By Mark Swartz

We all know the phrase In God We Trust, but most of us never give it much thought, just as we reflexively say “God bless you” to somebody who sneezes, even if we’re devout atheists. J.S.G. Boggs thinks about In God We Trust more than most people, because he’s seen how the idea of money is protected with a quasi-religious fervor.

For 15 years, Boggs has asked people to accept his deliberately unrealistic-looking homemade money. His “Boggs’s Bills” are printed on only one side and are often humorous (one series of bills bears the inscription “In Fun We Trust”). He prefaces every transaction with an acknowledgment that the bills are not legal tender. The Florida-based artist has tried this stunt all over the world. In Switzerland, he says, they almost always take him up on his offer, though in Italy they almost never do.

“Is this real money?” asks an attendant at the Navy Pier parking lot, holding an orange 50 in her hand.

“It’s real art,” Boggs replies. The bill is cheerfully rejected, so he takes out some of the green stuff. He doesn’t mind. He’s already had some successes today. Flow, the Chicago Avenue diner owned by painter Rodney Carswell, took Boggs’s Bills enthusiastically–he even got $40 back in change. Earlier at Navy Pier, during Art 1999 Chicago, the New Art Examiner accepted Boggs’s Bills as payment for a subscription. He produces plastic sleeves from his briefcase; each contains receipts and change received to document his various transactions.

Boggs says his success rate is about one in ten, but he cautions against using this as a measure of his accomplishment. Sometimes a rejection comes as part of what he’ll describe as a long and fruitful argument about the meaning of art. “There are people who say these are unsuccessful transactions, but the exchange of ideas is incredibly valuable.”

He has a forerunner in the trompe l’oeil painter William Harnett. In 1886 Harnett was arrested for painting pictures of U.S. money that were a little too realistic. The paintings were confiscated, but authorities returned them when the artist promised not to make any more.

Boggs hasn’t been as cooperative. His life in crime started in 1984, when he was in Chicago for Art Expo. “I got lost,” he says. “I wish I could remember where that coffee shop was.” He was doodling on a napkin when a waitress came by and assumed it was a dollar bill. She quickly discovered her error, but her admiration for his work was so great that she not only accepted the sketch as payment for the 90-cent tab, but insisted on giving him a dime change.

“I became fixated on that dime,” says Boggs, now sitting at a table outside the Pontiac on Damen, where a waitress named Katie refuses his funny money.

“They’re pretty,” she says, “but I don’t have any use for them.”

Boggs tries to engage her in a discussion. “Are those art?” he asks, gesturing to her tattoos.

“They’re plagiarism,” Katie replies, before walking away to find the owner, Angela, who also rejects Boggs’s Bills. He eventually resorts to genuine plastic.

In 1986, Boggs was arrested in England and charged with counterfeiting, but he was acquitted by a jury after a five-day trial. A case brought against him in Australia also ended favorably.

Boggs has never been arrested in the United States, but he says he’s nevertheless been subjected to a steady program of harassment by federal authorities. “The U.S. Secret Service has two functions,” Boggs states. “To keep politicians from getting assassinated and to defend currency against counterfeiting.” Its agents take both missions equally seriously. “One of them actually told me that what I did was sacrilegious. I looked at him and I couldn’t even speak.”

His studio has been raided by the Secret Service three times–in 1990, 1991, and 1992. He says agents confiscated more than 1,300 paintings, drawings, and prints, determining 800 of them to be illegal. He sued the government in 1993, seeking the return of artwork and protection from future prosecution. U.S. District Court judge Royce Lamberth threw out the lawsuit, and a federal appeals court upheld the dismissal. For Boggs, the case has yet to be resolved. “They’ve said my work is like drugs. Judge Royce Lamberth compared it to kiddie porn and on that basis ruled against a jury trial.”

He says his legal fees are approaching a million dollars, and he’s certain the government has spent five times that amount. “I know of no instance where anybody has used the bills for fraudulent purposes,” he insists. This month his attorney, Kent A. Yalowitz from the firm of Arnold & Porter, filed a petition for a writ of certiorari with the Supreme Court–basically requesting that the matter be settled once and for all and that the confiscated materials be returned.

With every new chapter in this legal drama, Boggs’s renown has grown. He also sells his art, and just before coming to town he exhibited along with more than a hundred other money artists in Portland, Oregon, in a show titled “Seeing Money: A Unique Art Event of Uncommon Currency.” He says some have even taken to counterfeiting his work. The University of Chicago Press has just published Boggs: A Comedy of Values by New Yorker writer Lawrence Weschler. Weschler wrote about Boggs in 1988, in a collection of essays titled Shapinsky’s Karma, Boggs’s Bills, and Other True-Life Tales. Artist and author will appear together at the School of the Art Institute on June 9. The cover of the new book shows a portrait of Boggs by master engraver and U.S. Federal Reserve employee Thomas Raymond Hipschen.

Boggs says he’s beyond tired of the ordeal: “If the government wasn’t holding me hostage I would have moved on by now.” He never intended to be known solely as the creator of Boggs’s Bills. “In fact, I’ve been making abstract work all along,” he discloses. “But nobody’s interested. They all want the money.

“One collector has told me that he’ll redeem as many of these as I want for half-ounce gold coins worth a hundred dollars and change. There’s a five-year waiting list for my work, most of that in Europe.”

He appears somewhat baffled by the attention, both negative and positive. “This is going to sound perverse,” Boggs says, “but the money isn’t that important to me.”