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The Washington Post
October 4, 2009
Cold, Hard (Counterfeit) Cash
By Liaquat Ahamed
Financial criminals, such as corporate chieftains who rip off their shareholders or fraudsters like Bernie Madoff, are generally viewed as despicable because they so often steal from people much poorer than themselves. Not so with counterfeiters. Passing dud notes may not be a completely victimless crime. But true professional forgers are careful not to spend their fake dollars in their own neighborhoods, in part of course out of a very practical concern about being caught by the Secret Service, but also because of a strange sense of honor towards non-thieves -- the assorted bartenders, waiters, limousine drivers, strippers and call girls -- who surround them and service their needs.
"The Art of Making Money," by Jason Kersten, tells the story of Art Williams, a maverick counterfeiter from Chicago. From early childhood, Williams seemed destined for misfortune. His father, a small-time crook, abandoned the family when Williams was 11. His mother was subsequently diagnosed with bipolar schizophrenia and, having only the most tenuous grip on reality, was wholly unable to look after her three children. The family ended up on welfare in the projects of Southside Chicago, a land of guns, drugs and gangs. At the age of 13, Williams took his first steps in a life of crime by breaking into parking meters and was soon supporting the family by stealing cars before graduating to robbing local drug dealers.
He was introduced to counterfeiting by one his mother's boyfriends, who took a liking to the kid. The boyfriend soon disappeared, presumed dead at the hands of a disgruntled client, leaving Williams to pursue the secrets of forgery for himself. And that was when the fun began. The heart of this wonderful book, which reads like the script for a caper movie, takes us through the whole painstaking process -- false starts, dead ends and cliffhanger setbacks -- as Williams improvises his way to becoming an expert counterfeiter.
Like any good caper movie, the story is crowded with colorful characters, straight from the pages of Elmore Leonard. Williams's clients include a Chinese gangster called the Horse; a party-throwing Russian hoodlum from St. Petersburg; and a Mexican mafioso. His accomplices included his girlfriend, Natalie, one of four nubile sisters whom he bedded at various points; an ex-boxer and shakedown man with attention deficit disorder; a trash-talking cab driver; and a six-foot-tall, 280-pound Lithuanian wrestler, who acted as his bodyguard.
Williams may have developed the technical skills to become a master at his craft, but he lacked the discipline to make his art into a business. He just could not restrain himself from breaking the cardinal rule of his profession: do not pass your own fake notes. Instead, he took off with Natalie on a spending spree across the malls of the western United States, laundering their phony money by paying for $10 items with $100 counterfeit bills and taking the change in real dollars. As the reader watches Williams play Robin Hood by dropping off the unneeded items accumulated on this shopping rampage at Salvation Army dumpsters, it is hard to shake the growing sense that his days are numbered.
For all Williams's big-heartedness, his ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory is frustrating. Williams eventually catches the attention of the Secret Service not because it manages to track him down but because, at a critical moment, he goes partying and is busted for drugs by the local cops, who stumble across his cache of fake dollars. He is finally undone, however, by his deadbeat father, who, like everyone else, becomes infatuated by the promise of limitless free money conjured up by his son's hands.
This is a fun book, fast-paced and full of vim, a screenplay in the making. But life is a lot messier than the movies, and, to his credit, Kersten does not flinch from reality. In fact, his unsentimental refusal to gloss over the unsavory and depressing details of Williams's life, the private demons that haunt him and his whole dysfunctional family, gives this book its true authenticity of character.
Liaquat Ahamed is the author of "Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World."
Minneapolis Star Tribune
June 12, 2009
A portrait of the rise and fall of Art Williams, a master counterfeiter.
By DAN BROWNING, Star Tribune
Publisher Gotham Books describes Jason Kersten's new biography of master counterfeiter Art Williams as a true story about a talented crook "who blew through millions of dollars, outwitted government agents, and lost it all when he went searching for something his fake money couldn't buy"-- family.
