J.S.G. Boggs liked to pay for a meal with his artwork. The problem was that his paintings looked just like cash.
Where are we going? To fake money.
Boggs bills were not precisely like the real thing. On the front side of his U.S. note, he could have signed his own name as “Secret of the Treasury.” Or it might have said “In fun we trust” or “Federal Observe Bank of Bohemia.” Although the back was blank, still something about them seemed legitimate.
Below is a Boggs $500 bill. Instead of McKinley, his bill says Willie:
Even with blank backs, 1300 of his artworks were seized by the counterfeiting division of the U.S. Secret Service. In England and Australia he was arrested but won the cases. Responding to the authorities, Boggs said, “They don’t understand the difference between art and crime.”
The Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian, and the Art Institute of Chicago have Boggs bills in their permanent collections. At Carnegie Mellon, he was an artist-in-residence.
A Boggs Transaction
First Boggs paid for a motorcycle (he really did), a hotel room or a meal with his bill and received the change that was due (they really gave it to him). Next he sold his receipt to a patron who then returned to the establishment to buy their record of the sale. As the final step, he framed the receipts with all other documentation from the transaction. According to the Atlantic, one of those framed “transaction” records sold for $420,000.
This piece is called October Rent. Considered rare because it has the whole document trail, the artwork has receipts, Boggs’s $500 bill and assorted papers.
Last month, Boggs died at 62 years old.
Our Bottom Line: What is Money?
The textbooks say that any commodity can be money if it has three basic characteristics:
- a medium of exchange
- a measure of value
- a store of value
So, fabric rectangles printed by the U.S. mint are money as is the bank’s statement of dollars that are not tangibly in your checking account. Also, the virtual currency Bitcoin could be money while the Venezuelan bolivar might not be.
But Boggs bills?
My sources and more: For a good brief read about Boggs, I suggest this Quartz article and the NY Times obituary. Somewhat longer but worth the time, the New Yorker (gated) and the Atlantic did profiles. Finally, I recommend watching Money Man.