children's toys, like Duchamp did with the institutions of the art world. And if you still cherish any illusions about the absolute value of money, or art, for that matter, start thinking about Boggs' bills.(Fig. 3)




1.     In the beginning

Boggs made his first bill in 1984--unintentionally so, and without the faintest notion of the never-ending lawsuits, the media attention, and the extraordinary prices that his bills would generate in the years to follow. At the time, Boggs was sitting in a Chicago bar, making a complex drawing on a napkin that depicted the number one. Numbers were an obsession of the artist at that time; they still are, in fact. A waitress of the bar instantly developed a liking for the drawing. It reminded her of a dollar bill, and as much as she liked it, she asked Boggs to pay his 90-cent bill with it.  The waitress also insisted that Boggs accept a dime in change. With a fine pen, he has been copying bills ever since.

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Figure 4
J.S.G. Boggs' version of Sacagawea Dollar (front and back), 2001
Figure 5
Original $1 Sacagawea Coin

Recently, Boggs commemorated that original event silently: for his latest project, which started right at the official beginning of the twenty-first millennium, Boggs had 100,000 Sacagawea dollars fabricated (Fig. 4) by an organization specializing in educational materials regarding Currency. Boggs' own version of the new one-dollar coin is slightly larger than the original, (Fig. 5) and is pressed out of plastic. The coins have six different mintmarks--J, S, G, B, M21 and CH 84. The currency artist financed their fabrication with a 5,000-dollar bill that he self-evidently drew himself.

In the seventeen years that lie in between, Boggs has managed to spend his bills in several million dollars worth of economic transactions. If Duchamp paid for his dentist, Boggs paid for a Yamaha motorbike, for countless bills in bars, restaurants and hotels, for airplane tickets, artworks, rare old bills, and many other goods. In Portland, he bought a Hamburger with a 1,000-dollar bill, and received 997 real dollars in exchange. In the first months of this year he spent over 6,000 of his new plastic Sacagawea coins, among which 1,300 were exchanged for five ounces of gold bullion. All these transactions have elements of ordinary purchases, of barter transactions of an original artwork against a mass produced consumer good, and of artistic performances that are only slightly relevant to economics.

2.     After Boggs

Click to enlarge
Figure 6
J.S.G. Boggs, Swiss 100 Francs bill, late 1980s
Figure 7
JSG Boggs,
$10 FUNback, 1997

Is Boggs a counterfeiter--albeit a very successful one? No. A superficial glance is sufficient to distinguish Boggs' bills from the original. The backside is left blank and Boggs adds some puns to the front. Instead of "In God we trust," an orange fifty dollar bill reads "Red gold we trust"; a Swiss 100 Francs bill from the late 1980s (Fig. 6)depicts his self-portrait as an "angry young man"; on a ten dollar bill, the building of the treasury is replaced by the Supreme Court, (Fig. 7) accompanied by the text "Please give me a fair trial." Furthermore, all bills are signed by Boggs himself, sometimes as "treasurer of art," on other occasions as "secretary of measury."

The problem is that Boggs does draw his bills life size and in the actual colors of the original, which resulted in legal trouble on a number of occasions. In Australia, a court case was dismissed almost right away, after which Boggs received $20,000 in damages. In England, Scotland Yard arrested him and confiscated his work while he was installing a gallery exhibition. Again, he was acquitted of the charges. To celebrate his victory, Boggs announced that he would live on self-made money for an entire year. In the United States, however, his trials have caused him more lasting trouble. When Boggs was spending a year as a fellow at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, the Secret Service raided his apartment and studio and confiscated approximately 1,300 objects.

Although the U.S. Attorney did not press charges, Boggs has been involved in a legal battle for almost an entire decade now to get all of his belongings back. Paradoxically, one of the few counterfeited bills that he owned (but did not make himself) was returned, but the Secret Service kept the clownish 1,000,000 dollar bill available by order from the Internet. Incidentally, the trial will result in the largest transaction in Boggs' career as a money artist, since he plans to pay for the lawyer's fee, which amounts to around a million dollars, with 100,000 dollar bills. Bogg's lawyers, who are most sympathetic to his case, have actually promised to accept these bills as a valid means of payment.

