Sitting in a Chicago diner in 1984, the artist Stephen Boggs began doodling on a paper napkin as he consumed a coffee and a doughnut. He started with the numeral 1, then transformed it into the image of a dollar bill.
His waitress, impressed, offered to buy it. Mr. Boggs refused, but presented it in payment for his 90-cent tab. The waitress handed him 10 cents in change.
An idea was born.
For the next three decades, Mr. Boggs, better known by his artistic signature, J. S. G. Boggs, kept money on his mind. Extending the logic of the diner transaction, he painstakingly reproduced British pounds, Swiss francs and American dollars, with quirky deviations.
On American currency, for example, he might use the signature “J. S. G. Boggs, Secret of the Treasury,” or inscribe “Kunstbank of Bohemia” on a $5,000 bill, or append the motto “In Fun We Trust.” At first he created the notes one by one, a time-consuming process. Later he ran off limited-edition prints.
He presented his currency to merchants as payment for goods and services. If the bills were accepted, he asked for a receipt and, when appropriate, change. He noted the details of each transaction on the backs of his “Boggs bills,” which were blank, and sold the receipts to collectors. It was up to them to track down the merchant — for a fee, Mr. Boggs would assist — and negotiate purchase of the note.
Mr. Boggs never sold his bills. He only spent them.
The assembled elements were, in the opinion of Mr. Boggs and his admirers, artworks, exhibited as such in galleries around the world and included in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington.
“I create images that say things and ask things,” Mr. Boggs said in the 2013 Discovery Channel documentary “Money Man.” “I take them out into the real world and try to spend them, not as counterfeits, but as works of art that ask us about the nature of money.”
Law enforcement agencies in several countries took a different view. They regarded Mr. Boggs as a forger. They expressed this opinion, on several occasions, by seizing the notes or putting Mr. Boggs on trial.
“They said I was a counterfeiter,” an indignant Mr. Boggs told The Associated Press in 1992, when agents in the counterfeiting division of the Secret Service raided his apartment near Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where he was an artist in residence, and took possession of more than 100 of his artworks. “They don’t understand the difference between art and crime.”
The Tampa police discovered Mr. Boggs’s body on Sunday in a motel near the Tampa airport. He was 62. Robert Salmon, manager of operations for the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner’s Office, said the cause of death had not been determined.
He was born Stephen Litzner in Woodbury, N.J., on Jan. 16, 1955. (He later added the names James and George.) His mother, the former Marlene Dietrich Hildebrandt, divorced his father when Stephen was an infant, and nothing is known about him.
She joined a carnival, performed as “Margo, Queen of the Jungle,” and in 1961 married a Tampa businessman, Jim Boggs, with whom she ran the Brahman Lounge, a bar and package store. She later wrote a neighborhood column for The Tampa Tribune, reporting on the doings in Brandon, the Tampa suburb where she lived.
Mr. Boggs attended Brandon High School but was expelled in his junior year. “I was accused of starting a riot in the auditorium, but it was somebody else who threw the book at the principal,” he told the journalist Lawrence Weschler, who wrote a profile of Mr. Boggs for The New Yorker in 1988 that evolved into a book, “Boggs: A Comedy of Values,” published in 1999.
He took courses at Miami University in Ohio, Hillsborough Community College in Tampa and Columbia University, pursuing, vaguely, a career in accountancy. In the late 1970s, he decided to study art and moved to London.
He enrolled in the Camden Arts Center there and began producing conceptual paintings — some consisting of repeated versions of his signature, others filled with elaborately embellished numbers.
After his fateful visit to Chicago, for the International Art Exposition at Navy Pier, he returned to London and pursued the money trail with little success until he exhibited “Pined Newt,” an oversize pound note, at the International Contemporary Art Fair in London in 1986. It sold for 1,500 times its face value and attracted the attention of Rudy Demenga, a Swiss art dealer, who invited him to Art Basel.
The Swiss turned out to be ideal customers. Wherever he went, Mr. Boggs found that his handcrafted bank notes, executed with a fine pen on expensive paper, were, so to speak, legal tender. He began dining in fine restaurants and moved into a five-star hotel.
“All money is art,” Mr. Boggs told The Orlando Sentinel in 1997. “If you look at a dollar, it’s portraiture, it’s landscape art, it’s abstract designs.
“I think people need to think more about money. If they did, they’d think more about what they do to make it and what they do with it once it is made.”
The British were less accommodating. As he was preparing to exhibit four bank notes at the Young Unknowns Gallery in London in 1986, three constables raided the gallery and hauled Mr. Boggs off to jail. He was charged with four counts of violating the Forgery and Counterfeiting Act.
The civil-rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson mounted a successful defense. Mr. Boggs paid him in Boggs notes. In his book “The Justice Game” (1998), Mr. Robertson wrote that the Bank of England, in response to the Boggs case, added a copyright notice to its paper currency.
Three years later, Mr. Boggs was arrested in Sydney, Australia. This time the judge dismissed the case and awarded him $20,000 in damages.
While in residence at Carnegie Mellon, Mr. Boggs planned to photocopy $1 million in Boggs bills and release them into the local economy, relying on others to keep them in circulation.
“I’ve been spending this money for eight years,” he told The Associated Press. “I’ve learned so much. I wanted to share the experience.”
Secret Service agents made it clear to local merchants that anyone using the bills as currency would face prosecution, and the grand experiment ended.
Mr. Boggs filed suit to regain possession of his notes — he had lost more than 1,300 artworks in raids between 1990 and 1992 — and to win legal recognition of his work as art. In 1993, Federal District Judge Royce Lamberth dismissed the suit.
“This court accepts Mr. Boggs’s belief that money is valued, in part, because of our trust in political institutions,” Judge Lamberth wrote in his ruling. “To that end, these political institutions should be given the means by which to establish and maintain the value of United States currency.”
He added: “It is often said that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words.’ Unfortunately, Mr. Boggs’s works are often worth a thousand dollars.” Further appeals were unavailing.
“It’s all an act of faith,” Mr. Boggs told Mr. Weschler for his New Yorker profile. “Nobody knows what a dollar is, what the word means, what holds the thing up, what it stands in for. And that’s what my work is about. Look at these things, I try to say. They’re beautiful. But what the hell are they? What do they do? How do they do it?”
Over the years, Mr. Boggs, who leaves no immediate survivors, traded his bills for goods and services, from candy bars to motorcycles, whose worth he estimated at several million dollars.
In the mid-1990s, when Worth magazine asked him to design a note using the Treasury Department’s new guidelines, Mr. Boggs produced a $100 bill with the image of Harriet Tubman as a young girl, anticipating by 20 years the announcement that Tubman would replace Andrew Jackson as the new face of the $20 bill. In 2001, he ran off a series of 100,000 plastic Sacagawea dollars, stamped with his own mint marks and paid for with a $5,000 Boggs bill.
Speaking to ARTnews after Mr. Boggs’s death, Mr. Weschler said, “He was just short of being a con man, but no more than anyone in the art world, or for that matter in the world of finance — which, of course, was his whole point.”
Courtesy The New York Times by WILLIAM GRIMES JAN. 27, 2017