by Sarah D. Bunting
When I heard Jason Kersten, author of The Art of Making Money: The Story of a Master Counterfeiter, interviewed on The Leonard Lopate Show last month, I couldn't wait to get my hands on the book, which chronicles the rise of Art Williams from two-bit gangster to one of the Secret Service's most wanted manufacturers of bad money.
Williams himself cuts an interesting figure, and Kersten's writing is highly capable; he doesn't get bogged down in biographical sidebars, and when Williams' need to reconnect with his long-absent father leads to a major, and deeply pitiable, reversal of fortune, Kersten doesn't overwrite the sequence.
It's an excellent book, with lots of drama and fun factoids — for a civilian. I am not a civilian. Friends, I am a currency nerd.
The habits, habitat, and inclinations of the currency nerd, and how to trace your own bills, after the jump...
What is a currency nerd? The definition can vary — and doesn't always include currency-collecting — but in my case, it means that I love knowing, and learning, about where dollar bills come from, what everything on them means, how they evolved, how they travel.
It means that I can tell you what a star note is, and lament its passing (a star note has an asterisk printed after its serial number, to denote that the original bill with that serial number got printed incorrectly; the advent of computers in the currency-printing process has all but obviated the need for this shorthand).
It means that I enter bills of all denominations religiously into the database at Where's George.com, a website that lets you track currency by tagging it and releasing it into the wild. I had my own stamp custom-made for this purpose.
Every piece of U.S. currency has a road-trip story, through banks and bars and Babies R Us, and if you can track a given twenty, you can get it to tell you part of that story. A bill I marked over a year ago just turned up in Los Angeles; it'll write if it gets work.
And my currency nerdery also means that I bury my nose in a lot of seventh-grade-composition-class writing and overly exhaustive histories of various long-forgotten panics, always hoping that this book or that one will give me what I want — the road-trip stories, the mysteries solved. It's part of why I'm fascinated by the Lindbergh-baby kidnapping case (a trail of gold notes led to Richard Hauptmann's arrest); it's part of why I stuck with prematurely cancelled time-travel drama Journeyman. I started watching because lead Kevin McKidd is a fox, but I kept watching because some other scrip nerd in that writers' room knew that a guy who went back to the '50s would need '50s money — and wrote that into the plot. Dorknip!
Money isn't just money; it's a thing, too, a symbol — of itself, actually, most of the time, like when the lieutenant on Law & Order tells her detectives to "follow the money." And that's good storytelling, too, but I'm on the lookout for a true-crime narrative that follows the actual, physical money.
I want a story told from the Secret Service's perspective. I want an against-all-odds real-life hunt for justice, in which our heroes must track a counterfeiter to her lair before she succeeds in parking a bunch of "fugazi" in an offshore account. The United States has approximately a kajillion bills in circulation at any given time, and 98 percent of the population pays no attention to their physical presentation; how do you build a case with no witnesses? What tools do you use?
I admit that it's not for everyone, this genre — which is so tiny that only my father, a coin collector, and I have any interest in it as far as I know. Furthermore, the Secret Service is, well, secret, and isn't likely to gratify my nosiness by releasing a compendium of its greatest cases, the better to instruct counterfeiters on how to evade the Treasury's clutches.
I may have to write it myself, this ripping bill yarn. In the meantime, I'll keep plowing through academic papers on Western wildcat banks of the early 19th century; the rest of you should give The Art of Making Money a look. Give whatever's in your pocket a look, too. It's got a story.