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The Art of Making Money: The Story of a Master Counterfeiter

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Read Jason Kersten's posts on the Penguin Blog.

The true story of a brilliant counterfeiter who "made" millions, outwitted the Secret Service, and was finally undone when he went in search of the one thing his forged money couldn't buy him: family.

Art Williams spent his boyhood in a comfortable middle-class existence in 1970s Chicago, but his idyll was shattered when, in short order, his father abandoned the family, his bipolar mother lost ...

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The Art of Making Money: The Story of a Master Counterfeiter

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Read Jason Kersten's posts on the Penguin Blog.

The true story of a brilliant counterfeiter who "made" millions, outwitted the Secret Service, and was finally undone when he went in search of the one thing his forged money couldn't buy him: family.

Art Williams spent his boyhood in a comfortable middle-class existence in 1970s Chicago, but his idyll was shattered when, in short order, his father abandoned the family, his bipolar mother lost her wits, and Williams found himself living in one of Chicago's worst housing projects. He took to crime almost immediately, starting with petty theft before graduating to robbing drug dealers. Eventually a man nicknamed "DaVinci" taught him the centuries-old art of counterfeiting. After a stint in jail, Williams emerged to discover that the Treasury Department had issued the most secure hundred-dollar bill ever created: the 1996 New Note. Williams spent months trying to defeat various security features before arriving at a bill so perfect that even law enforcement had difficulty distinguishing it from the real thing. Williams went on to print millions in counterfeit bills, selling them to criminal organizations and using them to fund cross-country spending sprees. Still unsatisfied, he went off in search of his long-lost father, setting in motion a chain of betrayals that would be his undoing.

In The Art of Making Money, journalist Jason Kersten details how Williams painstakingly defeated the anti-forging features of the New Note, how Williams and his partner-in-crime wife converted fake bills into legitimate tender at shopping malls all over America, and how they stayed one step ahead of the Secret Service until trusting the wrong person brought them all down. A compulsively readable story of how having it all is never enough, The Art of Making Money is a stirring portrait of the rise and inevitable fall of a modern-day criminal mastermind.

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Editorial Reviews

Liaquat Ahamed
Like any good caper movie, the story is crowded with colorful characters, straight from the pages of Elmore Leonard…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.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Kersten traces the history of Art Williams from his impoverished childhood to (infamous) career as one of the greatest counterfeiters in modern times. Though Williams serves as the center, Kersten also provides critical commentary on the institutions that shaped Williams, notably his family structure and the American prison system. The prose proves accessible and enjoyable, but Jim Bond's performance makes the book significantly more intriguing. His deep projection coupled with his matter-of-fact delivery make even the most technical passages enjoyable and relatable, and his masterful emphasis and pace help listeners slip into Williams's psyche. A Gotham hardcover (Reviews, Apr. 20). (June)
Library Journal

An intelligent, likable boy raised by a mentally troubled mother (his father was absent), master counterfeiter Art Williams drifted into involvement with street gangs at an early age in Chicago. Eventually, a counterfeiter named Pete DaVinci showed Williams the tricks of the trade, from producing to distributing the bills. He soon ventured out on his own, selling bills to Chicago's organized crime gangs, who used the money in a variety of illegal operations. After a stay in a Texas prison, Williams returned to counterfeiting, using computer desktop publishing software and printers to produce bills. He even managed to copy the new $100 bills that incorporated many features designed to deter counterfeiters. At the same time, he reconnected with his father, then living in Alaska, but was soon betrayed by a family member to the U.S. Secret Service. VERDICT Journalist Kersten's absorbing account reads like crime fiction, offering an understanding of modern counterfeiting that will appeal to readers of that genre as well as those who like true crime. [See Prepub Alert, LJ2/1/09.]—Stephen L. Hupp, West Virginia Univ., Parkersburg

