David Wolman, Wired contributing editor and author of The End of Money, recently wrote a brilliant article about the fascinating life story of one of the world’s most skillful counterfeiters – German artist Hans-Jurgen Kuhl.
He is a little bit like Germany’s answer to skilled forger Frank Abagnale Jr whose life story was featured in the Hollywood blockbuster ‘Catch Me If You Can’, except unlike Abagnale, Kuhl wasn’t very difficult to catch!
Wolman’s article is a luminous insight into the mind of the man who is responsible for creating some of the best counterfeit dollars ever seen by authorities, but what is most interesting about it, is that it shows that despite the fact that Kuhl was motivated to make the currency for financial profit, he was actually so good at it because he obsessed about it as an art. It also elaborates on the ways in which Kuhl differs from other counterfeiters.
Whilst reading Wolman’s article you do genuinely feel as though you are reading about the life-story of a troubled artist rather than that of a master conman or criminal and I think that is because Kuhl was much more artist than criminal. He fell into the world of counterfeiting because it became like the ultimate artistic challenge for him and despite the fact that he produced some of the best fake notes around, he never really excelled at the illegal side of it, getting caught out several times!
Kuhl started painting at a very early age, inspired by the artwork in Cologne’s Ludwig Museum and before long he had made something of a name for himself by producing Andy Warhol imitations. Kuhl sold many of these paintings, but for what they were, imitations – he would sign his own name on them. Interestingly, Kuhl was approached by one buyer who offered him a substantial amount of money to forge Warhol’s signature on some pieces, but Kuhl refused because it went against his artistic integrity.
However a few years later, tired of scraping by on a paltry artists salary Kuhl turned to a different type of imitation: counterfeiting the U.S Treasury’s $100 bill (he didn’t sign his name on this one though!)
In his early years, Kuhl made and lost a lot of money! He enjoyed spending money, rarely saved for a ‘rainy day’ and had certain expensive tastes, he admits to be terrible at planning ahead and perhaps that is why he found himself tempted to turn to a life of crime.
One of the most fascinating areas of Wolman’s article for me was the section that explained how Kuhl first got involved in counterfeiting. Kuhl spent a lot of time Cologne’s Café Cento with his ‘gang’, this group of people all had mobster-like nicknames and would spend hours reminiscing about the halcyon days of their youth. Wolman said: “Kuhl, known as “the Dove,” occupied a strange position within this milieu of part-time crooks and schemers. He was like them in that law-abiding people tended to bore him, and the idea of settling down with a family was of zero interest. But he was an artist and tinkerer, not a smuggler or thug.”
It was through his association with this group that Kuhl landed his first counterfeiting job with a man named Edgar, who offered Kuhl nearly $100,000 to create $5million in fake U.S currency. Kuhl set to work, believing that money would finally provide him the freedom to do exactly what he wanted and within 6 months he had produced the commissioned amount. However it turned out to be a sting by the German police and Kuhl and several others were arrested and charged. Later on though, a judge ruled that the police working on the case had been somewhat overzealous in their methods and that it bordered upon entrapment – so Kuhl got an early release on probation!
During the case, Kuhl’s counterfeited notes received a great many compliments, with many saying they were the best counterfeits that they had ever seen. Despite the fact that Kuhl had been caught red-handed, the compliments caused a sense of pride in his work and almost made him determined to make the ‘perfect’ counterfeit – one that would never be spotted!
Many years later, Kuhl got involved in another, more complex counterfeiting operation and was involved once more in a sting by the German police. He was arrested and sentenced to serve 6-years in an open prison for his crime and yet when he met with Wolman, he still dreamed of creating this perfect note. Kuhl was thoroughly aware that he didn’t have what it took to succeed in the counterfeiting business, saying “’I'm just never going to profit from this. I’m such a dupe because I always end up trusting some undercover agent.” But later added, “’I would just love to make just one more, just one more that’s absolutely perfect, and then I could tear it up.” This time I guess it really would be just about the art!!
The Ultimate Counterfeiter Isn’t a Crook—He’s an Artist (Via Wired)