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James Steven George Boggs discusses his art and career

BROADCAST: Sep. 29, 1988 | DURATION: 00:52:14


Interest into James Steven George Boggs' artwork first started because Boggs had doodled a picture on a napkin at a coffee shop. The waitress there really liked Boggs' drawing and offered him $50.00 for it. Boggs, otherwise known as J.S.G. Boggs, also talks about how the Bank of England placed him on trial, accusing him of illegally producing currency.


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Studs Terkel The subject is making money. There are many ways to make money. There's stealing it. There's working honestly for it. There's playing the stock market. There's gambling. There's owning a conglomerate. And there's J.S.G. Boggs. He's an artist. He literally makes money. He draws it. Now you may have heard several guests on the show referring to Mr. Boggs, the artist who makes money. Recall Lawrence Weschler was on, "The New Yorker" journalist, and there were a couple of "New Yorker" profiles of my guest, Boggs, J.S.G. Boggs. James Steven George Boggs, and whose works, his artworks of money are in various galleries in different cities. How do we begin? Who you are. You know, his profile begins--you're in a restaurant. You're in a fancy restaurant.

J.S.G. Boggs Sure, I might even be in a restaurant with you before the week is out.

Studs Terkel Alright. Now what's going to happen?

J.S.G. Boggs Well, I simply identify myself as an artist and I produce a drawing of, say, a 20 dollar bill or a 5 dollar bill or a hundred or in some cases even a thousand dollar bill. And I asked them if they will accept my work of art, my drawing of a piece of money, or if you will, my money, as payment. And usually there is a discussion that ensues and if they decide that they do want to accept it, why all they have to do is honor it at the face value. So if it's a hundred dollar bill and the meal is 27 dollars, they have to tender 73 dollars in change and the receipt. And of course, they have to give the meal.

Studs Terkel Yeah, but the--we should point out that what you show them is--it can be considered almost the best of counterfeit. They can consider it that. What I mean is, it's a facsimile. Remarkable because on the table here are the actual bills and Boggs' bills. And here's a hundred franc note. And there's a picture of--

J.S.G. Boggs Delacroix, the famous artist.

Studs Terkel Delacroix, and there's yours. And you can't tell the difference. And there is a Swiss franc note, 100 dollars, with the actual artwork. And there is Queen Elizabeth, and it's a 5 pound note, Bank of England. We'll come to the Bank of England [laughing] in a minute. And this American money too.

J.S.G. Boggs Well I think, you know, on first glance, yes, looks the same. But when you look at it closely, it's obviously a drawing and there are a lot of differences in the work, and you know, the actual fact of changing it from hand to hand. It would never really fool anyone once they got it in their hand and looked at it. And that's not the intention. And it's not really a facsimile and it's not really a reproduction. It's a drawing of.

Studs Terkel Yeah, by the way, I said facsimile. I was wrong because that became the basis of the defense in a very celebrated lawsuit. The plaintiffs Bank of England and the Government of England, and the defendant, my guest [laughing], J.S.G. Boggs at Old Bailey. And someone who was a dead ringer for Rumpole was your defense attorney, but come to that. So when you show that, as in the profile of you, you were at a fancy restaurant and the maitre d saw you drawing and his attention was drawn to it as you were doing it then. It was a hundred dollar bill.

J.S.G. Boggs Yes.

Studs Terkel And then you said, "Would you accept this as payment?" And he blanched. Then you drew out an actual hundred dollar bill. You have a choice, right?

J.S.G. Boggs Yes, except right now I'm in--I almost finished with a year's project of not spending any legal tender whatsoever, which started when I won the case. So right now, I cannot offer a choice of the drawing or real cash. So normally I have a sponsor with me who will offer the real cash and I only offer the drawing. But the thing is people do, when they're first made this offer. it does catch them unawares even if they have been admiring the drawing. But then they are invited to think about it. Now, is this drawing worth more than the hundred dollar bill or less than or the same as? Is the work of art itself of any value whatsoever, even if it is not negotiable? You can't take it out and re-spend it easily. Although people have and then they could. You have to ask yourself some serious questions firstly about the art and then secondly about the money and then really about life.

Studs Terkel That's the whole point, isn't it, of your adventure? And it is an adventure of several years now. It's not simply you offer something in place of the legal tender, but it's about art and money. It's about actual meaning of money.

J.S.G. Boggs Exactly.

Studs Terkel It's about the fantasy of money and it's about the religion of money. This is all part of it, isn't

J.S.G. Boggs And they're are all very serious, very important issues, especially in today. And they're not so complex that we as people can't deal with these issues. And I think we have to stop and look at what we're doing in our lives and how we relate to money and how that affects our relationship with other people. I think money is a very beautiful thing and it is also a very wonderful thing in the way it operates, the way it makes life easier for us. But money is something which we now take for granted to such a degree that we no longer see the beautiful images on this piece of paper and we no longer think about the influence that it has on our life and how it affects our relationship with other people. And it's extraordinary because it's such a large part of our life and it controls and influences so much of what we do and how we relate to other people that it's extraordinary we don't think about it more often.

Studs Terkel It's paper money we're talking about.

J.S.G. Boggs Paper money.

