NEAL CONAN, HOST:
Hans-Jurgen Kuhl started painting when he was 10. He loved gazing at the artwork in Cologne's Ludwig Museum. In his 20s, he started designing clothing in his native Germany. He discovered the silkscreen technique and soon made something of a name for himself producing Andy Warhol imitations. Years later, frustrated by his meager living as an artist, he decided to imitate a more difficult, but more immediately rewarding piece of art: the United States Treasury's $100 bill.
Kuhl still considered this art - though, of course, the authorities used a different word when he manufactured hundreds of thousands of maybe the best counterfeit C-notes ever. David Wolman is a contributing editor at Wired magazine and author of "The End of Money." His story, "The Ultimate Counterfeiter Isn't a Crook - He's an Artist" ran in the magazine last month. And he joins us now from a studio in Portland, Oregon.
Nice to have you with us today.
DAVID WOLMAN: Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: And this doesn't seem to fit the typical counterfeiter.
WOLMAN: No, not at all. You know, most counterfeiters are either drug addicts who are eager to raise a quick buck and there. After a few nights without sleep, they get the bright idea to bleach some $5 bills and scan the image of a 20 and then print the artwork, the imagery of the 20 on that same $5 bank note paper. Then on the other end of the spectrum, you have sort of mobsters and thugs, people who are involved in the drug trade or human trafficking, and they are really keen on mass production and, again, a fairly poor quality counterfeit.
Then there is this small group of true craftspeople out there, and a lot of them are really poor when it comes to criminal capabilities, but they are true artists. And, in that sense, Kuhl is right near the top of the heap, as far as talented counterfeiters through history.
CONAN: Your story details, in fact, two different efforts. The first - well, he found himself in some financial difficulties and spent six months adapting his silkscreen techniques to producing a $100 bill.
WOLMAN: Right. He first got interested in silkscreens because of Warhol. He really was a Warhol worshipper. And this is where sort of the house of mirrors of art and money and value comes into play, because Warhol, of course, took banknotes as a subject for his artwork. And he was into the mass production of printed images for profit, and Kuhl thought he could really do the same thing. And by using silkscreen on top of images he had already produced using an offset printer, this was one of the ways that he was able to copy the sort of 3D relief that we get, or bankers especially can detect with their fingertips on a banknote.
You know, a very poor quality fake, you can tell right away. It feels like flat paper out of your printer. But there's a real textured feeling to high quality fakes. This is because the authentic notes are made with these intaglio presses that really slam down on the paper, and the ink fills these depressions and you get this 3D relief. And so Kuhl's masterstroke, so to speak, was to use silkscreen right atop the same image he'd created with the offset. And then he would use a particular UV lacquer that would dry instantly once he exposed it to an ultraviolet light. And that way, his silkscreened ink wouldn't sort of slump off the top of the offset ink and create this kind of blurred image. And for him, this was really the moment when everything, quote-unquote, "clicked."
CONAN: I wanted to read a small excerpt from your piece: There was also something poetic, Kuhl thought, about demonstrating to the world that these coveted, almost sacred U.S. dollars were nothing more than intricate images mass-produced on fancy paper. In a way, that point of view itself was borrowed from Andy Warhol: Making money is art, and working is art and good business is the best art, the artist wrote in his "Philosophy of Andy Warhol."
WOLMAN: I think this idea speaks to kind of the love-hate relationship that we, the public, have with counterfeiters. To a certain extent, I think a lot of people admire their enterprise and their gumption and the artistry involved. You know, this isn't a violent criminal act. You're not technically harming anyone else when you do this - unless, of course, you do it so much that you completely torpedo the value of a national currency. But by and large, counterfeiters are just kind of out there doing their thing. And yet, I think where they cause a lot of trouble for the public is that their activity threatens to break the spell of currency's value, right? We know in our heads that there's no intrinsic value to a $20 bill or $100 bill, but we're almost better off not ever stopping to think about that.
WOLMAN: Just go back to the grind and hurry up and trust that your $100 bill will have value because someone else will trust it and accept it for payment of goods and services, et cetera. And when you stop to think about counterfeiting as an enterprise, you really are forced to face this reality, that the currency's value is based on nothing more than our trust in it. And after all, Kuhl's counterfeit notes or any counterfeits, you know, these are - this is real money. It only ceases to be money as soon as it is pulled from circulation and put in a filing cabinet labeled counterfeit. But right up until that point, as long as it is, you know, facilitating exchange, then you're really good to go.
CONAN: After he was busted the first time, he was inspired, too, when one of the detectives said, you know, these are the some best notes I've ever seen.
WOLMAN: And this is where his story really is about an artistic challenge. So when he was first ran into money in - ran into money troubles in the 1990s, he fell for the scheme that was really a setup from the police involving some friends of his and this convoluted scheme that had to do with Saudi businessmen and their need to see, allegedly, a big pile of bank notes prior to a business transaction. So anyway, he gets busted. And then, yes, in the court documents, he saw that one investigator from Germany's Central Bank really noted the quality of his fakes. And that comment really sort of aided him for a while.
And then three or four years later, his financial problems have only intensified. And, lo and behold, one of his, quote, unquote, "friends," this Albanian guy says, you know, I think there's a way for us to get out of this. It's a surefire way for us to make a lot of money, and I can help you finance the entire project. I know the right people, they'll get you the equipment. They'll even pay your rent.
And so Kuhl, you know, with that offer, together with his own financial troubles and really the temptation to pursue the perfect 100, he just couldn't resist. And so he went after it again and produced, probably in the end, more than $16 million worth of $100 bills. But as his lawyer's says, not even Kuhl knows how many he actually produced. He was such a perfectionist, that he shredded so many in the process.
