- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 29, 2009




By Jason Kersten

Gotham, $26, 292 pages

Reviewed 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.

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