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.
"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:
"I discovered Boggs at the Hippodrome discotheque in London and immediately I knew." Knew what? "Genius." How? "I smelled. I can smell genius. He was just like an Indian when he is going to catch a wild animal." What was he doing? "He was looking for a girl to dance with."
"MAGIC IS THE ONLY HONEST PROFESSION," RICKY JAY was saying up on the stage of the Masonic Lodge, "because you tell people you're going to deceive them and then you do." Jay was seated in an imposingly large "throne" chair to one side of the stage. In the middle, in a throne of his own, sat Boggs, with Weschler sitting edgily in the throne to his left. Uneasy rests the head that wears the crown, and awfully small looks the person who sits in a Mason's throne; though none of the men was short, their heads reached only halfway up the backs of the chairs.
The evening had begun with an introductory speech by the Jurassic's director, David Wilson. Himself the subject of one of Weschler's books (the critically acclaimed Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder), Wilson introduced Weschler as "a staff writer for The New York Times" (instead of The New Yorker), referred to his new book as Boggs: A Comedy of Errors (instead of Values), and referred to the rest of Weschler's oeuvre -- including the book about his own museum -- as "some other books whose titles temporarily escape me." The audience laughed -- as, somewhat ruefully, I thought, did Weschler -- because Wilson is supposed to be dreamy and weird. But could he be this dreamy? Or was he subtly distancing himself from the proceedings?
Weschler got the ball rolling by reading from the preface to his book, in which, having first discussed the general arbitrariness of money, he places the "perpetually confounding money artist, J.S.G. Boggs," in the context of his writings about other artists, such as Boggs' "soul mate," Tomislav Gotovac, a performance artist who used to â walk naked through the streets of Zagreb in what was then Yugoslavia, the art -- as Weschler put it -- "consisting both of that patently loaded gesture all by itself (this solitary individual, naked before the power of a totalitarian mass state) and of all the complications the gesture invariably provoked." Weschler then told the tale of how, hauled up before a court of law, Gotovac had endeavored to explain himself to his judges: "You don't seem to understand, your honors; you see, I'm an artist and my métier consists in stripping naked and parading through city streets." To which the head judge replied: "No, no, it's you, Mr. Gotovac, who doesn't seem to understand; for, you see, we are judges and our métier consists in throwing you in jail."
But Boggs, Weschler continued after the laughter had subsided, also "puts me in mind of several others of my subjects," including "that deadpan-wry provocateur, David Wilson . . . The title character of my 1995 book, Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder," as well as Robert Irwin, the "protagonist of my very first book," who, like Wilson and Boggs, "one day got hooked on his own curiosity and decided to live it." Entertaining as what Weschler had to say was, there was something slightly disconcerting about listening to him discuss the "subjects" and "title characters" and "protagonists" of his various books while at least two of those subjects were living and breathing in the very same room. Journalism, as a wag once remarked, is fiction about real people. Could this, I wondered, account for the passive-aggressive peculiarities of David Wilson's introduction -- Caliban rebelling, however slyly, against Prospero?
If the evening seemed slightly off from the start, it was probably because everyone was there for a slightly different reason. Weschler, already six days into an 18-day, seven-city book tour, was there to promote his book; Boggs was there to discuss some of the issues raised in Weschler's book about him, and -- as became apparent -- to promote his own Web site and urge people to write to the Supreme Court on his behalf; and Jay was there to provide some context. Dressed in a dark suit, glowering at the audience through hooded eyes, the great magician told old carny stories -- Boggs had been a carny as a child himself -- and made one of Boggs' $20 bills disappear. Every time he opened his mouth, the audience snapped to attention.
Boggs' own contributions were considerably less impressive. Over lunch, he had been very pleasant to be with: direct, attentive, personable, polite, smart. But seated between Weschler and "Professor Jay," he appeared intellectually out of his depth. "If you go to a theater and someone onstage lights up a cigarette, has he broken the law?" he asked at one point, apropos of seemingly nothing. To which, when Boggs turned to him, Jay replied: "How the hell should I know?"
