Kersten recounts the exploits of Art Williams, a native of Chicago and a master counterfeiter. Art grew up on the south side of Chicago, in public housing where gangs ruled the streets. He tried to keep out of the gangs’ way, mostly by hanging out at Ed’s diner, where his mother worked. It was at Ed’s that Art encountered a man he calls Pete “da Vinci”. It was da Vinci who first gave Art lessons in counterfeiting, including rules to live by: never spend your own bills, find out where your bills are going (the farther away, especially overseas, the better), tell no one (not even relatives), don’t print too much at once, and never reveal who your clients are.
Art went on to run a counterfeiting operation of his own, figuring out what da Vinci never taught him, making great bills and a decent living. He had a girlfriend and a baby but, mismanaging money and a jealous streak cost him his relationship and, when his mother begged him to visit her in Texas, he gave up his life in Chicago and moved there. He even gave up counterfeiting. Instead he started running a new scam with acquaintances, robbing drug dealers of their drugs and money. One of his new friends convinced him to rob a girlfriend’s father’s jewelry business. Supposedly, the old man wanted out and would use the insurance claim to do so. When the deal went down, Art was left holding the bag, and a prison sentence in one of Texas’ worst prisons. Only one of the girls from his crew, Natalie, stayed with him, visiting regularly.
When he emerged from jail, the highly touted “new bills” had come into use. Art and Natalie set to work re-creating the new bills, feature by feature. Utilizing a mix of old technology (expensive printing presses) and new technology (increasingly cheaper and more powerful computers), they defeated all the anti-counterfeiting measures. Security strip, watermark, micro-printing, even the look and feel of the paper. He also took on a new con, going to out-of-town shopping malls with a stack of his own counterfeit 100’s. They’d go into a store, buy a few cheap items with his counterfeit money, then pocket the real change. Store after store, they’d hit the entire mall. Meanwhile, he was breaking several of da Vinci’s “cardinal rules”. They took their scam to Alaska, where Art reconnected with his deadbeat dad, and broke yet another rule. When he brought his father and stepmother into the scam, their lack of experience and greed eventually brought them all down.
Kersten’s book is fascinating, filled with details provided directly by Art Williams. He also has done some brilliant research into the history of counterfeiting. The book moves quickly and lets the reader get absorbed with the story of Art Williams, while never falling too deep into his spell.