This quick-paced tale has obvious parallels to the story of Frank Abagnale Jr., a con man, forger and impostor-turned-FBI consultant who was portrayed by actor Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie "Catch Me if You Can."
But Williams bears a closer likeness to Jean Genet, the celebrated French thief and author who was championed by Jean-Paul Sartre as the quintessential existentialist, a free spirit who created his own morality through his decisions and deeds.
Kersten catches Williams in a philosophical moment as he recounts an extended spending spree across the Midwest to pass his counterfeit bills and turn them into legal tender: "I think we were what humans were meant to be," Williams says, "completely free, almost like it was in the Garden of Eden. God wants us to play. I do not believe that people were meant to live the way they do. Slavery still exists, now we're just slaves to the dollar."
"The Art of Making Money" is an engrossing, complex work of investigative reporting and storytelling. On the surface it tells an interesting and entertaining tale. But it also insinuates itself into your thoughts, forcing you to ponder the relative effects of nature and nurture in stimulating criminal behaviors.
Kersten paints a sympathetic portrait of Williams, a bright young man whose father abuses his sister and abandons the family, leaving him and two young siblings in the hands of a mother suffering from bipolar schizophrenia. Williams learns quickly that he must fend for the family.
But the family continues to suffer losses. His mother takes up with a benevolent Italian counterfeiter, a master craftsman who teaches Williams the trade, only to abruptly disappear. His sister becomes a model, yet succumbs to drugs and depression, which leads her to attempt suicide by jumping out a fourth-floor window, breaking her back and leaving one leg a useless mass below the knee. His little brother quickly ends up in prison.
And although Williams showed great promise in school, he devolves into a thug who roams South Side Chicago with one scam after another.
Kersten grew up in California and now lives in New York, but he nails Chicago's neighborhoods and their inhabitants like a native. He populates the book with hardscrabble characters from the Outfit, Chicago's Italian Mafia; from On Leong, Chinatown's secret society, and from the Latin Kings, a brutal Hispanic gang.
It's no wonder that Williams also joins a gang, Satan's Disciples, to survive. But because of his training as a counterfeiter at age 16, Williams reaches higher, becoming a master craftsman himself. He eventually figures out how to beat the high-tech revisions to U.S. currency, producing counterfeit bills that dazzle anyone who holds them. For a while, he lives the good life.
But Williams is undone, in the end, by his desire to reunite with his father, whose wife betrays Williams to U.S. Secret Service agents hot on his trail. His efforts to create something that passes for a genuine family life ultimately fail, as well.
Dan Browning, a business editor at the Star Tribune, is at 612-673-4493.
Sidebar: Kersten's book is a complex blend of investigative reporting and great storytelling. His depictions of Chicago's neighborhoods are spot on. And Williams will get under your skin, causing you to ponder the question of nature vs nurture in human behavior.
From Publisher's Weekly...
`Making Money' worthy addition to con-men books
By DAN SCHERAGA, Associated Press Writer
"The Art of Making Money: The Story of a Master Counterfeiter" (Penguin, 304 pages, $26), by Jason Kersten: When the Federal Reserve Bank debuted a redesigned $100 bill in 1996, it was trumpeted as the most high-tech, counterfeit-proof currency to date. It took Art Williams four months to produce a convincing duplicate of it.
Williams' forgery wasn't the first copy of the new c-note — others had emerged on the black market while he was serving a prison sentence. But his was among the best available, and caused a stir among his associates in Chicago's criminal underground, who immediately placed orders for hundreds of thousands in bogus dollars.
His background was appropriate for a career criminal. The product of an absent father and a mentally ill mother, he spent an excruciating childhood in a tough South Side Chicago neighborhood, where street violence was common and the only apparent road to wealth was through the mob.
Williams graduated from robbery and car theft when, as a teenager, he was taken under the wing of a master counterfeiter who hired him as his apprentice. Eventually, Williams began his own counterfeiting operation and improved on his mentor's technique.