—Stephen L. Hupp
Kirkus Reviews
Expanding on his Rolling Stone article, first-time author Kersten tenders a lawbreaker's script about fake money and an alternative lifestyle, told largely from the viewpoint of the fascinating perp. Engaging and accomplished counterfeiter Art Williams had a truly rotten childhood, according to the memories he shared with the author. After considerable bad behavior, Dad skipped out, leaving the kids with certifiably crazy Mom. Gangs dictated life and death on the gritty streets of Chicago's worst neighborhood. Yet there Williams was mentored by benevolent Pete "DaVinci," a clever printer of bank notes. One day, his teacher was gone, and the young student, with native pluck and instinctive smarts, manfully clawed his way to the top of the counterfeiting heap. Ironically, he only got into trouble with the law after a breakup with a girlfriend led him to sell off his printing equipment, move to Texas and take up robbery. Nabbed in a jewelry heist, he did six years in the Texas penal system and emerged in 1999 swearing he'd stick to bad bills. But the familiar old currency was being supplanted by the "New Note," whose enhanced paper, watermarks, security strips and microprinting were nearly impossible to replicate. Not for the inventive and proficient Williams, who produced a creditable bogus hundred using glues, sprays, ink, paper, press, camera, scanner and laptop. He wholesaled his product at 30 cents on the dollar, but it was more exciting to pass it on road trips with family and friends. It's estimated that Williams stimulated his own economy with some $10 million in counterfeit before he was nabbed. His downfall resulted from family problems, especially misplaced filial consideration.Where is our hero now? Just where you would expect, considering that he's a recidivist. An absorbed reporter grippingly relays the story of a rare trade and the troubled family relations of a talented grifter. Film rights to Paramount. Agent: Scott Waxman/Waxman Literary Agency
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781592405572
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 5/4/2010
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 273,793
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Jason Kersten
Jason Kersten writes for various national magazines, including Rolling Stone and Men’s Journal. Also the author of the New York Times Notable Book Journal of the Dead: A Story of Friendship and Murder in the New Mexico Desert, he lives in New York.
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Interviews & Essays

An Interview with Jason Kersten, author of THE ART OF MAKING MONEY

Q: What compelled you to write The Art of Making Money?

A: Curiosity about the crime of counterfeiting initially drew me in. Master counterfeiters-criminals who produce superior quality notes and sell them-are extremely rare. Unlike other kinds of career criminals, they are also craftsmen, and they typically learn from another master through apprenticeship. When Art Williams learned to counterfeit from a master at just 16, he was the last link in a chain of counterfeiters that went back generations. I found this so fascinating, this idea of legacy. I wanted to know how Art learned the art of counterfeiting, the dynamics of that student-teacher relationship and how it changed him. Then of course there was his pursuit of a counterfeit of the 1996 New Note, the most secure US bill ever created. It was a quest, and quests always make for great stories.
While it was the world of counterfeiting that originally attracted me to Art's story, what ultimately made a book-length project worthwhile wasn't the crime, but the man. Art's quest to reconnect with his father was far more compelling than his criminal escapades, and it is the conflict that arises between these two goals that gives his story so much dramatic weight.

Q: How did you find Art Williams and his story?

A: Art Williams actually found me. Back in 2004, the Hollywood producer Paul Pompian spent a week in Chicago scouting locations for one of his films. Paul didn't have a car, so one of his friends loaned him a car and driver. That driver turned out to be Art Williams. As the week went by, Artkept hinting to Paul that if he really wanted to make an interesting movie, he should listen to his story. Of course, being a veteran Hollywood man, Paul hears such claims on a daily basis, so he pretty much blew Art off the entire week.
On his last day in Chicago, Paul had a few hours to kill before heading to the airport. By then he had taken a liking to Art. They were both native Chicagoans, both from the streets, and in a few of the details Art revealed about his past Paul saw shades of his own memories growing up in the city. Paul offered to buy Art lunch and, grudgingly, finally listen to his story. Upon hearing that Art had learned to counterfeit at 16, Paul was shocked, and of course there was much more to the story. He thought that Art's life might indeed not only make a good film, but an interesting book. Eventually he contacted my literary agent in the hopes of finding someone to write it.
I really didn't know what to think when my agent told me about Art. I was fascinated, but there was no way I could commit to anything without meeting Art myself. After spending an hour with him on the phone and doing a little research, I though it would at least make an interesting magazine article. The resulting article ran in Rolling Stone in July of 2005, and by then I had learned enough about Art's story to want to write the book.

