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Better Mutes

Collected by Harley Spiller AKA Inspector Collector

A cousin and I once bet on who would end up taller. Then I remembered his father was 6’6”. Realizing I’d probably lose, I started collecting mutilated money to needle him a little at payoff time. People generally prefer crisp banknotes and shiny coins. Cashiers gladly part with bedraggled bucks, bankers call messy money “mutes”, and the Feds deem sullied specie unfit. I ended up winning the bet, and doubly happy, for I’d come to see the collection as a fount of beauty and knowledge. Of my 11+ pounds of marred cartwheels and frogskins (I also collect nicknames for coins and bills) the most common are oxidizing Lincoln head pennies. Their deepening aqua-green hues remind me of the Statue of Liberty.

Roughly half the paper money in my collection seems accidentally torn or discolored. The rest, intentionally altered by artists, activists, criminals, graffitists, origamists and the like, is subject to title 18 USC § 333, the law pertaining to mutilation of national bank obligations:

Whoever mutilates, cuts, defaces, disfigures, or perforates, or unites or cements together, or does any other thing to any bank bill, draft, note, or other evidence of debt issued by any national banking association, or Federal Reserve bank, or the Federal Reserve System, with intent to render such bank bill, draft, note, or other evidence of debt unfit to be reissued, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than six months, or both.

“Intent” is the crucial term. It must be legal to write on bills; after all, former Secretary of the Treasury John W. Snow autographs them and many turn legal tender into their artistic medium. Consider Dread Scott’s 2010 Wall Street performance “Money to Burn”, and the highest level of Japanese teaware, the blackened ceramics called raku. Such intentional burning can make a powerful statement. The grey area between mutilation and art-making makes parsing the letter and spirit of Title 18 quite the stimulus, economic and otherwise.--Harley Spiller aka Inspector Collector

Special thanks to Ken Blumberg, Dustin Grella, David Jelinek, Alex Kalman, Marc Labelle, Hiro Maddock, Melissa Monroe, Iris Rose, Josh Safdie, Dread Scott, lora Spiller, Mortimer Spiller, Aaron and Jill Underwood, and the former Migiwa Watanabe, who helped build the collection and create a new shade of meaning for the motto E Pluribus Unum – out of many, one.

February 22, 2013 - October 1, 2013 More Information