Even before the $100 bill's redesign, counterfeiting was considered one of the most difficult criminal endeavors, and an ancient, nearly forgotten art. The new c-note, with its color-shifting ink and special chemical composition that responded to a counterfeit-detecting pen, presented challenges that intimidated more experienced counterfeiters than Williams.
But Williams' persistence was matched only by his ingenuity in defeating the bill's security measures, often finding the answers in unexpected places. (He discovered that paper from the telephone book passed the pen test. He mimicked the color-shifting ink with automotive paint and a rubber stamp.)
Perhaps the most shocking thing about Williams' story is how the money was almost secondary to the freedom it afforded him, and the normal family he felt he'd been denied. He frequently brought trusted friends on freewheeling road trips to spend his counterfeit and stay ahead of the law. His travels eventually bring him to the doorstep of his estranged father.
Williams came to view his spending trips as a sort of early retirement, and an enticing alternative to a society that offers only the oppression of poverty or a dull, soul-numbing job.
"We joked that we were doing life backwards, but was that any worse than what everbody else was doing? Waiting to get old to appreciate their freedom?" said a girlfriend who traveled cross-country with Williams. "I think we came closer to achieving pure freedom on that trip than anyone I've ever met. It sounds strange, but it was almost spiritual."
"The Art of Making Money" is reminiscent of other stories of geniuses who subvert the system for profit and adventure, such as Frank Abagnale's con-artist memoir, "Catch Me If You Can," or "Bringing Down the House," Ben Mezrich's tale of card-counting M.I.T. students.
This counterfeiting tale is a worthy addition to the bunch.
Time's picks for the week of June 15, 2009
The Art of Making Money
Art Williams was handed a bad deal: an absent dad and a mentally ill mom. He decided to make his living making bad money. Jason Kersten tracks the rise and fall of the strange but gifted man who cracked counterfeiting's ultimate challenge, the 1996 $100 bill.
New York Post
June 7, 09
by Billy Heller
The Art of Making Money: The Story of a Master Counterfeiter
by Jason Kersten (Gotham)
Call it the American Dream gone awry: Fatherless and impoverished, Art Williams committed his first crime at age 11, when he picked the locks on parking meters on the South Side of Chicago. His mother treated him like a conquering hero when he came home with cash and groceries. By age 16, Williams was deep into the world's other oldest profession -- counterfeiting. This story reveals how Williams, now doing time in a Kentucky prison, became a master criminal before failing spectacularly in his quest for money and love.
Dallas Morning News
July 12, 2009
By Michael Young
Review: Nothing bogus in Jason Kersten's 'Art of Making Money'
When his father abandoned the family, the future was pretty well set for Art Williams, a smart, ambitious kid growing up in the tough projects of Chicago's South Side.
With his dad's criminal background already ingrained in him, and his Texas-born mom's bipolar disorder leaving her largely unable to provide for her children, Art looked around at the success stories in his neighborhood, powerful figures in ethnic mobs, and decided that crime was the only way out.
He stole cars, robbed drug dealers and saw friends die on the streets. But then a gracious, meticulous man took a liking to Art's waitress mom, saw something special in her elder son and began teaching him the mysteries of what author Jason Kersten describes as "the world's second oldest profession:" counterfeiting.
Soon, the man Art calls DaVinci passed on both his techniques and his wisdom. Know your clients, he told Art, and know where and how they'll be using the bills. Never spend counterfeit money where you live. And don't get greedy. Spread too much bogus money too fast and you'll draw the attention of the U.S. Secret Service, and they'll get you, DaVinci told him.
Art proved an attentive pupil. And Kersten's tale of the budding counterfeiter, built on a story he'd done for Rolling Stone, rushes along, pushed by the powerful narrative thread with fascinating asides on the history of counterfeiting, the dog-eat-dog world of criminal gangs and the easy willingness of amateur crooks to turn on their partners.
