Supreme Court turns away dollar-bill art case

Wednesday, October 6, 1999

Artist J.S.G. B...
Artist J.S.G. Boggs, shown at a New York gallery in 1987, displays his realistic drawing of a $20 bill, which he bartered for a shipment of lobsters.

The buck — actually an artistic facsimile thereof — stops at the U.S. Supreme Court.

On Oct. 4, the court without comment turned away an appeal by a performance artist renowned for his realistic depictions of U.S. and international currencies. J.S.G. Boggs had sought the return of his “Boggs bills” that the Secret Service seized from his Pittsburgh studio in 1992.

Last November, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals determined that the seizure of Boggs' work did not violate the artist's First Amendment rights because it was “not inherently content-based and thus poses little risk of acting as a prior restraint on expressive materials.”

The court also noted that individuals have no property rights in regards to counterfeiting materials and, thus, Secret Service officials don't have to return the materials.

“We're obviously disappointed,” said Kent Yalowitz, a New York attorney who represents Boggs. “We thought we had a pretty good chance of the court taking on this case because it raised issues of national importance. But the Supreme Court makes its own decisions. It's a sad chapter in the history of American justice.”

Boggs first began circulating his artistic replicas of money more than 15 years ago, often exchanging his work for goods and services. While living in England, Boggs was arrested on charges of counterfeiting British currency in 1986, but was acquitted by a jury there in 1987.

According to court records, Secret Service agents raided Boggs' studio in Pittsburgh after the artist publicized “Project Pittsburgh,” a plan to spend $1 million in Boggs Bills in the Pittsburgh area, asking each recipient to pass the bill five times before taking it out of circulation.

Boggs filed a lawsuit in 1993 demanding the return of some 1,300 pieces of his work.

Press officials with the U.S. Department of Treasury referred questions about the case to the Secret Service press office, which did not return calls.

“My hope is that the courts will view this case as an abhorrent decision and will not expand it to diminish the rights of artists and others who are protected by First Amendment,” Yalowitz said. “I don't expect that government officials will view it as a precedent that will give them the green light. But only time will tell, of course.”