When is a fake $500 bill worth $15,000? When it’s art

Money’s worth.
Money’s worth.
Image: Numismatic Auctions LLC
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On Nov. 30 at a Comfort Inn in Okemos, Michigan, Numismatic Auctions is hoping to get $15,000 for an odd assortment of receipts, scraps of paper, a bottle cap, a Lipton tea bag wrapper, and two US dollar bills. Lot number 624P is called October Rent ($500), a framed mixed-media assemblage, (if you can call it that) is a work by the notorious American artist James Stephen George Boggs.

The eccentric 60-year-old New Jersey native is best known for creating near replicas of paper currency by hand, called “Boggs Bills.”

J.S.G. Boggs never sells the drawings directly to galleries or collectors but instead attempts to spend the bills in everyday transactions—even asking for change in real money. What Boggs offers to collectors are the paper receipts—or the paper trail—from the transaction to assist them to locate the person or establishment from whom they can offer to buy Boggs’ exceptional paper bills.

The item for sale on Monday constitutes what the sellers are describing as a rare “complete transaction,” which constitutes not only the “Boggs Bills,” but all the documentation in the whole process to get them.

The centerpiece is a hand-drawn $500 Boggs Bill featuring the portrait of William McKinley—as in the real bill—except Boggs changed “McKinley” to say “Willie” and a few other personal touches. A receipt from a landlord indicates that he accepted the drawing as rent payment when Boggs was living in a brewhouse in 1991.

To many in the art world willing to pay six figures for his work, Boggs is a master draftsman and a philosopher. Bogg’s oeuvre—or modus operandi, depending on how you look at it—calls to question the value we ascribe to paper money. With every Boggs transaction offering “art” for goods, he presents a tailspin between ”worth and value,” as Lawrence Weschler described in a dazzling two-part profile (paywall) on Boggs in the New Yorker in 1988.

But for others, including Scotland Yard and the US Secret Service, he is a relentless counterfeiter, a conman, and rabble-rouser. Boggs was arrested in the UK in 1986, after drawing a replica of the British pound for an art exhibition.

He was later acquitted but the Bank of England has taken to include a copyright note on the face of banknotes as a direct result of the Boggs case.