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Artist with Real and Fake Money, a portrait of J.S.G. Boggs by Charles O'Rear/Corbis via Getty Images
J.S.G. Boggs, photo by Charles O'Rear/Corbis via Getty Images

“It’s all an act of faith. Nobody knows what a dollar is, what the word means, what holds the thing up, what it stands in for.” —J.S.G. Boggs

J.S.G. Boggs, known to his friends simply as “Boggs,” was an American artist whose playfully realistic drawings of national banknotes catapulted him to worldwide fame.

More than just a visual artist, Boggs was a provocateur who questioned the legal and philosophical justifications for the government’s monopoly on issuing money. Though he never tried to pass off his creations as anything but artwork, he was charged with counterfeiting several times. He was never convicted by a judge or jury.

Boggs’s career as the enfant terrible currency artist started modestly enough. By his own re-telling, he was doodling a dollar bill in a Chicago diner in 1984. The waitress, drawn to the artwork — or perhaps to the charming young Boggs — requested the drawing at face value to settle his 90¢ check. She gave him 10¢ change as if the artwork were a dollar bill issued by the U.S. Treasury.

In the decades to come, Boggs traveled the world, drawing local banknotes — “Boggs Bills” — and exchanging them in what he called “Transactions.” A complete “Transaction” included the original banknote artwork, the receipt for the goods purchased, whatever change Boggs received — plus, in several instances, the item or items purchased. Typically, it was a gallery owner who (working on a tip from the artist himself) tracked down the various components and collected them into a completed transaction.

J.S.G. Boggs, U.S. $5,000 note featuring engraved self-portrait, 2001. This work is featured in laCollection's upcoming NFT drop.

Boggs Bills

Today, Boggs Bills are highly desirable collectibles, and complete Transactions have been shown at museums around the world. Boggs pieces are held in the collections of the MoMA in New York, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington D.C., the Art Institute of Chicago, the British Museum, University of Kansas and Babson College’s Sorenson Center for the Arts.

Boggs always presented his currency drawings as original artwork; their worth was determined by mutual consent during a transaction (typically, face value). His exchanges ranged from $1 japes with friends, to $20 crates of lobsters, to more significant purchases. Boggs once used five $1,000 drawings to purchase a Yamaha Virago motorcycle (and received $1.16 in change).

JSG Boggs Yamaha Virago Transaction, 1991
J.S.G. Boggs, VIRAGO, 1991, mixed media, 10 parts, size variable

The start of Boggs’s artistic success was also the beginning of his legal troubles. According to the authorities, Boggs’s currency art looked too similar to real money. The truth is, Boggs Bills functioned too much like government-issued currencies.

Authorities in Australia and the U.S. seized his artwork on more than one occasion, citing counterfeiting laws. In 1986, Boggs was arrested in London for reproducing “Her Majesty’s pound notes.” Much of this trial is covered by Lawrence Weschler’s excellent, if short, biography, Boggs: A Comedy of Values. His attorney, famed civil-rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson, was paid with artwork.

Notable Works

JSG Boggs Transaction Taxi Fare
JSG Boggs Transaction Taxi Fare
JSG Boggs Transaction, November Rent, 1991
JSG Boggs Silver Certificate #10 of 50, 1996
JSG Boggs $1 "FUN Buck," #283 of 500, 1995
JSG Boggs Transaction, "Life and Times," 1989
JSG Transaction with Treasure Cove, Valdosta, GA,1997
JSG Boggs UK 1 Pound Note, Victory Edition, 1987
JSG Boggs UK 1 Pound Note, Victory Edition, 1987
JSG Boggs UK 1 Pound Note, Victory Edition, 1987
J.S.G. Boggs, Unfinished Masterpieces, 1994, mixed media on B.E.P. souvenir card
J.S.G. Boggs, Transaction, "Taxi Fare," 1994
J.S.G. Boggs, Transaction, "November Rent," 1991
J.S.G. Boggs, Silver Certificate #10 of 50, 1996
J.S.G. Boggs, $1 "FUN Buck," #283 of 500, 1995
J.S.G. Boggs, Transaction, "Life and Times," 1989
J.S.G. Boggs, Transaction w/ Treasure Cove, Valdosta, GA, 1997
J.S.G. Boggs, “How Much Does An Idea Weigh?” etching on paper, edition of 50
J.S.G. Boggs, “Green One”, 1993 No. 7/10, 3M Monoprint
J.S.G. Boggs, $1,000 Travel Note, #S19199100I / B19101991B, 1991, mixed Media, 8.5" x 11" unframed
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Boggs’s Lost Art

Boggs was never convicted of counterfeiting in any court, yet authorities continued to confiscate his art without warning. Those works are today presumed lost in the vast warehouses where American federal agencies store seized property. It’s possible (but not known for certain) that the Secret Service long ago destroyed Boggs’s requisitioned art — the conventional fate for actual counterfeit cash.

Ultimately, Boggs’s life is more than just another story of a young artist-jester aggravating the authorities. His challenge to conventional definitions of money, art and legitimacy are carried forward in the philosophies of cryptocurrency’s early developers and pioneers. In the new culture and economy they’ve established, Boggs’s challenges endure.

For example, speaking with Lawrence Weschler for the New Yorker in 1998, Boggs said of fiat currencies: “It’s all an act of faith. Nobody knows what a dollar is, what the word means, what holds the thing up, what it stands in for.”

This was nearly a decade before the original bitcoin whitepaper was published by the pseudonymous Satoshi Nakamoto, whose own views might be similarly summarized.

The Women’s Series

J.S.G. Boggs, $1, First Female President, October 31, 1994
J.S.G. Boggs, $5, Annie Oakley Butler, October 5, 1995
J.S.G. Boggs, $10, Martha Washington, 1997
J.S.G. Boggs, $20, Josie, 1999
J.S.G. Boggs, $50, Megan E. Brown, 1999
J.S.G. Boggs, $100, Harriet Tubman, October 31, 1994
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Boggs, Digital Art Pioneer

Though famed for his physical drawings, Boggs was also an early adopter of technology. His website from the mid-1990s, jsgboggs.com, was ahead of its time and is preserved at the Wayback Machine. Many of his most important works from this era — including his prescient “Women’s Series,” see above — were composed, or at least finished, in Adobe Photoshop.

In 1988, Boggs told the New Yorker‘s Lawrence Weschler, “I’d also like to create my own unit of currency, the Bogg.” This may have led to his involvement, in the late 1990s, in efforts to create an “encrypted online currency.” It remains unclear how far the project progressed, and why it was never officially launched. But the project stands as yet another monument to Boggs’s visionary belief in the potential for decentralized digital currencies to disrupt traditional institutions and conventional ideas about art, money, beauty and value.

It is the conviction of Boggs’s friends, family and associates that, were he alive today, Boggs would be an active and no doubt mischievous presence in the emerging decentralized tech ecosystem — from cryptocurrencies to blockchain art to tokenized assets.

In the absence created by his untimely death at the age of 62, this website and work by The Boggz Project, our official digital advisor, serve as tributes to the life and legacy of J.S.G. Boggs, the Patron Saint of Cryptocurrency.