After the performance was over, everyone walked down the street to the Jurassic, where Boggs and Weschler signed copies of the book. Boggs, it turned out, was charging $10 to sign Weschler's book about him. Or rather, as he put it to a friend of mine, "It's $10 for an autograph and $100 for a signature." My friend thought he was joking, but it became clear that Boggs wasn't. When a $10 bill was coughed up, Boggs signed. "I always do this anyway," he explained in his oddly hollow voice, "but in this case it's going to a good cause. I'm donating all the money I get from the book signings to the Jurassic."
BOGGS FELL INTO HIS ODD LINE OF WORK, LIKE ALICE falling down the rabbit hole, during a visit to Chicago in May 1984, when he started doodling on a paper napkin in a diner one day and the doodle gradually began to take on the aspect of a $1 bill. The waitress, taken with the doodle, proclaimed it the most beautiful dollar bill she'd ever seen and asked him if she could buy it from him. According to Boggs, the waitress offered him $20 for it, and then $50, neither of which he found acceptable. Then he had an idea. "How much do I owe you for the coffee?" he asked her, to which the answer was 90 cents. "Okay, I'll pay you for it with the drawing," Boggs said, and the waitress accepted his offer with delight. As he was going out the door, she said, "Wait!" -- and brought him a single silver dime in change.
The first Boggs transaction had taken place. In lieu of a real dollar bill, he had paid for something with a drawing of a dollar bill and received change. Boggs knew that something significant had happened, but as yet he wasn't sure what. For a long time afterward he kept the dime in his pocket, rubbing it thoughtfully, taking it out and staring at it, waiting for the genie to appear.
The genie appeared in London, where Boggs lived from 1978 to 1988. He told an English friend about his Chicago exploit, but was assured that though an American waitress might go for something like that, the English never would. Whereupon, as a kind of challenge, Boggs carefully drew up a one-sided £5 note, and the two friends went out to try and spend it. For an entire day they tramped through London, meeting with bafflement or ridicule every step of the way. But finally, in a pub, they met with success. Boggs showed his drawing to the bartender, asked to buy a beer with it instead of with a real note, and the bartender said, "Sure, I'll take that" -- and thus a small industry, a private economy and a unique form of conceptual art was born.
The authorities took note, and within three years Boggs was on trial at the Old Bailey in London on charges of reproducing British currency. The Bank of England invited the United States Secret Service to join the prosecution, but judging Boggs' work to be within the law, the Secret Service declined, only to reverse its position after Boggs returned to the States. In 1993, after the Secret Service had raided his studio, Boggs filed a suit against the U.S. government, demanding that the Secret Service either return the 1,300 possessions it had confiscated from him or bring him to trial. The suit eventually made its way to the Supreme Court, which will announce if it will hear the case sometime this fall. If it does, it is likely to be an extremely lively and entertaining one. Floyd Abrams, the most famous First Amendment lawyer in the country, has filed an amicus brief on Boggs' behalf and believes the case has a twofold significance. "Two things are at issue," he told me over the phone. "One, taken narrowly as a matter of First Amendment law, is the issue of whether the government can step in and seize what are at least presumptively works of art without giving the artist in question any rights at all. More broadly, it's a case which raises issues about how we treat art in our society. It raises questions about whether the Law with a capital 'L' will simply override artistic principles without even a tip of the hat in their direction."
The day after the benefit for the Jurassic, Boggs and Weschler flew up to the Bay Area to do some readings. That night, I caught up with the artist and his girlfriend, Megan Brown, at a Kinko's in Berkeley, where he'd gone to use the cutting machine and take care of some documentation with his Nikon "Coolpix" digital camera, of which he seemed extremely fond. Boggs' Web site, which Megan manages (she was rarely without her laptop), carried an endorsement from Apple -- "Think Different" -- and Boggs told me he was hoping to get one from Nikon, too. Both he and Megan carried cell phones, and Boggs could often be seen delivering muttered monologues that, on closer inspection, turned out to be telephone conversations conducted through a small earpiece and a bead-size micro-phone attached to a wire obscured by his hair. Megan's phone was not so cutting-edge that you couldn't even see it, but she used it just as often. "Boggs Studio," I heard her saying as I walked into Kinko's. "This is Megan Brown." â
Boggs was sorting through the various sections of his attaché case, which was filled with a considerable amount of real money as well as that of his own making. Every transaction made with a Boggs bill has to be meticulously documented. On the back of the $50 bill with which he had paid for lunch at Bamboo, for instance, Boggs had written down the serial number of each dollar bill he received in change, as well as the date and mint mark of each quarter, dime, nickel and cent. He had then copied this information onto the back of the receipt, which he filed away, together with the change, in a compartment of his briefcase. The change from a Boggs transaction is never spent. It is sold.
