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A Tough Way to Make a Buck on Rodeo Drive

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.

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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.

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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?

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“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

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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.”

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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

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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.

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

Monetary Value

With his defeat of the almighty (since 1694) Bank of England, Boggs is free to ply his philosophy and its means. He never forces his drawings on people. He will not sell them. But he will spend them “asking people to consider its artistic worth, its monetary value, not its numerical value.

“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?

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“Most of the people, about 60% of them, say yes.”

Incidentally--and wisely--he’s always covered by sufficient hidden cash, ready in case the bartender or cabbie turns out to be a patron of only the martial arts.

And so nomadic Boggs--tied by education and family to New Jersey, Florida and California--came to Los Angeles last week to exhibit at the Convention Center and ART/LA ’87.

He also was willing to respond to a friendly challenge: To spend up or shut up on a Sunday shopping trip along Rodeo Drive.

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Done, Boggs said. His ammunition was a fresh but one-sided $100 bill. “Although a lot of people I’ve spoken to,” he said, “figure I’m not going to find much on Rodeo Drive for under $100.”

True. At Optica, where a pair of Cartier sunglasses costs $539, the only pair within Boggs’ price range were on sale.

Boggs took out his $100 bill. He wound up and pitched: “My name is Boggs and I’m an artist. Now, I’d like to buy these sunglasses and pay for them with my drawing of a $100 bill. This is not a printed reproduction, it is a drawing . . . “

Said assistant manager Jim Stradt: “No way. Say goodby.”

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Later, after being told the full situation, Stradt said: “Look, I’m tired of these people coming in here with some deal, wanting a discount, wanting to trade in their old glasses. I’ll have two more people come in today. Just like him. Nuts. But I’ll have to be nice to them because they are real customers.

“He’s not a real customer. So I can afford to tell him to go to hell.”

At Gucci, Boggs zeroed in on a tie. A salesman zeroed in on a telephone leading to a supervisor: “We’ve a strange situation on the floor here . . . “

Boggs left.

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He ducked into Hammacher Schlemmer & Co. and selected a $59.95 set of bathroom scales. The manager ducked away from Boggs. “I’ll have to think about it. Today’s not a good day for me. OK?”

At Cecil Gee, a salesman would not rise to Boggs’ bait about the artistic value of his bill: “It doesn’t matter what I think because it’s not my decision. We just don’t deal on this level.”

At Benetta, where Boggs liked a shirt: “We are only allowed to deal in cash. But have a good day.”

At the Cafe Rodeo: “C’mon. Out. Try Westwood. Or Melrose.”

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It was agreed, by Boggs, that Westwood, with its UCLA student traffic, with its known sympathy for the unusual and the crafts artisan, just might be fertile land.

He picked Johnny Rocket’s, a hamburger restaurant for an ‘80s crowd amid a ‘50s theme. Boggs was ready for a No. 12 cheeseburger with fries and a chocolate shake. Manager Tony De Francesco was not ready for any financial exchange that that did not involve the Presidents Washington, Lincoln, Hamilton or Jackson.

De Francesco: “I just can’t do it today because it is Sunday. I’d have to check this through the corporate office and they’re closed today.”

Boggs: “But let me ask you one question. Do you think this drawing is worth $100?”

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De Francesco: “Um . . . er . . . No.”

Boggs: “Why not?”

De Francesco: “Because I can’t send that to the bank. I have to do that with everything that comes here. And the bank is going to say this isn’t $100.”

Boggs: “But wouldn’t you buy this drawing for $100?”

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De Francesco: “I don’t make that much money.”

Boggs remains baffled, but not beaten and will keep on ticking despite his licking in Los Angeles.

Maybe, he suggested, the success of his system in Europe is due to that continent’s exposure to two milleniums, not just two centuries, of art and artists’ ways. New York may respond more generously than Los Angeles, he said, because it is a city generally in search of wholesale bargains, trades and quick deals.

“I think that probably Los Angeles’ stores get a certain amount of weird people and they (sales help) automatically put me in that category of a nut,” he said.

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Today Boggs is leaving Los Angeles with plans for fresh commerce in another city. Friends aren’t sure he has picked the safest arenas for his personal currency: the casinos and crap tables of Las Vegas.

Yet should his bills be accepted in Nevada, Boggs will maintain a careful tally. Each exchange must be reported to his Swiss gallery by date, amount, location and form of transaction. It is essential to the integrity and value of the art work.

For Boggs, once accused of dealing in counterfeit money, is now having to deal with other artists counterfeiting his work.

“You got it,” he said. “There are phony Boggs’ bills on the market . . . “

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