Studs Terkel Paper money, rather than gold or silver or whatever it is. So it's paper money and there are certain works, there's certain--there's something artistic on that, drawn on it.

J.S.G. Boggs On the actual money, there is something artistic actually printed on there by means of engraving and in some cases, in European currency, it's engraving with a mixture of lithography. And these within themselves, the actual real legal tender, are works of art which we never stop to think about. People who don't go into galleries or museums, they never actually stop to have a look in their pocket. Beautiful portraiture!

Studs Terkel You heard the

J.S.G. Boggs Yeah.

Studs Terkel It's a 10 dollar bill and I take it out. Describe what goes into this bill.

J.S.G. Boggs You don't even have to hand it to me, Studs. I can tell you.

Studs Terkel Alright,

J.S.G. Boggs First thing, you're going to see a magnificent portrait of Hamilton.

Studs Terkel Right.

J.S.G. Boggs Right.

Studs Terkel Right.

J.S.G. Boggs Secondly, you're going to see some beautiful script in the form of the words "The United States" across the top in terms of the typefaces of the 10 dollar bill, in terms of the rococo scrollwork which decorates the surround of the bill. And on the back, there is a fantastic picture of the United States Treasury. Now, American money centers itself on politicians on the front and architecture on the back.

Studs Terkel [Laughter] Is that true of the other denominations?

J.S.G. Boggs It's true. You'll

Studs Terkel It says below the "United States of America" on the back of the bill and above the drawing of the mint "In God We Trust".

J.S.G. Boggs And that's precisely right too. Because we are no longer on a metal standard. You can no longer take that money in and get gold or silver. All you can get now is another nice clean crisp piece of paper.

Studs Terkel So there's a religious aspect to it too here. "In God We Trust".

J.S.G. Boggs Absolutely. And the religious aspect goes farther back than American history in terms of money. But this country was actually founded on the principle of divine authorization.

Studs Terkel Also there is still a split here between church and state. There is that too. By the way--

J.S.G. Boggs Yes, but you can never separate the religious aspect and the people who actually produce and control money.

Studs Terkel We know for many, for millions, multimillions, money is a religion. [laughing]

J.S.G. Boggs Well there is that. There's that separate kind of religion which is people who absolutely worship money for all the wrong reasons. But there is in the original beginnings, there--the protection of currency, and actually the protection of you and I in dealing with one another, actually fell within the confines of the church.

Studs Terkel Yeah. You know, I'm thinking you've made a study of the history of money, of paper money. Others do it. And throughout there are all these aspects in it. So faith is involved, the word is involved. Religion is involved, and fantasy is involved as well, isn't it?

J.S.G. Boggs Yes. There is a fantasy there. And that is why we must pay close attention to who's actually in charge of producing this money, how much they put into the system. And if we're not careful, it's possible that somebody like Second World War Germany, they started producing this stuff as fast as the machines would turn it out. Consequently, one needed a wheelbarrow full of German marks to buy a loaf of bread.

Studs Terkel Used as wallpaper.

J.S.G. Boggs Yes. In fact, I've heard stories of it actually used--waiters using it as pads to take orders on because it was cheaper than buying new paper.

Studs Terkel But we have to come to the subject of you, J.S.G Boggs, James Steven George Boggs, and art and money and your drawings. And there are all sorts of adventures you've had here and in cities of America, Chicago, we'll come to you and a certain waitress. And there's--we come there because we'll want to come to that case, the celebrated case in which you were the defendant in London. But before that, Chicago. That's where an early adventure of yours happened.

J.S.G. Boggs This is where it all started,

Studs Terkel Well, suppose you describe the scene. Tell what happened.

J.S.G. Boggs Well, I've been working with drawings and paintings of numbers because it also is represented in the work with money. It's numbers on pieces of paper, and numbers are beautiful things, but they are in fact abstract. You cannot have "five". Five is an idea. You can have the sound "five". You can write F-I-V-E, the word five. You can have five oranges or five apples or five fingers. But you can't have "five". It's an abstract idea. It's very involved in abstract art. So I came to Chicago in May of '84 to the Art Expo. I had no money. I was literally sleeping on the streets near the Navy pier so that I could go every day and see the work. And I had bummed some change from some artist buddies here in Chicago and I had a couple of dollars in my pocket. Went to the SUHU district, the gallery district here in Chicago, and afterwards walked around mindlessly for a while thinking about the art and decided to stop into a little cafe diner to get a cup of coffee and a donut. Well, it was a very nice waitress and she kept refilling my cup with coffee. And I was doodling on a napkin and I made a drawing of a number one and I began to make embellishments around it. And then I did another drawing of a number one and carried on. After about four hours, this napkin looked like a very abstract one dollar bill. And the waitress, every time she came to fill my coffee cup, she was looking at it. And it was almost like she wanted to say something, but she was afraid to. So finally she said, "You know, that's really very good. I think that's fantastic what you've made there. It looks like a dollar. It looks like a strange one dollar bill." And she asked me if she could buy it from me. And I've sold so little work in my life it just caught me unawares. My instant reaction was "No, you can't buy it. I did this for myself. I didn't do it to sell." And she said, "Well look, I'll give you 50 dollars for it." I was so shocked. I just automatically, my artist instinct was somewhat rebellious and I said, "No, you don't understand. It's not for sale." Well, she went away and her feelings were obviously hurt. And I felt very bad that I'd hurt her feelings. So when she came back with the check, I looked at the check and it was 90 cents. And I said, "I would ask you, would you accept this drawing which you've admired as payment for the coffee and the donut?" And she was over the moon. She was so happy. You could see it just come over her face! So she took it and we talked for a while and we laughed and we had a good time. And a few minutes later I was leaving and as I was leaving she said, "Wait, wait, wait, you forgot your change! The coffee and donut was only 90 cents. You gave me a dollar. You've got to take your 10 cents!" So I took the dime.