This is how it works: Twenty-four hours after the initial transaction, Boggs informs a collector that he is in possession of a receipt, which he is willing to sell for, say, $1,000. For a further fee, Boggs will also sell the change from the transaction. Armed with the receipt, the buyer will then be able to track down the particular Boggs bill in question. He or she will then be in possession of not just the Boggs bill, but also of all the other elements of the transaction -- the bill, the receipt, the change, perhaps even another item Boggs may have thrown in, like, say, a menu. A Boggs bill is worth quite a lot, but the complete elements of a transaction can be worth a fortune. Last year, a collector in Switzerland reportedly paid $420,000 for a complete transaction of a particularly complex nature.
The documentation was completed soon after I arrived (it ended with Boggs taking a photograph of three of his $50 bills), and Boggs and Megan were ready to eat. In short, it was time to go out and spend a Boggs bill, which Boggs was anxious to do. According to Boggs, there is a four-year waiting list of collectors eager to get their hands on one.
Against what I took to be his usual policy, Boggs decided to find out in advance whether a particular restaurant would accept one of his bills. Thus, instead of leisurely enjoying a meal and then surprising the waiter at the end of it, Boggs started going into restaurants, asking to see the manager and explaining the situation. He didn't have much luck. In cafés and restaurants and bars, Boggs the celebrated money artist was treated as little more than a mendicant, at best a fishy-looking hustler trying to pull a fast one with a dumb-looking reddish-orange $50 bill. "There's a coin shop down the block that might be interested," he was told at one café by a sour brunette standing next to a display case bulging with banana cakes and turtle fudge brownies. "They'll be closed now, of course. In the mornings there's another place that serves free food."
In a '30s-themed diner, the young black woman behind the cash register became visibly upset at Boggs' proposition. She was wearing a turban and a nose ring, and looked shocked when Boggs showed her his $50 bill. From the look on her face, you'd have thought he'd just slipped her a photo of himself in the shower. "And your point is?" she spat out sarcastically. "Get out of here, bud!"
Boggs held his ground. "You don't think this is a good work of art?" he asked. "Why not?"
"Cuz I don't think it's incredibly creative and empowering."
"So what about this?" Boggs demanded, pulling out a real dollar bill. "You think this is more meaningful?"
"No, it doesn't mean anything, because it's based on capitalism, which sucks," the woman replied, giving the green stuff a disgusted once-over. Then Boggs made the mistake of asking her if she was in charge. The girl rolled her eyes.
"I get paid $6.50 an hour. Do I look like I'm in charge?"
Boggs was obviously rattled, but he kept his cool, never stopped smiling and maintained eye contact. "I would like to speak to whoever's in charge," he said, enunciating with the exaggerated clarity he employs when speaking to terminally bored members of the service economy. "Is that not all right?"
"Sure," the woman said, picking up a phone and punching in her boss's number. "Get your ass out here," she barked into the receiver. "Someone wants to talk to you."
But Boggs' calm persistence had gotten to her. "What are you doing this for?" she asked him while we were waiting for the manager, her voice suddenly softening.
"I'm an artist. This is my art," Boggs replied with a striking humility. It was as if his art were a cross he was forced to drag around with him while suffering the slings and arrows of an outraged citizenry. Ira Glass, host of the public-radio show This American Life, has described what Boggs does as "a con game, run in reverse. If the person falls for the game, they come out of it far wealthier than they went in." This is ingenious, but it sidesteps the fact that, as with the regular kind of con game, most people who run into it still come out looking like suckers. As Weschler would tell me two days later, when yet another person had turned down a Boggs bill, "I always have this urge to go up to these people afterward and say: 'You blew it!'"
