By Jason Kersten
Published June 11, 2009
Reviewed July 30, 2009
Over the last few years, there have been a variety of changes made to the style of U.S. currency, and few of them have been rated as aesthetically pleasing. Larger portrait heads, oversized numbers and multicolored inks have all led to criticism and unflattering comparisons to phony money – but the reality is entirely opposite. These new designs incorporate minuscule factors like fine-line printing, color-shifting ink and watermarks, all of which are designed to place the dollar beyond replication.
But the best counterfeiters, an egotistical group by nature, tend to see these developments as a challenge rather than an impasse and master new techniques to create the most accurate copy possible. In “The Art of Making Money,” Jason Kersten tracks the development of one of these schemes, getting into the mind and methods of the counterfeiter who was able to break the most secure bill in decades. Along the way, he manages to pull together a story with some of the most classic literary themes: rags to riches, best intentions laid low and a son desperately trying to live up to an absent father.
The subject of “Making Money” is Art Williams, a product of the slums of Chicago who grew up surrounded by gangs and a troubled family life. Rather than being a drug dealer or stick-up artist however, he had the good fortune to become a pupil of a talented Italian counterfeiter who taught him the science and good sense needed to survive in the field. After a few small-time scams, Williams set his sights on a true challenge – replicating the “New Note” hundred-dollar bill released in 1996 for the purpose of shutting down his profession.
Kersten tracks Williams’ exploits across the United States, from the bunkers in Chicago where he started his printing operation to the wilds of Texas and Alaska where he’d lay low after a bust. He presents his narrative in a very compelling way, showing how Art would sell his merchandise to a variety of Chicago gangsters or liquidate it himself in cross-country mall trips. On the other side, we also see how Art’s broken home life shaped his business decisions, and how more than once his attachment to a deadbeat father pulls him back into a life of crime.
The book originally began in 2005 as an article for Rolling Stone – much of the article is transferred over in fact – and it retains the feel of a magazine feature with heavy emphasis on quotes and narrative. Williams was the key source for the story and is quoted regularly, but Kersten also weaves in interviews with his wife and family and cohorts from his glory days. The reporting style makes the book a relatively quick read, and the narrative’s presentation regularly allows for other sides of the story and how the players were affected.
The glory days do seem to sway Kersten’s attention a bit too much though, and more than once he waxes romantic on Williams’ escapades. He points out a series of near-misses the police had, speculates on the ways things could have gone different for Art and even paints him in a heroic light at one point – giving a good portion of his gains to charity. Williams is a fascinating character, so this can be forgiven – though it’s less easy to forgive the occasional overwrought sentences like this one describing the feel of Williams’ bill: “It was the lovely, husky crack made by the flying whip that drives the world economy – the sound of the Almighty Dollar.”
Thankfully though, he manages to keep these lines to a minimum and balance Art’s stories with some more in-depth research on the counterfeiting details. He walks us through the technical aspects of how a counterfeiting shop worked, the records and routine of the anti-counterfeit agency – the Secret Service – and the details of how the 1996 bill was made more complicated. A lot of these details are very interesting (did you know the Secret Service was originally founded to crack down on counterfeiters, and guarding the President came later?) and he meshes the facts well with Williams’ tireless efforts to beat the security measures with phone book paper and auto paint.
As Kersten portrays it, counterfeiting is a complicated, time-consuming and overall dangerous prospect – and it’s also one that has the potential to give one almost everything they ask for. “Making Money” is an excellently constructed true crime story, assembling every step of Williams’ journey from success to sorrow. For a story about a man who made his living on fakes, it comes across as a very real tale – just be careful not to get so caught up in it you debate photocopying twenty-dollar bills.