Studs Terkel [Laughing] You got the dime back!

J.S.G. Boggs And there I was walking around Chicago with this dime in my hand, in my pocket. And every time I looked at the dime, the memory of this event came back in my mind afresh.

Studs Terkel Is that what started it?

J.S.G. Boggs That was it. That was what

Studs Terkel You mean, you were just doodling. You're an artist and you were doodling and your specific art, your skill is in these--and I take back reproduction. In these abstract drawings of paper bills of different countries of money, of English pounds, of French francs, of German marks, of Swiss francs, of American dollars.

J.S.G. Boggs Yeah.

Studs Terkel And you were just doing that and suddenly this dame--she, this waitress, has a sense of value of art, doesn't she?

J.S.G. Boggs Yeah.

Studs Terkel She offered you 50 bucks for that.

J.S.G. Boggs Yeah, and I'm astounded.

Studs Terkel For that one dollar abstract. So that's what started. So then what happened after that?

J.S.G. Boggs Well, I was trying to come to terms with the meaning of this, the importance of it. Why did this happen? What had taken place to put so much energy, so much electricity in the atmosphere in that little cafe? I went back to London. I told an artist friend of mine and he said, "Well that's in America. But it could not happen here."

Studs Terkel Now let's hold that British exper--that London experience in a moment. We're talking to [laughing] a very unusual and remarkable artist, a drawer, an artist, someone who makes money, and it's a way we don't think of. [pause in recording] James Steven George Boggs, you yourself, you didn't come out of the waves or out of the [unintelligible]. You came out of New Jersey and Florida and you were an art student. Was art your interest? This is [laughing] of your second lecture.

J.S.G. Boggs Yes, yes. I've been drawing my--drawing all my life. Born in Jersey, basically raised in Florida and I studied art in Florida at the Hillsboro Community College under Steve Holm who's one of the greatest artists alive. And then finished off at--went through several other universities and finished off at Columbia. And then moved off to London where I've been for 10 years.

Studs Terkel Yeah. So now we got to have your Brit--we'll come back to some New York experiences later. So London [laughing]. Now, we have to begin leading up to the case.

J.S.G. Boggs So after having done this in Chicago, and it was so intense. I told another artist friend in London and he said, "But that's America. You can't do that in England." Because of course, there's a very different cultural situation there and fine art in the visual sense is the poor relation of all the arts in England. So I took up the challenge. I made a drawing of a 5 pound note it took me probably 4 days. Five dollars is worth--5 pounds is worth probably about 8, 9 dollars. So I worked for 3 or 4 days to make this 5 pound note drawing. And off we went. And we went from place to place to place presenting it to the owners of the establishment or the clerks or to whomever was there at the till, asking if we could buy some drinks or a sandwich or a necktie or whatever. And every place threw us out. "Get out of here! Go away!" Finally, toward the end of the day, we'd been out for maybe 6, 7 hours. We went into a pub. We just were tired. And we ordered a couple of drinks and sandwiches and I laid the 5 pound note on the bar. And we'd just given up essentially, and the barman admired the drawing.

Studs Terkel That's your 5 pound note.

J.S.G. Boggs My

Studs Terkel Your drawing of a 5 pound note. Yeah.

J.S.G. Boggs The barman admired the drawing and we engaged in some discussion. And I said, well, I explained to him that we'd been out all day trying to spend this drawing. And at the end of the conversation I said, "Would you accept it for the value of 5 pounds and tender whatever change is forthcoming?" And he said, "Absolutely!" And he told me I was crazy. He said, "You know, you can't make something like that for 5 pounds. It's impossible! You can't make an original drawing like that for 5 pounds. It's crazy! And you're a nut for giving it to me, but I'm going to take it from you to teach you a lesson."

Studs Terkel He thinks it's worth more.

J.S.G. Boggs Yes.

Studs Terkel Because he valued art. He saw it as a work of art.

J.S.G. Boggs Yes,

Studs Terkel As the waitress did in that Chicago diner.

J.S.G. Boggs That's right. They saw the work, the study, the talent. They saw the point to the work. They saw what it was about. And to them, it was more important and more valuable than an equivalent face value of the real legal tender.

Studs Terkel So that was an experience. By the way, before we come--we have to come to that case. And you have exchanged your work of art, this abstract drawing of money, to the tune of how much? This is since--how many years now is it?

J.S.G. Boggs Well, since May of '84 right here in Chicago?

Studs Terkel Yeah.

J.S.G. Boggs Four--

Studs Terkel I think four years.