Williams ended up on the wrong end of that last one. He'd abandoned Chicago and headed to North Texas, to the little town of Valley View, where his mom had settled. He met a few young ladies from Texas Woman's University in Denton, ripped off a local drug dealer and finally got taken by a guy who pitched an insurance scam and turned on him when they were caught.
That won Williams a couple of years in the Texas penal system.
By the time he got out of jail, the U.S. Mint had replaced the old $100 bill, the counterfeiter's favorite, with the 1996 New Note, the most security-laden bill ever produced. Duplicating it became Williams' personal challenge.
After four months of trial-and-error and with incredible ingenuity and plain luck, Williams produced a copy good enough to fool just about anyone. Soon, he was back in Chicago and back in business. Along the way, however, Williams managed to forget some of DaVinci's advice.
In this tale of stealth, intrigue and occasional double-dealing, Williams emerges as something of an honorable guy, at least according to his own underworld code. And Kersten seems to have a grudging admiration for his subject, at least for his considerable talents, his intellect and his dedication to living a life he calls free.
"I think we were what humans were meant to be, completely free, almost like it was in the Garden of Eden," Williams said of forays across the Midwest in which his wife and friends used hundreds of counterfeit bills to buy merchandise at roadside malls and walked away with thousands in legal tender.
Like a modern-day Robin Hood, Williams often gave the booty to local charities.
But few people living that life stay free for long. Eventually, the Secret Service caught up with Williams, done in by his own long-lost dad and the second wife who never liked him.
He did his time and emerged hopeful of a fresh start. But in an epilogue, Kersten reports that Williams was back in prison, again for counterfeiting, turned in by the son he'd abandoned years before.
By the time he gets out, the 1996 New Note will be gone, replaced by a new $100 bill with holographic images generated by microlenses embedded in the paper.
Williams might well find it an irresistible challenge.The Art of Making Money
American Way Magazine
by Kim Schmidt
August 1, 2009
IT ISN’T HARD to see why DreamWorks has optioned the story of counterfeiter Art Williams. In the 1980s, he endured a hardscrabble upbringing in one of Chicago’s roughest housing projects, where he shook down parking meters and robbed drug dealers to get by. That’s when he was introduced to the age-old crime of counterfeiting. Williams would eventually print millions of dollars worth of counterfeit bills, including fakes of the 1996 new series $100 bill, which was thought to be the most secure $100 bill ever created. His story is rife with danger and intrigue, from the mysterious allure of dark, ink-stained basements hiding massive printing presses to the constant threat of gangsters who followed him from Chicago to Texas to Alaska.
Kersten, who originally wrote about Williams in an article for Rolling Stone, is a natural storyteller who captures this con artist brilliantly for the page. As we keep pace with Williams’s criminal pursuits, Kersten also reveals him as a man who is simply trying to provide for his family; who would “pass bills” by purchasing toys and clothes, which he would then donate to charity; and who cultivated so much pride in his illicit skill that he found it nearly impossible to quit.
The Washington Times
Wednesday, July 29, 2009
by Muriel Dobbin
Everybody likes to make money, and as much of it as possible. Not everybody can make it in a secret basement with a full-service offset print shop, a platemaking station, a light table and an industrial paper cutter.
But then, not everybody is Art Williams, a product of a childhood in which he was abandoned by a ruthless father and mistreated by an unbalanced mother, who finds his true love in the warped joy of counterfeiting millions of dollars.
Jason Kersten has written a compulsively readable and sensitively researched account of one man's addiction to counterfeiting, which he notes "has sometimes been called the world's second oldest profession" dating back to around the year 700 B.C. when money was invented in the ancient kingdom of Lydia.
"From the beginning, it was a crime of legacy," Mr. Kersten asserts. "Doing it successfully required an intimate knowledge not only of how money was made but how to replicate it," he emphasizes, reporting that in the third century B.C., a Greek called Diogenes -- who became one of the most celebrated philosophers in history -- was banished from the city of Sinope for "adulterating in coinage."
