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Money Is the Root of Painter's Art : Boggs 'Spends' Drawings; Bank of England's Not Amused

February 18, 1987|PAUL DEAN | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — Boggs lives the disheveled sufferings of the unknown, searching artist. His unmade downstairs flat is turn-of-the-century; all unplugged drafts, dirty dishes and frat house rummage with an unspoken apology for no place to sit.

Boggs ("It's James Stephen George . . . but artists being the way they are just call me Boggs") is a throwback American Bohemian in London, a nomadic painter with a Panama hat, one change of baggy sweater and no interest in fumbling for checks. He has a smoker's cough, a pierced left ear crowded with gold rings, passe long hair and life savings that amount to loose change.

Conversely, even perversely, Boggs enjoys an endless supply of money.

Because he sketches cash. On paper, tablecloths and coasters. Then he spends his drawings. On cab fares, airline tickets and five-star hotels.

Boggs is given change in coins of the realm or republic. Which he then spends on the meager necessities of artistic dolor and the materiel to create more money.

And there's absolutely no catch.

"I simply offer the drawing and ask people to consider its artistic worth, its monetary value, not its numerical value," he explained. "Is this drawing of a 20 note worth more, as a piece of art, than a real 20 note or a meal of pasta and chicken? Or the cost of a cab ride or a round of drinks?

"Most of the people, about 60% of them, say yes. It might take a while, but they say yes and accept the drawing. So I'm an artist engaging in a form of barter.

Spending, Not Selling

"I never force the drawings on people and I don't sell them. I spend them."

And he's always covered by sufficient hidden ready in case the bartender or cabbie turns out to be a Philistine. Or a former bouncer. Or a votary of fine art.

There are 250 home-brewed bills in circulation, Boggs said. Penciled pounds. Line-drawn lire. Boggs bucks. Freehand francs. They have paid, he claims, for British Airways tickets to London, a room at the elegant Hotel Euler in Basle, dinner at Le Routier in Camden Lock, four shirts, room rent, countless beers, endless coffees, numerous bottles of wine and, once, a $600 cab ride.

Boggs--connected by birth, schooling and family to New Jersey, Florida and California--will move his studio-digs to Los Angeles this year. He plans to visit relatives in Santa Barbara, tap the cultural energies of Southern California--and see how many enchiladas can be bought with a homemade sawbuck.

It would appear that Boggs' money worries are over. Not quite.

For the Bank of England, that jealous monopolist of money making and zealous protector of Britain's wealth since 1694, doesn't take kindly to competition.

The bank has complained to the bobbies. Scotland Yard raided Boggs' flat and his exhibit at the Young Unknowns Gallery. Four dozen pieces of work were seized as evidence and Boggs spent a night in the clink.

And last month, Boggs was called before the august Horseferry Road Magistrates' Court on four counts filed under the crown's 1981 Forgery and Counterfeiting Act. As nonconformists and culturists have done since Socrates, the artist chose trial by jury. The case, with no limit on the fines that could be imposed, is pending.

The bank is represented by Robert Harman, QC. That suffix stands for Queen's Counsel and identifies Harman as a barrister nominated by the lord chancellor to serve the Crown.

Boggs is represented by Mark Stephens, a partner in a London firm specializing in the infant field of fine-arts law.

In court and in interviews and in the newspapers of Fleet Street, Boggs has stormed magnificently and traditionally against the bank: "They are a threat to freedom of artistic expression . . . it's like having the KGB on your butt . . . I'm the test case, the example and they (Bank of England) think that if they convict me, any other artists thinking of drawing money will hear the warning to stop . . . had they looked they would have seen it (drawn money) is art, not counterfeit money."

But the bank's action, spokesman Nigel Falls sniffed, should not be seen in such exaggerated terms. Boggs is not considered a master forger caught cranking out bills on a basement printing press. The sole yet far from capricious issue, Falls said, is one of "unauthorized reproduction" of bank notes.

Section 18 of the act, he continued, is the bank's shield against any reproduction of bank notes, in advertising, in financial promotions, that could make things easy for criminal engravers and printers. Written permission is mandatory for any reproduction.

"Mr. Boggs applied for permission," Falls said. "We did not give him permission. So there is an existing act which we are enforcing and beyond that, as the matter is sub judice , we do not wish to comment."

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