J.S.G. Boggs Right now--

Studs Terkel How much would you say?

J.S.G. Boggs Right now we're approaching 60,000 dollars.

Studs Terkel And those who hold, those who took it, feel that your reproduction--ah, cross, scratch that word accord of law!

J.S.G. Boggs Studs!

Studs Terkel No "reproduction". The jury did not hear that because we're going to come to the word "reproduction". Your abstract version of the money may be worth far more than that to the persons who took it. These are working people who recognize--that's something else we haven't talked--I don't to romanticize it. But it's interesting that a waitress did and a

J.S.G. Boggs Yes. But then, I mean, from there I started working much harder at the drawings and the spending. And I started to come to terms with what the work was about and realizing that the numbers that we use which appear on a piece of paper, these Hindu-Arabic numbers, are universal. You can go to France and you can't speak to a soul because you can't speak French, or Germany or Italy. But we all use these same numbers. And it's really quite amazing. Right now these numbers are universal to the whole world. There are like 17 primitive cultures which don't use these numbers. And if you go to Russia they use these numbers and if you go to China and Japan--now China and the Chinese and the Japanese have their own characters for numbers, as well. But theirs appear on the reverse, on the obverse of the paper. The same numbers that we use are there on the note in this form of serial numbers, in the form of the denomination of the bill, the code number of the [plate?] printed. Now having discovered this, that even though cultures were different but they used the same numbers, I began to look at the actual images on the paper itself. And I began to realize that each culture that I visited had their own cultural heritage tied up in images on these little pieces of paper. And I started to become aware how much I actually had learned about American history because I had subliminally been looking at these images on money all my life. I knew what the United States Capitol looked like even though I'd never been there!

Studs Terkel [Laughing] You know, that's interesting. You understood the architecture through its version.

J.S.G. Boggs Yes.

Studs Terkel On that

J.S.G. Boggs It had taught me something.

Studs Terkel Taught

J.S.G. Boggs In my whole life I had been reinforced the first president of the United States was George Washington on the one dollar bill.

Studs Terkel Now who's on a two dollar bill?

J.S.G. Boggs Jefferson.

Studs Terkel Hamilton, you know, a 10 dollar--5 dollar bill.

J.S.G. Boggs Lincoln, of course. And on a--a very wonderful thing, if you look on the back of a 5 dollar bill and you take a very strong magnifying glass, you have to have a very strong magnifying glass, you can see Lincoln sitting up in the the Lincoln Memorial which is on the back of a 5 dollar bill. And up in the cornice work around that building is written in the tiniest of letters the 13 original states. And you need almost a microscope to see this. And it was all done by hand!

Studs Terkel Oh, that was done by hand!

J.S.G. Boggs All of it

Studs Terkel is Still

J.S.G. Boggs Still is done by hand.

Studs Terkel Now on the back, I pull out a one dollar bill here, and on the back there's Washington and some scrollwork. But on the back, there is a pyramid, seems to be a pyramid. Annuit--

J.S.G. Boggs Annuit coeptis.

Studs Terkel Something Latin.

J.S.G. Boggs Annuit coeptis.

Studs Terkel Annuit coeptis.

J.S.G. Boggs "God has smiled upon our undertaking."

Studs Terkel So that's what it is.

J.S.G. Boggs And that pyramid is actually a Masonic symbol. And there you run--the iconography of money is like a total picture because even on European money, the back images and the other images relate to other images. Washington was a Mason.

Studs Terkel Yeah. That's--so that's Masonic symbol. Should point out that Jim Boggs, or J.S.G. Boggs, hasn't seen--I hold the bill in my hand. We're across the table, he just knew immediately what it was. And below that it says the "Great Seal". Now to the right is the eagle and the American symbol of the United States. Something.

J.S.G. Boggs Right.

Studs Terkel And it's the eagle--

J.S.G. Boggs Those two circles are actually the face and the obverse of the Great Seal. Now the obverse being the Masonic pyramid [bill crinkling]. On the other side, the American eagle is holding in his claws two things. One is an olive branch. And on that olive branch are 13 leaves and 13 berries representing the original 13 colonies. And in the other claw are 13 arrows, and the olive branch, of course, as a classical symbol is peace. And the arrows, of course--

Studs Terkel So it's time we study the scrollwork on these bills, isn't it? Or the artistry. By the way, do all the societies, all different countries have these works of art?

J.S.G. Boggs Absolutely.

Studs Terkel Everyone.

J.S.G. Boggs Absolutely.

Studs Terkel I notice the Bank of France, the franc, has a portrait of Delacroix. And there's the symbol of the French Revolution with the flag high. And there's a young kid with a--

J.S.G. Boggs Pistol.

Studs Terkel A primitive gun. And there's artwork.

J.S.G. Boggs And that image of the woman and the child actually come from a great painting by Delacroix which

Studs Terkel Oh it's a Delacroix painting of the portrait

J.S.G. Boggs Delacroix. It

Studs Terkel So that's really a work of art. And there is the bank note, a German mark, German mark. And there's an old Bergers, the portrait of a Berger, or it could be somebody--and it's Boggs'. Oh, this is yours!

