• Three Minutes

The Man who printed his own Money

What if I tell you that money is simply an art? A beautiful mix of colours and symbolic representations, on a piece of crisp paper. That there is absolutely no need for those colossal banks who lend money for our use. Well, I am not trying to sound confusing or jittery. I am just trying to set the premise for a story quite interesting and puzzling.

The story of a man, who painted and used his own money!

James Stephen George Boggs, or J.S.G. Boggs, was a well renowned American artist, born in 1955 in Woodbury, New Jersey. Known for his tasteful craftsmanship and avant-garde art, Mr Boggs also viewed art as something more notorious and ingenious- to print money! In 1984, sitting at a Chicago diner, he simply doodled a one-dollar bill nonchalantly, while sipping his coffee and eating doughnuts. The waitress, who was attending to him, was watching the whole episode from a distance. Impressed, she offered to buy the note as a souvenir of artistic excellence. But Boggs wasn’t willing to sell it. Instead, he offered it as a payment for his 90 cents of spending. Surprisingly, not only did the waitress accept the drawing as “money” but also offered ten real cents in return!

This was the start of an idea. An idea to make your own money, literally. Boggs started drawing intricate hundred dollar bills, with an intention to spend them like real money to buy goods and services. The finesse of his design was so supreme that, to the naked eye, it could easily pass by as a real hundred dollar bill. His currency drawings were only one-sided, leaving the other side blank for writing transaction details. He mostly dealt with merchants and dealers having goods and services valued at exactly a hundred dollars. If not so, he would accept change.

After every payment, he asked for a receipt, which he later sold to art collectors and connoisseurs. For a fee, he even helped the collectors track the merchants using the receipts, and negotiate with them to sell the “artistic mastery” he had provided them as currency. The merchants sold them at a face value even higher than the actual, and the collectors would happily agree to pay, for this art of replicating real money to a tee attracted attention like none. Such was the charm of the “counterfeit” notes!

Boggs also took some creative deviations to depict his currency, which came to be known as the “Boggs notes”. For instance, he would draw his own face in place of the president’s face, as is the custom in American dollar bills. Some of the hundred dollar bills included Shakespearean art. They even featured Harriet Tubman, an American political activist, as the face of the note instead of an American president. There were depictions of the White House, The U.S. Supreme Court building, and creative acronyms, with a touch of the “Boggs” magic. He never sold his art directly at the art market, he always chose to spend it as real money. He even bought fancy bikes, houses and personal belongings using them.

All of it looks like a smooth execution of candid fakery. For law enforcement agencies of the USA and European countries, it indeed was. With Boggs’ territory having expanded beyond the American dollars to Swiss francs, British pounds and euros, they regarded his actions as pure deceit. But Boggs viewed it as a “performing art”, and questioned their sanity of not being able to differentiate between art and crime. Nonetheless, he was busted by the police numerous times. He was first arrested in 1986 in England for counterfeiting. Subsequent arrests happened in Australia, USA, and many other countries, spanning decades, but he was always acquitted or did not appear for court hearings at all.

After having led a life full of adventure and attention, Boggs died on January 22, 2017, in Tampa, Florida. Lawrence Weschler, an acclaimed writer of the book “Boggs- a Comedy of Values”, has correctly summed up his whole life-

“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.”

- The New York Times

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