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A Tough Way to Make a Buck on Rodeo Drive

December 16, 1987|PAUL DEAN | Times Staff Writer

In Basle, artist Boggs paid for a stay at the elegant Hotel () Euler with his drawings of Swiss francs.

In London, his soft pencilled pounds have been accepted in lieu of hard cash for rent on his Hampstead apartment, endless cabs to local pubs and countless beers when he got there.

In New York and Chicago, hand-drawn Boggs' bucks have been almost as good as gold-plated. Taxi drivers and waitresses have accepted them. They were willing to bet that his homemade money was indeed art and in time would become more valuable than the cost of their fare or a pair of doughnuts.

A Paper Trail to L.A.

In three years, Boggs claims, he has bartered 700 drawings of various currencies in several world capitals for goods and services worth $35,000.

This week, Boggs brought his paper trail to Los Angeles.

He'd have done better with a tin cup and Monopoly money.

Boggs ("It's James Stephen George . . . but artists being the way they are, just call me Boggs") tried 30 cabs at LAX ("everyone said ' no hablo Ingles ' ") before one driver reluctantly risked a ride against a $50 bill drawn in green ink.

The Wilshire Royale Hotel held out for cash and cut off his phone Monday when the room bill touched $139. And Boggs' Christmas got off to an unjolly start on Rodeo Drive when his barters were turned down by half a dozen stores.

All of which has left him pondering the artistic worth of his latest lolly (the lifesize backside of a $100 bill with "The United States of Boggs" lettered over Independence Hall) and this den of Philistines called Beverly Hills.

"I have never run into such a level of rejection," he said. Boggs is genuinely confused, hurt, almost insulted by three hours of refusals by Gucci, Bally, Cecil Gee, Benetta, Optica, Hammacher Schlemmer & Co. and Mary Miller, a hostess at Cafe Rodeo. "Even in very expensive places in New York and London they'll listen. But these (Rodeo Drive) people won't even get into a dialogue.

"Normally, I get into long conversations about what is art and what is not art? What is the difference between a painting and a print? How would you judge the value of this drawing?

"Here, they've closed their minds completely. Do you know what's worse? Not one of these people has said they're sorry. Just get out. Now. Outta here. You saw Mary. She had her hand on my elbow and was practically pushing me out."

Europe will be stunned.

For on that continent where disheveled Bohemianism is inveterate, so is Boggs, the archetypal American in Paris, Brussels and Amsterdam.

Veteran of Countless Exhibitions

He's handled by a gallery in Switzerland (Galerie Demenga that brought Boggs to Los Angeles for the recent International Contemporary Art Fair) and is a veteran of countless exhibitions in London where he lives.

The root of his artistic evolution is world money because money is "a real work of art . . . pictures and images on paper, a bizarre combination of abstract art, geometric art, landscape art, calligraphy and representational art."

Then why not frame a genuine sawbuck before spending $3,000 (Galerie Demenga's current listing) for a $100 bill by Boggs?

"Because mine is a different work of art . . . a work that asks people to see and appreciate the art on real money and accept the difference between a printed object and a real drawing."

It was his pursuit of that precise shading that engendered Boggs' emergence as Europe's enfant terrible of money art when the Bank of England failed to appreciate the difference between his art and their money.

Last year, Boggs was arrested by Scotland Yard detectives on four counts of "unauthorized reproduction" of bank notes under the Crown's Forgery and Counterfeiting Act.

As nonconformists and culturists have done since Socrates, Boggs chose trial by jury. The bank, stormed Boggs in newspaper and television interviews at the time of his preliminary hearing, is "a threat to the freedom of artistic expression . . . it's like having the KGB on your butt."

Rallying to His Cause

Britain's artistic community, sniffing yet another glorious storming of government censorship of the arts, lined up behind Boggs.

He went to trial last month and the defense was simple: When Renoir painted a nude, he didn't reproduce a woman. When Boggs painted British money, he hadn't reproduced a pound note.

The testimony was direct: A piece of money may represent little more than the value of a tomato in the Gross National Product. But a drawing of that piece of money, testified Boggs, carries the value "of human ideas, feelings, life experience, discovery, cultural differences . . . "

The Old Bailey jury deliberated only 10 minutes, barely time to clear its throat, before finding Boggs not guilty on all counts. The dismissal circumvented yet another potential cause celebre. Had Boggs been convicted and fined, he said, he would have paid that fine with home-brewed money.

As it was, he did pay his lawyers in drawings.

Monetary Value

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