J.S.G. Boggs [Laughing]

Studs Terkel I thought it was a real bill! I notice it's Boggs'! Down below instead of the head of the mint, it's Boggs. [chuckling] It's Frankfurt am Main.

J.S.G. Boggs The Germans were quite understanding about that one.

Studs Terkel We're talking about J.S.G. Boggs. For those of you may read it, there are two long profiles of him in "The New Yorker" by Lawrence Weschler. We'll recognize an original here. [laughing]

J.S.G. Boggs And for anyone, if they want to pick up a copy of the Lawrence Weschler book "Shapinsky's Karma and Boggs's Bills", they can go to Barbara's Books or--

Studs Terkel All the bookstores have it.

J.S.G. Boggs All of the

Studs Terkel "Shapinsky's Karma", you must've--this deals with a little Indian bundle of energy named Ahumal.

J.S.G. Boggs [Laughing]

Studs Terkel That's a [unintelligible] who suddenly discovered you as he discovered this unknown painter Shapinsky. [pause in recording] Before we come to the case, we're going to drop that too, the celebrated case in Old Bailey with you as a defendant on the subject, I suppose, of counterfeiting the British pound.

J.S.G. Boggs Yes.

Studs Terkel And so offending the Bank of England. You had New York adventures. Now a lot of people didn't know what to do when you offered that money and your works of art in place of the legal tender. And some would've taken it, but they were afraid somebody up above might say something.

J.S.G. Boggs Sure and I'm always, always fascinated by that. Lawrence Weschler followed me around in New York for a few days and he, too, was amazed that there were people who actually came out and said that they felt that the drawing of, say a 5 dollar bill, was worth much, much more. But because they were not the owner of the establishment, they felt that they might get into trouble if they took it. And I pointed out to them, "Well, you know, if you feel it's worth more than 5 dollars or a hundred dollars, there's nothing to stop you from buying it from the cash register for yourself."

Studs Terkel But there was one, there was a Haitian vendor--you went to a fair, a street fair somewhere.

J.S.G. Boggs Yes, just outside of the Museum of Modern Art.

Studs Terkel And this guy was selling a little--I suppose little drawings of one of [unintelligible].

J.S.G. Boggs Little paintings of villages in Haiti.

Studs Terkel And you wanted to buy one.

J.S.G. Boggs I wanted to buy one and I picked one out which was 19 dollars. And we'd been all around New York all day long. Nobody but--nobody would take a drawing from me. We couldn't get anything. We couldn't get drinks, we couldn't get food, we couldn't get a bus ride, we couldn't get anything. I showed this Haitian artist this drawing of a 20 dollar bill and I said, "You know, this is a drawing. I made it myself. I'd like to buy this painting by you. Would you accept my drawing to the value indicated, being 20 dollars?" And he instantaneously said, "Of course!" And gave me a dollar in change. Now he gave me the receipt. He gave me the painting. He gave me the dollar in change. Those were now my property and my drawing of a 20 dollar bill was now his property.

Studs Terkel And he--by this time you were being discovered. The word was spreading here and there among critics and collectors about this artist who has some--and they came to this Haitian guy and they offered him more dough for it.

J.S.G. Boggs Well yes. I offered the painting by him, the draw--the receipt and the one dollar bill in change, all with notation written on the back of it. I offered it to a collector who offered me a fair sum of money for it. That--actually it was a dealer, not a collector. And the dealer then went to the artist and offered him a great deal more money for it and he turned it down.

Studs Terkel He turned it down.

J.S.G. Boggs He said, "I have the idea right here in my wallet. What do I need with--"

Studs Terkel "I have the idea!" He has your idea in his wallet. And that's far more

J.S.G. Boggs Far more valuable

Studs Terkel The hundred bucks, say, the guy would offer.

J.S.G. Boggs Well--

Studs Terkel Whatever

J.S.G. Boggs I wouldn't want to discuss that. It was a lot more than

Studs Terkel A lot more, but let's say

J.S.G. Boggs I don't want, I would never want anyone to take one of my drawings with the impression that they are only taking it because they can turn around and sell it the following day at a profit. There is no guarantee that anyone ever would buy

Studs Terkel Don't you have now--isn't there a danger now that you are rather celebrated in a number of quarters, that there are collectors and dealers who are just do precisely that with your drawings?

J.S.G. Boggs No, because I don't sell my drawings. I only spend my drawings. If you came to me, Studs, and you said, "Boggs! Boggs! Sell me a drawing of a 20 dollar bill exactly the same size as a real 20 dollar bill." I would have to say, "Sorry, Studs. I don't sell them. I just spend them." Now, maybe one day you'll be sitting someplace and I'll say, "Would you sell me this?" And if you decide to do that, fine. But I don't sell them.

Studs Terkel Maybe I could follow you--

J.S.G. Boggs [Laughing]

Studs Terkel Go with you to a restaurant and use a little tape recorder to have it there, just listen. That would be incredible. The comments of the people there, what would they be?

J.S.G. Boggs I'd love to try to take you out for lunch!

Studs Terkel Now we have J.S.G. Boggs and we have to come to the case. So you're in England and the barman at the pub took your 5 pound note and gave you change. He's gonna value that as the waitress in Chicago is gonna value it, quite obviously. And then--how'd you get in trouble? Then something happened. It was an exhibition?

