You’re a 16-year-old slum kid on Chicago’s South Side and your girl has a newborn baby to shelter and feed. One day, your mom’s boyfriend offers to help.
So you hop into his Cadillac and head to a 19th-century brick building in the packinghouse district. There he shows you his underground print shop, complete with an A.B. Dick offset press and canisters of ink. Forest-green ink.
That’s how Art Williams began his apprenticeship as a counterfeiter, writes Jason Kersten in his wild ride into a crook’s mind, The Art of Making Money.
Williams, says this nonfiction account of true crime, was one of the top counterfeiters of the last quarter of a century, a rogue who later melded Old World printing techniques with digital technology to create a replica of what was then the most secure US banknote ever made, the 1996 New Note.
“The bill felt like a dare to him,” says Kersten, who lays out, step by step, how Williams copied the note’s features — its acid-free paper, security strip, watermark and Optically Variable Ink, which causes a color to shift at different angles.
If that sounds glamorous, forget it. From start to finish, this is a seedy story from the criminal underbelly of America. Counterfeiters may sound like elite artisans, but the best ones, it turns out, are just cogs in the wheels of organized crime — suppliers of a product used by gambling rackets, drug runners and smugglers, whose patrons aren’t likely to run to the cops if they wind up with funny money.
Kersten, who first wrote about Williams in Rolling Stone, casts him as a misunderstood outlaw, a Jesse James with an Apple Macintosh and a Ryobi press. There is a whiff of Bonnie and Clyde about this tale, which seems destined to become a Hollywood movie.
At the height of his spree, Williams and his girlfriend fled Chicago in a silver convertible and crisscrossed the nation, dropping fake US$100 bills at malls. From each purchase of US$20 or less, they pocketed at least US$80 in genuine currency and donated the unwanted goods to charity. The book strains to put this shameless crook in a kind light.
By his own estimate, Williams counterfeited some US$10 million of US bills over 10 years, selling shrink-wrapped batches to crime bosses for up to US$0.30 on the dollar. He never felt guilty about counterfeiting and spending fakes “felt rebelliously empowering, each dropped bill a nip at the dispassionate system” that he partly blamed for his destitute childhood, Kersten writes.
Williams had reasons for lashing out. Abandoned by their father — an ex-con who took up with another woman — Williams and his siblings landed in one of Chicago’s few “white projects.” A bookish suburban boy, he joined a gang and graduated to car theft. His life was warped by his need for his missing father and money. That story presents Kersten with several challenges. One is to make us empathize with a protagonist who delivers beatings, robs houses and rationalizes his wrongdoing.
“I know every criminal says this, but it’s almost like the system wants you to commit another crime,” Williams says.
A deeper problem is that this isn’t what you expect from a story about a “master counterfeiter.” The best passages in the book show how Williams learned the trade and succeeded in copying the New Note with elements as different as phone directory paper, ChromaFlair paint pigment and a rubber stamp made at Kinko’s copy center. I was left hungry for more of this and less of Williams’s sad quest to find his creepy father.