Q: How much money did Art Williams counterfeit?

A: By Art's own estimate, he counterfeited about ten million dollars worth of US currency over a ten-year period. While that is quite a sum for a lone counterfeiter, the dynamics of the crime make getting rich from it a bit more complicated. Since he sold much of it for 30-cents on the dollar, he only got about third or less of the face value. Overhead, his splurging lifestyle, and the countless bills he burned because he wasn't quite satisfied, reduced his net profit even further.

Q: Have you ever seen one of Art Williams's counterfeit bills?

A: I have, though interestingly this didn't happen until the book was almost finished. The bill, a C-note, was stuffed inside a journal sent to me by someone close to Art. This individual had tucked it in there as a memento years earlier and completely forgotten about it. Seeing it was a strange sensation. If I hadn't spent so much time learning about both real and counterfeit currency, I wouldn't have been able to distinguish it from a genuine bill. Holding it in my hand, I realized how easy it would be to just go spend it. Art always told me that spending his bills never felt like a crime to him, and I could see why: it was too easy to believe the bill was real.

Q: While writing this book, did you have fantasies about becoming a counterfeiter yourself?

A: There came a point when I realized that few people-perhaps nobody other than Art and Natalie-knew as much as I did about how Williams made his bills. At the same time, I also had intimate knowledge of the personal tragedies and sufferings that his life as a counterfeiter had caused him. That kind of knowledge tends to strip away the glamour of the crime.
Even so, there have certainly been times when I've daydreamed about making my own bills. Those fantasies are very short-lived. The likelihood that I would wind up in prison aside, counterfeiting at Art's level requires tremendous skill and patience, and it helps if you enjoy the work, which comes down to printing. Art always said he did it more for the challenge than the money, and I believe him. Sadly, if Art applied the same discipline to his counterfeiting to a legitimate endeavor, he would not only be successful, but free.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 14 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 13 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 8, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Intriguing book

    I found this book to be engaging and very interesting. I always enjoy reading books about how criminals get away with their crimes for so long and the thought process that drives them and this book definitely delivers that and more. You get Art's background from childhood, not to excuse his criminality but because he started his counterfeiting at such an early age. Of course, from the distant lens of the reader it's easy to see where he should have "turned left instead of right" so to speak but still a fascinating journey to have been able to read.

    The one aspect of the book that I felt wasn't addressed as well as it could have been was the father-son relationship. We get a lot of the resentment and need to reconnect between Art and his father (Senior) but what I felt was inadequately addressed was how Art could do the exact same thing to his oldest son that his father did to Art when he clearly articulates how awful it was for him to be abandoned by Senior. It's like he never realizes that he has done the same thing as his father to his own son and the author (who gets the material from direct questions and interviews) never seems to push him for those answers. Or, if he did, he didn't include it in the book.

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  • Posted October 16, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Amazing story of a modern day artist/counterfeiter.

    The author tells the story of Art Williams as much an artist as a counterfeiter if you are inclined to believe his crime can also be classified as art. This book was easily read and hard to put down I finished it in an afternoon. The book flows easily from beginning to end which made it a joy to read. The details of this enterprising man are amazing and his creativity is fascinating.

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  • Posted September 19, 2009

    Great Read

    This is really worth reading if just to know how money is counterfeited. Interesting that someone would go to so much work to counterfeit money when if they applied that much work to a normal job they would be at the top of their field.

    You get so you understand the individual and even feel sorry for him.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 6, 2009

    Fantastic Read !!

    I found this book to be a wonderful, fantastic, and entertaining read. Hopefully somebody, somewhere will bring this book to the big screen. I bought it on Friday and had it finished on Sunday. I literally couldn't put it down. I thought the author did a great job of just simply telling the story, which is a rarity these days. I feel terrible for Art Williams and if he ever gets a chance to read this, I wish him well. Great book that i know anybody would enjoy !

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