J.S.G. Boggs Yes. Well actually, there was something that happened in between. I was invited to go to Switzerland, to Basel in Switzerland by a dealer named Rudy Domingo who has a couple of galleries there. And I had no money so he bought me a ticket to get there. When I got there to Basel in Switzerland, the minute I arrived I did a drawing of a 100 Swiss franc note, which is about 60 dollars. We went to a restaurant--Rudy intended to pay. There were eight of us artists in this little artist restaurant. I offered it to the waitress. Bang! She couldn't even speak English and she took it. We went to a disco afterwards, the Totentanz. I offered it to the guy at the bar, [snapping] bang! A hundred franc note. He took it. I went home. I drew all night long. I went out the following day. I went--I bought clothes, I bought cigarettes, I bought food. I jumped into a taxi and I waved this thing at the guy and said, "You know, I am an artist, Kunstler. This is Kunst. I need a ride." He couldn't speak English, but he said yes. He said, "Yeah!" Off we went and I found it. It was just a matter of days! I was spending so many drawings. I was spending so many drawings and people were giving me back the change to such a degree, I had more money in my little satchel than I'd ever had my life!

Studs Terkel Why Switzerland? Why'd this happen in Switzerland?

J.S.G. Boggs They have an amazing understanding of money, of value, and of art. When a Swiss person who have--they have a reputation for being shrewd about money and they are.

Studs Terkel When you say "Swiss", we think of Switzerland and all those secret bank accounts.

J.S.G. Boggs Yes.

Studs Terkel The Swiss bank accounts of mobsters, of CIA guys, of Ollie North guys. Swiss bank accounts of Marcos, and so Swiss bank accounts. And so the Swiss because money is associated with them and depositing. For some reason, they also have a sense of value about something beyond money.

J.S.G. Boggs Yes they have a very--they also have a very good arts background, you see. And when they--when these people looked at the drawings, they instinctively said, "This drawing is at least or more valuable than the real money that I would take in a normal circumstance." And so many of them did that. I moved into a five star hotel!

Studs Terkel [Laughing]

J.S.G. Boggs I was living in a five star hotel. It was incredible. It was absolutely incredible.

Studs Terkel [Laughing] So the artist is triumphant at this moment over a Mammen. And so now--

J.S.G. Boggs And so then I go back to England.

Studs Terkel Ah, oh meet--wait, now come back to--

J.S.G. Boggs Yeah,

Studs Terkel And Domingo--then Rudy had a gallery exhibition of your stuff in Basel.

J.S.G. Boggs Yes, yes.

Studs Terkel And now you go back to England, okay.

J.S.G. Boggs I went back to England, and at this point there was a certain amount of people beginning to know about my work and beginning to digest it. And I was having a show at the Young Unknowns Gallery in England, entirely appropriate. And I had read an article in "The Daily Telegraph" about a recent spending spree that I had done and it had a little note on the bottom which said what I do may be illegal because it was reproduction. Well I knew my work wasn't reproduction and I knew that my work wasn't dangerous. So I automatically wrote to the Bank of England and I forthwith got a letter back saying, "You will cease and desist immediately." I wrote back to them again explaining my work and enclosing slides of my work because the first time I'd only described it and closed the article. They sent back another letter! I sent back a third letter saying I'm having this exhibition, you know. It's already scheduled. The work is going to hang this coming Friday. You know, you can't do this to me! It's crazy! They said if you do this show, you will be arrested. I did--I thought, you know, this is not real. When I hang the show, they're going to come down and look at the work and they're going to say, "Wait a minute, this is not crime. This is art." And that will be the end of it. But that's not what happened. Three policemen, three Scotland Yard detectives, came into the gallery. They took the work down off the wall and they arrested me and they took me to jail. I called my solicitor, Mark Stephens. Runs a great firm called Stephens Innocent.

Studs Terkel Stephens Innocent?

J.S.G. Boggs Stephens Innocent.

Studs Terkel [Laughing]

J.S.G. Boggs And when I do use a name other than J.S.G. Boggs, my friends all call me Boggs, but my mother calls me Steven.

Studs Terkel Yeah.

J.S.G. Boggs You can call me--you can call me anything you like.

Studs Terkel [Laughing]

J.S.G. Boggs So I called Mark and I said, "Mark, I don't believe this! I'm in jail. I'm in jail!" He said, "Don't worry." This is in the middle--it took a few hours to get to him, it was the middle of the evening. He came right down. We talked to the police for a few hours at which point the police, the actual inspectors of Scotland Yard, decided that it was art and that they would drop it. But the Bank of England said, "No. We are going to prosecute you under four counts of counterfeiting, each one carrying with it a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison." And--

Studs Terkel So you saw yourself [laughing] spending 40 years in the pokey.

J.S.G. Boggs Yes, but I mean, as far--nobody wants to go to jail. But, I mean, the work is important. And it's near to my heart and I can't stop doing the work.

Studs Terkel Now Scotland Yard said this is--it's not counterfeit, it's not really--this is art, this is a guy--but the Bank of England said it's it.

J.S.G. Boggs That's it.