Unlike the Secret Service, the contemporary art world does value Boggs' bills. Museums like the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the British Museum in London own copies of his work. Private collectors underscore their cultural value by offering Boggs considerable sums for a hint about when and where he spent his bills; subsequently, they pay large sums to acquire a bill from the shopkeepers who were brave enough to accept Boggs' money. Like Duchamp, whose signature was sought after in the 1960s as if he was a celebrity, Boggs has a large following of people eager to obtain his signature. Personal fans have to pay him a small fee for an autograph, while a signature is only within reach for mavericks who are willing to spend $2,000 or more. No need for Boggs to complain about financial or artistic rewards.

In short, Boggs' bills generate extreme, albeit contradictory, reactions. I wonder, however, if the legal trouble and the arti-financial success that his work generates are really that distinct. Note, for instance, that both the legal apparatus and the army of collectors ultimately intend to take his work out of circulation. And when it comes to their sense of humor, my expectations of a collector who pays $50,000 or more for a Boggs bill are no higher than that of a prosecutor who wants to stop Boggs from making the bills in the first place. Both try to "capture" Boggs, with either money or the law as their instrument-- in vain, I presume.

3.     No land for money

I met Boggs when he was in Amsterdam in early February for a performance in the "West Indisch Huis." In the seventeenth century, the "West Indisch Huis" was built for the West Indische Compagnie, which enjoyed a monopoly on trade between America, West Africa and Holland. Currently the building is the home base of the John Adams Institute, which organizes lectures by American intellectuals, writers and artists. The title of Boggs' performance there was I'll take Manhattan.

At the start of the performance Boggs, 44, who has wild gray-blond hair that nearly reaches his shoulders, takes a digital picture of the audience, while a bag filled with orange plastic Sacagawea coins lies between his legs. Then he recounts the story of Peter Minuit, governor of the West Indische Compagnie, who sailed to the island of Manhattan. He was welcomed in May 1626, 375 years ago today, by an Indian clan. Soon after his arrival, Minuit bought the island from the Indians for trinkets worth sixty guilders. Among those trinkets were "wampum," the Indian word for bead money, which had not only monetary but also cultural value for many clans--"wampum" was a means of transmitting the history of the clan from generation to generation. The Dutch, however, did not have history but money on their mind, which induced them to create their own "wampum" in order to deal with the Indians. Unknowingly, the Indians responded appropriately to the sly and sacrilegious offer of the Dutch by accepting the trinkets, but since they lacked a conception of land ownership, the Indians must have conceived of the transaction as some foreign ritual. Come to think of it, no land was exchanged for any money on that May Day in 1626.

The story of Minuit and the Indians is a perfect pre-figuration of Boggs own work; Minuit paid, just like Boggs, with improvised money, and probably needed a good share of rhetoric to do so. The color of Boggs' Sacagawea coins is the same as the family name of the Dutch royal family: Orange. In fact, many of the first Dutch settlers on Manhattan used to live north of the island in Fortress Orange (the present Albany), and after the Dutch re-conquered Manhattan from the English in the second half of the seventeenth century, they renamed it New Orange.

Here is another parallel: the acquisition of Manhattan by the Dutch is listed in American history books for $24, mistakenly so, since the nineteenth century American historian who came up with the figure used the exchange rate of his own time rather than some seventeenth century equivalent. However, the exchange rate he used (60/24) is almost exactly the same as the present exchange rate of the Dutch guilder against the American dollar. Is there a meaning to all these parallels--synchronicities, as Boggs calls them? "I have no answers, just questions," he says as he concludes his performance. It is the child in Boggs, who never seems to have deserted him, who needs these exercises in confusion. >>Next

Fig. 2
©2002 Succession Marcel Duchamp, ARS, N.Y./ADAGP, Paris. All rights reserved.

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