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Making Money 

The conceptual art of J.S.G. Boggs.

Wednesday, Aug 4 1999
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Photo by Brendan BernhardBOGGS WAS RUNNING LATE AGAIN, AND NEW YORKER writer Lawrence Weschler -- bearded, professorial, wearing a jacket and tie over a white shirt patterned with so many tiny squares it could have doubled as graph paper -- was nervously scanning Venice Boulevard for a glimpse of the errant subject of his new book, Boggs: A Comedy of Values.

Weschler borrowed a cell phone to call Boggs at his hotel. "Boggs, Boggs, why do you do this to me, Boggs?" he muttered nasally, the "B" barely audible, as he waited for someone to answer the phone. It was 5 minutes to 7, and a fair number of people were converging through slanting rays of sunlight and noisy rush-hour traffic on the front entrance of the Foshay Masonic Lodge, where, in a few minutes, a benefit performance for the Museum of Jurassic Technology was due to begin. Following a reading from his book, Weschler, Boggs and the sleight-of-hand artist Ricky Jay would be discussing "art, money, money art and our confoundingly abstract system of exchange." Tickets were $25 at the door, and Jay was waiting upstairs. But where was Boggs?

I'd met Boggs for the first time earlier in the day over lunch with Weschler at a Caribbean restaurant called Bamboo -- a lunch Boggs had paid for with a one-sided, patently fake, orange $50 bill. Not that doing so was easy. First of all, he'd had to explain to our waiter, Hugo, that his name was Boggs, that he was an artist who drew pictures of money, and that, with Hugo's permission, he would like to pay for our meal with this particular artwork, which, taken at its face value, would not only pay for the meal but also net Boggs some $15 in real change. Hugo seemed tickled by this idea, mainly because he had no intention of going along with it. "It's pretty nice," he told Boggs, smiling as he examined the blank side of the $50 note, "but it's not real. It's just a piece of paper."

At which point Boggs had pulled out a regular dollar bill, placed it on the table, and pointed out that it, too, was just a piece of paper.

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"Yeah, but it's green," Hugo said sensibly. Then he suggested that "In Fun We Trust," the motto emblazoned on another bill Boggs showed him, might read better as "In Fuck We Trust." At this, Weschler threw up his hands, shot me a look that said, You see what incredible things people come up with when you go to lunch with Boggs?, and slid back in his chair to laugh a delighted, burbling laugh.

Eventually, when a kind of friendly stalemate had been reached, Hugo went to talk to the manager. The manager looked at the bill, considered the situation for a moment, shrugged, and said, "Sure, why not?"

Boggs had just paid for lunch.

Of course, the story Boggs told Hugo was not the full story. A slightly more detailed explanation of what he was up to might have gone something like this:

"Hi, my name is Boggs, I'm an artist who draws pictures of money, and with your permission I'd like to pay for lunch with this limited-edition print of mine, which I'm arbitrarily assigning its face value of $50. In 24 hours, however, you will start receiving calls from various collectors, most of whom will wish to remain anonymous, offering to buy this bill from you for as much as $500 or even $1,000. In other words, I am offering to pay for this $35 lunch with a piece of paper worth 10, possibly 20 times that amount. I should add, by the way, that in 1987 I was put on trial at the Old Bailey in England on charges of counterfeiting; that I was tried for the same crime in Australia; and that even though I was acquitted in both cases I am now the target of an ongoing investigation by the United States Secret Service, which has raided several of my studios, confiscated some 1,300 of my personal belongings, including much valuable artwork, and has described what I do as 'sacrilegious.' I live in Florida, and like Saddam Hussein, I try to sleep in a different house every night."

It would have been interesting to see Hugo explain all that to the manager.

But now it was 2 minutes to 7, and Weschler was still nervously scanning the street for Boggs. And then, suddenly, there he was -- walking down the street in jeans and jacket, black leather attaché case in hand. With his graying, shoulder-length hair, gold earring and solid, purposeful stride, he looked like an ex­rock musician who had taken up a highly profitable line in an extremely secretive business. Looking at him, I was reminded of a passage in Weschler's book, in which Rudy Demenga, a Swiss art dealer, tells Weschler how he first met Boggs:

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