Weschler didn't mean this maliciously, but it pointed to a less attractive side of the "performance" side of Boggs' art. It was a sort of test, and unlike most good art (which thrives on an informed audience), it required a certain ignorance on the part of the person taking it. To know who Boggs was, was to be a person on whom he could no longer, strictly speaking, practice his art. Because if you knew who Boggs was, then of course you were going to accept his money -- you'd be a fool not to -- and Boggs himself would be only too happy to let his art turn into a business arrangement. But if you were a young woman earning $6 an hour as a cashier, and knew nothing of Boggs, Weschler, Ira Glass, the Old Bailey or even the Secret Service, then you were perfect material for what Weschler called Boggs' "fairy-tale virtue test" -- and apt to fail it.
Or call the manager, who duly arrived. "You can come back and try tomorrow," he said, barely glancing at the bill. "I'm just the assistant manager."
The woman, in the meantime, had placed a sombrero over her turban. "Money is not a work of art," she informed Boggs. After a brief period of calm, she seemed upset again. "Money is lies!" she said, almost shouting the words. "It's the reason we're in Kosovo. It's the reason I'm standing here right now. It's the reason I'll be back here tomorrow."
"Enjoy your life," Boggs said.
WHEN PEOPLE TALK ABOUT AN ARTIST WHO MEANS something to them, at a certain point the discussion invariably turns to a ranking of their work. Which is their greatest painting, movie, sculpture, novel, video, play, song, poem, etc.? Or, to be less pompous about it, which one do you like the best? In Boggs' case, of course, the question doesn't really come up. There is the matter of the actual drawings, but their individual beauty and wit can depend heavily on that of the currency he is spoofing. (The $50 bills he was using on this trip weren't that interesting, one reason why I sympathized with those who turned them down. Plus they were limited-edition prints, as opposed to the drawings with which he started his career.) One could, I suppose, rank the various transactions, arguing that one was more fiendishly complex and witty and profitable than any of the others, but it's hard to imagine doing it with much passion. And how would you know about all of them anyway, unless you were Boggs himself? But one possible answer to the question "What is Boggs' masterpiece?," it seems to me, is to say that Boggs' masterpiece â is Weschler's book about him. Beautifully written, illustrated with many of Boggs' own works, it feels like the finished artistic project to which Boggs' own work is simply the picaresque prologue.
How many times can one do the same thing? That was what I most wondered about Boggs. It was easy to imagine a painter -- and Boggs paints also -- obsessively working and reworking his canvases, precisely because they had a taste of eternity in them. But it was a little harder to imagine going up to complete strangers year after year and saying, "Hi, my name is Boggs, I'm an artist, and this is an example of my work . . ." In fact, after hanging out with Boggs for a few hours, it was hard to imagine doing it for one day.
Boggs explained it this way: "I do appreciate being alone in the studio and pushing paint around, but I need to interact with people. It's hard for me to ignore the time in which I live. I could lock myself up and pretend the Internet doesn't exist, that the information age isn't changing life, but I don't want to do that. Wealth is being created as never before. It makes the Industrial Revolution look like a quilting bee."
It was 1 o'clock in the morning, and Boggs, Megan and I were squeezed into the corner booth at a bladerunnerish karaoke bar in Berkeley patronized mostly by young Asian- and African-Americans. A tattooed, athletic Asian girl was standing at a microphone, singing the words to a Japanese pop song while the accompanying video unspooled on a screen. Sitting at her table was a young white guy with dyed hair, tattooed forearms, and so many earrings his earlobes dangled like testicles under the weight. Boggs' attempt to have one of his bills accepted in advance had already been rebuffed, but he was too hungry now to persist. "I've called a time-out," he said, resigned to paying with the green stuff.
"The black cashier had all sorts of hilarious things to say," Boggs told me as the waitress brought us bowls of steaming ramen noodles and plates of fish cakes wrapped in seaweed, "but she wouldn't take it. 'Money is not art! It's all lies! It's why we're in Kosovo!'"
"Don't you just love logic?" Megan asked.
"I'm walking into someone's life," Boggs admitted, pouring himself an Asahi beer. "I don't want to be so arrogant that I think I can judge people from such a brief encounter. There are so many valid reasons for not taking a bill, but that black chick could have used the extra bucks. I wanted to reach out and say, 'Wake the fuck up!' But I felt sorry for her, too. She was complaining that money was oppressing her life, and she was totally ill-equipped to know what to do about it."
"How do you think of yourself? What kind of artist are you?"