CONAN: Because they weren't absolutely right.
WOLMAN: Exactly, exactly.
CONAN: It is, of course, you point out, mass production essential in this crime because the price are paid by the distributor, the person who takes most of the risk, is very low.
WOLMAN: Exactly. And when you tell people this guy produced upwards of $16 million, immediately people will think, well, wow, he must have been rich or what a success. But, you know, to be a great counterfeiter, you have to be an artist. But to a financially successful counterfeiter, you actually have to move product. And this is where Kuhl was not so successful. You know, you could fill a room with the stuff, but if you can't use it to buy anything, you know, food or clothing, let alone a summer cottage somewhere, then it's just paper, literally.
And he may - he tried with a number of his friends in Cologne to find a buyer. And, yes, counterfeit sell at a very stiff discount because the buyer has to bear all this risk. But - the authorities were on to him, but they wanted to wait and see when he would finally make a sale. But because they were struggling do that for so long, eventually the cops, sort of, upped the ante and they decided to provide their own buyer in the form of an attractive 30-year-old woman whose alias was Susann Falkenthal.
CONAN: Why hasn't this been made into a movie?
WOLMAN: Well, there's some talk, Neal.
CONAN: And I can understand that. So he - this master counterfeiter, as far as we know, runs two different sets of $100 bills. His first one was a sting by the German police, and the second one was a sting by the German police.
WOLMAN: Exactly. Now, with the first one, it looks like the whole thing from the get-go was the sting. The second time around, it was the buyer that was the sting. And, you know, Kuhl, he's really one of those people, when you meet him, it's hard not to like the guy. I mean, he's very pugnacious and he's funny. He's this tall, rather handsome elderly gentleman and, you know, he has - he will admit one of his greatest faults is he tends to trust people. And when this woman Falkenthal came along and after three or four meetings talking about artwork, she steers the conversation toward the subject of counterfeit $100 bills, you would think that anybody's his radar would have gone off...
CONAN: He would have twigged, yeah.
WOLMAN: ...that he'd been arrested for this already. And yet, he didn't. He really, you know, he did a little bit of background checking on her. But then, you know, his instinct was really to trust her or at least to give it a shot because meanwhile his $100 bills are slowly rotting in a storage containers somewhere and...
CONAN: Ah, so he can't show his masterpieces to the world?
WOLMAN: Exactly. His masterpieces would really, I guess, literally mold into obscurity.
CONAN: And why the United States $100 bill? There were - at that time, I'm guessing, there were euro bills that he could have counterfeited as well.
WOLMAN: Right. Now, today we know why no one would want to counterfeit euros but...
CONAN: Well, that's - back then - that was when a euro was a euro.
WOLMAN: But when the euro was quite strong, why wasn't this guy forging the euro? Well, actually there are some anti-counterfeiting security features on the euro that the dollar doesn't have or that he felt would be harder to mimic than those of the dollar. That was number one. Number two, people in Europe are going to be more savvy when it comes to detecting a fake euro compared to a $100 bill. This is Kuhl's calculus. And their ultimate goal, really, was to sell in bulk to, let's say, someone is Moscow or especially in Africa, where they felt that, you know, even though this is a high-quality fake, an American who has kind of a close eye on what bank notes look and feel like, might be able to suss this out.
Whereas if you took your $10 million in fakes to some part of Africa to make a bulk sale and then left the country and flew a thousand miles back home to Germany, you might be scot-free. So the idea was that you could move product easier if you counterfeited the dollar, compared with the euro.
CONAN: And the hard part, I've often heard, is the paper.
WOLMAN: Yes. So banknote paper here in the United States is supplied by a company in Massachusetts called Crane & Co., and it is this very sophisticated linen fiber substrate. And it is hard to find paper out there in the market that has sort of the right proportions of material in them. And Kuhl eventually found a supplier in Prague, and he drove his Mercedes there late at night one night and loaded it into the back of his car this paper that wasn't precisely the same specifications as Crane's Crest for the $100 bill, but it was pretty close. And again, this is the - that's all you need with counterfeiting, right? The idea is not an exact replica. The idea is a convincing forgery.
CONAN: And what is he doing now?
WOLMAN: Well, when I met him last September, he was a few weeks away from finishing his sentence. He was convicted and sentenced to six years in a, quote-unquote, "open prison," where basically, you have to check yourself in at night like a dormitory student.
CONAN: It's not Supermax, no.
WOLMAN: But he's still - exactly, not Supermax. I mean, he's almost 70 years old now, so the Germans did not see him as a threat to society. But nevertheless, he can't travel. He has to deal with visits from a parole officer, et cetera. So he was eager to finally be finished. And, you know, he told me, I'm not going to back to this. On the other hand, some investigators I spoke with said, counterfeiters are so often repeat offenders. Number one, because they are always struggling for money. And number two, because of the sort of artistic challenge of it.
But Kuhl said, you know, I really - I'm just never going to profit from this. I'm such a dupe because I always end up trusting some undercover agent. And yet, then a little later in the evening, he said to me over yet another cigarette and yet another slice of pie, you know, I would just love to make just one more, just one more that's absolutely perfect and then I could tear it up.
CONAN: David Wolman, thanks very much.
WOLMAN: My pleasure.
CONAN: David Wolman, a contributing editor at Wired magazine, author of "The End of Money." He joined us from a studio in Portland. You can find a link to his piece, "The Ultimate Counterfeiter Isn't a Crook - He's an Artist," at our website. Go to npr.org. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.