Studs Terkel So--

J.S.G. Boggs So we wound up going to the Old Bailey, the most famous and celebrated courtroom in England, and we wound up in courtroom number one.

Studs Terkel That's where Jack the Ripper was tried.

J.S.G. Boggs Absolutely. And the IRA terrorists and the Acid Bath Murderers and I sat in that chair and I can tell you it was absolutely frightening. It was

Studs Terkel So you were scared.

J.S.G. Boggs Absolutely. And going into jail is not something--I'm crazy, I know I'm crazy! But I'm not crazy enough to like that. I'm not crazy enough to want to sit in jail.

Studs Terkel So there was a prosecutor. There was the--whoever the King's Court Counsel

J.S.G. Boggs The Queen's Counsel representing the Bank of England on prosecution and my barrister, Geoffrey Robertson who, thank God, is one of the greatest

Studs Terkel Now, Geoffrey Robertson described as very close to Rumpole,

J.S.G. Boggs Rumpole [unintelligible].

Studs Terkel John Mortimer in doing Rumpole, doing himself but also Geoffrey Robertson.

J.S.G. Boggs In fact, Rumpole was going to--was considering coming out--

Studs Terkel John Mortimer himself.

J.S.G. Boggs John Mortimer was going to come out of retirement to represent the case, but at the end he said, "Geoffrey Robertson will be able

Studs Terkel Now the judge is there with his wig and everything?

J.S.G. Boggs All the--

Studs Terkel All that.

J.S.G. Boggs All the little

Studs Terkel So here's the, so now--

J.S.G. Boggs They have them coiffed and powdered and--

Studs Terkel Now we're gonna come to the trial. The case for the prosecution and the defense. And now we come to what art and money and law are all about. And they're all just telescoped onto this case and the ultimate verdict. [pause in recording] J.S.G. Boggs, here's the case. You're the defendant. Alright now, what is the case for the prosecution to send you up for maybe 40 years?

J.S.G. Boggs The case for the prosecution is that on at least four counts of which they have evidence for, I have reproduced British currency. And that is an illegal act without the prior written permission of the Bank of England. Geoffrey Robertson pointed out to the jury and the judge--the judge, by the way, would have made a great noose tyer in the Wild West. Geoffrey pointed out to them that it wasn't reproduction, that it was, in fact, an original work of art. And by its very nature, a reproduction cannot be an original and vice versa. So then it was really down to the jury to try to decide whether it--whether my work constituted reproduction or original work of fine art. And in this presentation, Geoffrey quite rightly pointed out that the rules that the Bank of England had set up made artistic investigation into this area impossible. This has been going on for years. I am not the first artist to make drawings and paintings of money.

Studs Terkel So now, not--if we could just extend it. Robertson was in great form. Your lawyer, your counsel says, "The Mona Lisa is not a reproduction of an Italian woman. There is an Italian woman. Van Gogh did not reproduce sunflowers. He did have sunflowers. That is his image of them. To be sure, Boggs is not an artist of that caliber, but look at the drawings. They are not reproductions, but artist's impressions, objects of contemplation." And it's the objects of contemplation which that barman at that pub and that Chicago waitress carry around in their pocket. And when the Haitian vendor, street vendor, "I got this idea in my pocket." He's got your contemplation in his pocket. So that's what his defense is. And he points out a Renaissance painting, was it the da Vinci of Christ and the money changes?

J.S.G. Boggs Christ and the money changes. What

Studs Terkel What was that now? Was that a reprod--not reproduction, gee, I better watch my step. Was there a version of some money in that da Vinci?

J.S.G. Boggs Yes. And the thing is is that if under the rules that had been written, which did not apply to me and never should have been applied to me or any other artist ever, anywhere ever, da Vinci would have had to have written a proposal to the bank with prior sketches leaving the spaces blank where the money would be. Then he would have had to present this in triplicate.

Studs Terkel [Laughing]

J.S.G. Boggs And then if he did get permission, if he did get permission, after the painting was complete, he would have to destroy all the tools and materials used in making the painting. So he would have to burn and break all of his brushes, throw his tubes of paint into the fireplace. This is crazy. It's absolutely crazy. The French in the 12th century were doing tromp l'oeil paintings of money. In 1886, the American artist George--sorry, Michael Harnett, was arrested in New York for four counts of counterfeiting because he made tromp l'oeil paintings of money. Michael Harnett was a very dignified man and he agreed to stop and no prosecution took place. But there were other artists who were doing this like John Haberle and Peto. But John Haberle said, "I will not stop painting money." And the Secret Service went to him and they said, "If you don't stop painting money, we are going to arrest you and confiscate the--all of the items in your studio." He had tremendous trouble then exhibiting his works because the gallery owners--

Studs Terkel They were

J.S.G. Boggs scared. Were afraid of the consequences. So you know where he showed the work? The Art Institute of Chicago.

Studs Terkel Oh really?

J.S.G. Boggs And when he showed the work, the newspapermen of the day wrote, "This painting is a fraud. This is not a real painting of a 5 dollar bill. It is, in fact, a 5 dollar bill glued to the painting." Actually, I think it was a one dollar bill, excuse me. They said it was actual one dollar bill glued to the canvas. Well, they were called in for an inspection and it was proved to be a painting. And the reporters had to give a public apology because when Haberle was presented with this problem, he decided to prove the point once and for all that when you make a painting no matter how realistic or how accurate, it is not a counterfeit. It is not a reproduction. It's a work of art. And fortunately it was the Art Institute of Chicago who actually had the wherewithal and the belief to present his work.