It was, Mr. Kersten reminds, also Diogenes who said, "Man is the most intelligent of animals -- and the most silly."
Art Williams might have benefited from keeping that in mind as he used his talent and intelligence to follow a career of crime that required real skill but, in his case, involved unbridled recklessness.
Recounting his meetings with Williams, the author acknowledges that he hoped the counterfeiter would turn out to be another Frank Abagnale Jr., the young check forger who wound up with a lucrative business as a document-security consultant for the government. Williams wasn't that smart, and he was too psychologically scarred and too hooked on the art of counterfeiting as a substitute for a normal life.
On a note of bitter irony, not long after Williams was released from a term in prison for counterfeiting, it was his teenage son who helped send him back there. When his father berated his son for a clumsy effort at counterfeiting, the boy flew into a tantrum and waved the fake bills at a Chicago patrolman, announcing his father had made them.
Within half an hour, Secret Service agents were there, and Williams was shortly back in jail. He was sentenced to 87 months in prison for manufacturing more than $89,000. He is due to get out in 2013, by which time, Mr. Kersten notes, the next-generation 100-dollar bill will be in circulation. It will be highly advanced technologically, and counterfeiters are expected to find it their most daunting obstacle. "But," the author reminds, "as Art Williams says, 'There is always a way.' "
The allure of counterfeiting and its capacity to dangerously obsess those who engage in it is one of the many fascinating aspects of this book, which, in the author's dexterous hands, has become a combination of a true crime story and a sociological indictment.
The author tells how Williams was easily coaxed to talk, illustrating his pride in his counterfeiting skills. He recalls that after four beers on one occasion, Williams described details of a secret for which he allegedly had been offered $300,000, a villa and a personal guard.
"It was easy to picture Art on a patio above the Caspian Sea surrounded by bullet necked Russian gangsters. With his high planed cheeks, blue eyes and pumped up physique he'd fit right with an Eastern European operation," recalls the author.
When he did show Mr. Kersten a $20 bill he'd just counterfeited, the author recognized "the lovely husky crack made ... by what drives the world economy -- the sound of the Almighty Dollar."
"That was what was great about my money," said Williams, "It passed every test."
The author asserted that he received almost no help in his research from the Secret Service, whose job it is to catch counterfeiters, but one federal specialist highly praised Williams' work, commenting, "I'd rate his bills as an eight or a nine."
A perfect 10 is a "supernote" believed to be made by the North Korean government on a $10 million intaglio press similar to those used by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing here.
Mr. Kersten paints a grim picture of Williams' background, from his mother's insane violence to evidence that his father molested his small daughter and his own later problems with marriage and fatherhood.
After Williams' father abandoned the family for good, his children had to cope with the misery of life in the tough projects of Chicago where Williams was beaten up and learned the world of gangs.
It was Pete DaVinci, an Italian "construction worker" who turned Williams into a counterfeiter and was probably more of a father to him than his own ever was. He also gave him advice that Williams ignored to his cost. According to DaVinci, there were three rules about successful counterfeiting -- tell nobody, don't spend it where you live, and don't be greedy and print too much. Williams broke all of those rules, which was most likely why he was caught after DaVinci disappeared and his apprentice branched out on his own.
Over the years, Williams made a lot of money and gave a lot of it away, including to charity. When a therapist suggested that was because of guilt feelings, Williams denied he ever felt guilty about counterfeiting.
"I only felt guilty about some of the problems counterfeiting led to," he insisted, explaining that he liked his money more than real money. "It was mine and I made it with my own hands and every batch was a little different with its own personality."
The author suggests that for Williams, the joy of counterfeiting was that it "felt rebelliously empowering, each dropped bill a small [expletive] you to the dispassionate system that he increasingly came to believe was as much a cause of his impoverished childhood as his father's abandonment."
Perhaps in the end, that was the tragedy of Art Williams. All he had to comfort him was counterfeiting.
Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.