"A lot of people call me a conceptual performance artist -- that's the closest definition," Boggs replied. "To call me a money artist limits what the work's about. I like to think of myself as a human being rather than an artist, anyway."
And why the emphasis on a complete transaction? I asked, referring to some gallery installations where Boggs had hung all the elements of a transaction -- bills, change, receipt, menu, etc. -- in separate frames.
"Because it's a much more complex sculptural structure," Boggs answered, shoving some wayward strands of hair behind his ear. "It requires a leap of perception by the viewer to see all the different objects as a unified singularity. The fact that these objects are connected by invisible relationships -- presented in different frames -- helps to portray the social fabric that we can't see. But it also bespeaks of deconstruction and reconstruction that's a product of social cooperation. What's unfair of critics is to call my work cold and clinical and cynical. When you look beneath the surface, you find the opposite. There's an element of poetry that people miss. A portrayal of the human connection between two people that goes against prescribed behavior."
"Has doing this become addictive for you?"
"It is addictive," Boggs laughed. "When we were at Bamboo yesterday, there was something almost orgasmic about working against the tide with the waiter and then having the manager suddenly accept it. On the other hand, people think what I do is glamorous and easy, and it isn't. It gets boring and frustrating at times. I get turned down nine out of 10 times. But I can't allow myself to quit and concede the point to the government when the point is so very important. If I was a writer, I might do a book on the money system and move on. But if the Secret Service raided my house and seized the manuscript, I'd write another one!"
Sometime during this conversation, Megan curled up in the booth and went to sleep. Boggs was now on his third bottle of beer. A young, neatly dressed Asian-American with a Ph.D. in communications from Berkeley -- Boggs had spoken to him earlier -- was standing at the microphone crooning a spectacularly off-key version of "Let It Be," while Shumoh, our pretty, punkily dressed waitress -- who was majoring in computer science (Boggs finds out everything) -- presented us with a check for $57. A by-now-familiar sort of conversation took place, and the waitress called over the manager, a serious, pleasant-looking Asian woman who had been at the bar hunched over a pile of receipts all night doing the accounts. In the dim light of our booth, she scrutinized Boggs' two $50 bills with the same concentration she'd applied to the bar's finances.
"This is money?" she asked.
"No, it's art," Boggs laughed. "I find people who like art and will accept my bills at face value."
The manager considered the bills again. She was obviously an intelligent woman, and she was really thinking about them. What she was thinking, though, I had no idea. "I really like, but what can I use for?" she said finally. And then, pointing to Boggs' credit card, which had a picture of Salvador Dali on it, she said: "This one better."
AS A DRIVER, BOGGS APPEARED TO BE FAMILIAR WITH only two gears: first and fourth, with the former acting as a mere throat-clearing introduction to the deep animal growl of the latter. Right now we were in fourth, and Boggs, to celebrate his first successful transaction since arriving in Berkeley (he'd managed to buy a copy of Weschler's book with a Boggs bill), was indulging in a bit of "crazy" driving, sending the car careening left and right as he tore down an empty residential street. "Down boy, down!" said Weschler good-humoredly from the back seat, showing precisely the "sweet forbearance" for which he thanked Boggs in the preface to his book. It's tough being the biographer of a living subject, particularly when you're in a car your subject is driving too fast.
"There can be too much Boggs -- and that's off the record!" Weschler had said jokingly an hour earlier on Telegraph Avenue when Boggs was being a bit silly. It struck me as a revealing comment. For Weschler is not a warts-and-all biographer. Strictly speaking, he's not a biographer at all, of course, but rather someone who uses his subjects as launching pads for his own explorations of the larger questions their activities raise. In David Wilson's case, the topic was wonder. In Boggs' case, it was money, and the result was Weschler's elegant and instructive book about "our confoundingly abstract system of exchange." But Boggs had been a "money artist" for a mere 15 years. Theoretically, his career had at least two decades to run, and in future editions of his book, Weschler would be adding postscripts, perhaps even new chapters. Weschler had given Boggs a measure of fame and, more important, respect; Boggs, in turn, had contributed the raw material for Weschler's book. In short, each owed the other something.
"It's definitely a symbiotic relationship," Boggs had â told me in the karaoke bar when I asked him what effect Weschler had had on his career. "The kind of writer Ren is, he needs someone to write about, and the kind of artist I am -- well, half of what I do is so ephemeral, and I don't write. It takes someone who really thinks about the art, and not just the legal situation, and Ren's articles really brought the work to the attention of people who could support it."