Studs Terkel And so Chicago came through twice with Haberle as well as with that waitress in that diner. And now we come to the trump card of your lawyer, of your counsel, Roberston. He says, "If this is a reproduction, why is the reproduction worth more to people, to those who would value it? Artists, critics, and others over those who want to take it in return for other things and give more. Why is it worth more than the original? Who ever had a reproduction worth more than the original if it isn't a work of art?" Wasn't that what did it?

J.S.G. Boggs I think that had a great deal to do with it. The jury had 4 days, 4 very

Studs Terkel Wait, now the judge's instructions were all anti-you. They were

J.S.G. Boggs hanging-- The

Studs Terkel It was a hanging

J.S.G. Boggs He instructed the jury from day one that there was going to be nothing other than a guilty verdict. And before they went out, he instructed them to return with a guilty verdict. But the jury had 4 days of looking at the work, of thinking about the work. And finally they came back in. And the prosecution said, "This man has distributed over 700 drawings of money, which could fall into dangerous hands." "Not true. Dangerous hands are going to pick up money itself, not a work of art of representing money." He said, "These have been spent with people in cafes. People that work for airlines, British Airways was taking them. It's dangerous!" But the jury very clearly saw the importance of the work and the innocence of the work and actually went away and said, "You know, this work is important and it's not crime."

Studs Terkel And you were not guilty, you were acquitted.

J.S.G. Boggs I was not guilty.

Studs Terkel Now who were the members? What kind of people were members of the jury?

J.S.G. Boggs They ranged from very young to very mature, from looking very left wing to very right wing. And the one fellow who was quite amazing, the first day he appeared in sort of camping gear and he looked like a revolutionary student. But as the days progressed, his appearance became neater and more right wing until--

Studs Terkel [Laughing]

J.S.G. Boggs The last day he was reading a book about merchant banking and he was dressed in a three piece suit and we thought that's it. This guy is just--he's--it's going to be guilty verdict. And it turned out he was elected the foreman of the jury. They were out for 10 minutes and came back with a not guilty verdict on all counts.

Studs Terkel So art triumphant.

J.S.G. Boggs And it should.

Studs Terkel So this is partly the story.

J.S.G. Boggs But it wasn't only art that triumphed. It was also justice. It was also the way in which the free world is allowed to operate in seeking out justice and working out these problems. And it was also, I think, a very big victory for the person. The bank kept saying, the Bank of England kept saying, "This is dangerous. The person on the street will be made a fool of or will be frauded, ripped off." But they didn't understand human capacity to understand, to see, you know.

Studs Terkel If I could be--if I could romanticize, [we're in danger and don't mean to?] that the human capacity to appreciate beauty.

J.S.G. Boggs Sure.

Studs Terkel That's what you're talking about. There is that capacity, provided it has the opportunity.

J.S.G. Boggs Yes. And that's also another aspect of the work. There are so many people who haven't the time or the opportunity to go into a gallery or a museum. But still if you don't give them the opportunity to have an exposure to art, it's wrong. And some people don't think about it until they're presented with it, and then once presented with it, if they have the time to think about it, it does enrich their life. It does make them understand the world a little bit more, themselves a little bit more, and just, you know, the mere thing of looking at something and seeing blues or reds or curly cues or cylinders or thinking about the way this thing works. These numbers, how--look at the way life is today. There's a lot of things going crazy, but at the same time we've made tremendous progress in many areas and you must say that we've got to be doing something right. And I just--I don't want to believe and I can't believe that as stupid and as primitive as we are as human beings, I can't believe that we're going to be so stupid to end this world. I do believe that ultimately we're going to be able to bridge all these terrible gaps that we have to face right now and accept that the Russians and the Chinese are people too. The Africans and the French and whatever culture you want to name, we're all people we can work this out, you know.

Studs Terkel And you're talking about that jury's acquittal, I always come back. That jury of ordinary people in London, ordinary so-called, acquitting you despite the judge's instructions. The waitress at the diner, the barman in the London pub, you add them all up, the Swiss cab driver. You add them all up and you've got that sense of wonder and appreciation if given the chance. And for this we thank J.S.G. Boggs because the subject of money is involved. We can go on for hours, I know. And I may just follow you around the restaurant and see what happens as you have

J.S.G. Boggs You do that. You know, I just want to add in that the element of fun and the element of humor, there is a place in fine art for that.

Studs Terkel That's

J.S.G. Boggs And we're gonna have some fun in Chicago.

Studs Terkel Alright.

J.S.G. Boggs Right now I'm gonna go out and I'm gonna try to find the best restaurant and the best hotel--

Studs Terkel [Laughing]

J.S.G. Boggs And see what we can do here in Chicago!

Studs Terkel J.S.G. Boggs. Boggs, or as your mother would say, Steven.

J.S.G. Boggs Thanks,

Studs Terkel Thank you very much.

J.S.G. Boggs Thank you, Studs.