Weschler put it this way: "The ongoing problem in my career as a writer is the continuing existence of the role of your subjects. I wrest art out of the chaos of this material, give it a form and wholeness, and dammit, they keep on living! The ending I have right now for the Boggs book is perfect. In practice there may be a different ending. But that's the trouble with making art out of the human clay."
ABOUT TWO WEEKS AFTER I GOT BACK to Los Angeles, I spoke to David Wilson on the phone. He told me that the benefit for the Jurassic hadn't raised very much -- about $1,500 after various expenses (including a hefty $1,000 to cover Boggs' plane and hotel costs) had been defrayed -- and admitted that he had initially been reluctant to stage the event, partly because Ricky Jay had already raised $25,000 for the Jurassic, and partly because he didn't want the museum to become too identified with Weschler. ("Even though he wrote a book about us, we're very independent, we're not the same thing, obviously," he said.) Wilson conceded that some people at the Jurassic had been unhappy about the evening's finances but insisted that he was not one of them. "I have a great deal of respect for what Boggs has done," he told me, "and for the way he's persevered through all this and held on to the coattails of this crazy thing he happened to grab on to."
As for the money Boggs raised from his book signings, and which he had pledged to donate to the Jurassic, Wilson had yet to see it. "I just learned recently that he was going to donate that to us," Wilson told me. "Apparently he's said that he will, but we haven't heard and he hasn't told us."
Perhaps Boggs will give Wilson the money when he returns to L.A. for an exhibition in September. From September 14 to October 16, he will be renting the Frumkin-Duval gallery at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica at a cost of $10,000. The rent at Frumkin-Duval will be paid in Boggs bills of various denominations, and the bills themselves will be on display while he is there. (Boggs and Megan will be sleeping, John-and-Yoko-style, at the gallery.) Also shown will be the various items Boggs manages to purchase during his stay, along with the receipts, change, etc. If all goes as planned, by the end of his visit the gallery will be filled with a multitude of consumer goods testifying to the purchasing power of Boggs' own private currency.
Boggs' primary reason for coming to Los Angeles, however, is, ostensibly, not an artistic one. If the Supreme Court doesn't hear his case (and Floyd Abrams doubts it will), Boggs thinks it will be open season on him as far as the Secret Service is concerned. There will be more harassment, more confiscation of property, and no trial. Which is where L.A. comes in. Judicially speaking, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is the most liberal in the country, and Boggs doubts that the Secret Service will want to confront him here. This seems slightly dubious, however, since all the Secret Service would have to do is wait for Boggs to return to Florida.
Boggs doesn't always add up. He dodges questions about his income, and the financial side of his work is conveniently shrouded in secrecy. Is there really a four-year waiting list of collectors eager to buy his art? Did someone in Switzerland really pay $420,000 for a Boggs transaction? Quite possibly, but because the Secret Service can legally seize his work anywhere in the United States, collectors are reluctant to go on record, and I was unable to find one independently who would speak with me. According to Boggs, Secret Service agents are among his most avid collectors, but, again, one has to take his word for it. Still, given that Boggs persuaded Thomas Raymond Hipschen, chief master engraver with the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and the man responsible for the portrait of Andrew Jackson on the new $20 bill, to do a portrait of him -- which Boggs will be putting on a set of $100,000 Boggs bills -- his word does carry some weight.
With Boggs' help, I finally got a chance to speak with a collector. On July 20 at around 8:30 in the evening, I received a call from a baby-voiced woman who would identify herself only as "Tiffany." She was calling, she said, on behalf of J.S.G. Boggs, to confirm that a transaction for $420,000 had taken place in Europe about a year ago. She claimed to own a gallery in Florida and to represent Boggs in the south-eastern United States.
"How long have you been collecting Boggs' work?" I asked.
"Can you tell me what the transaction in Europe consisted of?"
"So," she continued in her soft little voice, "I'm just making a courtesy call on behalf of J.S.G. Boggs to confirm that the transaction was made in Europe for $420,000."
"Well . . . thank you!" I said.
"Thank you!" she said. And we both hung up.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss LA Weekly's biggest stories.