The Last Counterfeiter Excerpt – How Art Williams Went from Faking Money to Art

Lifestyle

‘Orgasm is a good comparison, but there aren’t really any words for that feeling,” is how Art Williams described the first time he counterfeited to Rolling Stone back in 2005. A heavily disadvantaged, gifted kid from Chicago’s South Side, he learned the age-old criminal craft from his mother’s boyfriend, then took it to the next level by crafting one of the best replicas of the most secure U.S. bill ever created: The 1996 $100 New Note. At the time Williams spoke to RS, he had just served two years in federal prison. He’d been caught due to a series of events after tracking down the father who had abandoned him when he was six. As he put it to me then, “I broke my rules because of love.”  

Williams hoped that telling his story to RS would help him go clean, but it didn’t work out that way. Counterfeiters have a higher recidivism rate than heroin addicts, and in 2006 he was arrested after getting into an argument with his son, Art Williams III, who had also begun counterfeiting. This time Williams was sentenced to seven years. 

It was a sad outcome, but not the end. Williams disappeared into the prison system, at one point even sharing a cell with his son. I kept in touch with him the whole time. When Williams told me that he wanted to take up painting, I sent him books. I understood how tempted he would be to resume counterfeiting once he got out, yet also knew that he could succeed at anything he did, especially painting. He had the perseverance and the talent.

In my new book, The Last Counterfeiter, I tell the full story of Williams’s counterfeiting life, including what happened after the Rolling Stone story left off.  This excerpt follows Williams as he’s tempted to counterfeit again after his 2013 prison release and his struggles to make it in the art world (which he says is almost as criminal as the counterfeiting world). His incredible journey is worth waiting almost 20 years for.

THIS TIME, ART WILLIAMS HAD NO emergency cache of counterfeit to help him restart his operation. The only way he’d be able to start again was with the help of a serious investor — someone willing to bankroll him in exchange for a return on the profits.

Art won’t say who spotted him the money. “It was some gangsters from a different city,” is all he’s willing to reveal about their identity. “It wasn’t Cincinnati, but we’ll just say they were from

Cincinnati. These were some very heavy cats. They gave me $100,000 and an encrypted phone.”

With that amount of cash up front, Art didn’t need a day job. As always, he easily found a friend willing to put him on a payroll for a cash reimbursement, then set about gathering equipment.

If finding supplies had been difficult the last time, now it was downright infuriating. The centerpiece of his operations had always been an offset press, typically one of several models made by AB Dick. The company had been founded in Chicago in 1883 but by 2004 it had gone bankrupt as new tech and offshoring decimated America’s printing industry. Foreign counterfeiters had already gotten their hands on much of the leftover equipment. Art learned this from talking with smaller printers as he hunted for a new press. “They told me that the South Americans were coming here and filling barges with old equipment,” says Art. “They bought out everything.”

Art finally found the AB Dick he was looking for on eBay. The seller was in Minnesota, and he drove up there only to find that the cylinder was broken. The seller wanted only three grand, which was still a great deal, so he bought it and replaced the cylinder with one from another press he bought in Cleveland. “For six fucking months I was buying equipment from all over the country, renting a truck, driving out there pretending to be someone else, paying for it, bringing it back, rebuilding it, and getting it to work,” he remembers. “It was one of the most complicated things I’ve ever done in my life.”

Digital equipment was also tricky to wrangle. Gone were the days when he could go to Best Buy and purchase Photoshop software that didn’t need to be connected to the Internet. To remain completely offline and untraceable, he had to find an older computer from a repair place, as well as an old disc version of Photoshop. These products were crucial because they worked with his serial number generator.

One ingredient he had in abundance was good paper; there was still plenty left over from the heist that he and his brother Jason had pulled off prior to his last incarceration and he’d made sure it was well-protected. He also secured an excellent printing hole, a two-story, waterfront dock house in Miller Beach, IN. Forty-five minutes from Chicago and just across the Indiana border, it was off the beaten path, comfortable, and he could sleep there. As long as he wasn’t tailed, he could stay there for prolonged periods, minimizing the amount of time he could be picked up on the Secret Service’s radar.

“After about six months, I finally had everything,” says Art. “I had a digital plate burner, I had the press working. I had the old computer making digital files for my serial numbers. I had everything down, man … and then I fucking get this feeling that I’m being watched.”

ART CAN’T PUT HIS FINGER on exactly why he felt he was under surveillance. “Maybe it was my street sense,” he says. He was now very close to the final print run. The only ingredient he was still waiting on was fluorescent ink for his security strips, which had always been difficult to source. He’d finally found a supply company, purchased it under an alias, and was having it shipped to a safe house.

Part of his uneasiness might have been because he now had a new something, specifically someone, to lose. A few months earlier, he had stopped in at a smoke shop in Addison and met a beautiful woman named Sarah Mitter. She had impeccable skin, wavy black hair, and a taut, fulsome build. Art mentioned that he was a painter and learned that she was an artist too, a modern dancer. Art invited her to a showing that he was having later that month. Sarah came and as the evening wound down they got to know each other better. Sarah had been brought up in a religious household, gone through her rebellious phase as a teenager, and was now teaching dance at a Christian school in Chinatown. Although Art had broken more than his share of commandments, he had always had an almost mystical belief in God — a presence he felt strongest when he was creating and painting. Sarah had similar feelings about dance, and after that night they quickly fell in love.

Click here to buy a copy of “The Last Counterfeiter.”

Thanks to his unfailing talent for complicating his life, Art had not mentioned to Sarah that he was about to counterfeit again or that Cincinnati gangsters were into him for $100,000. “They were calling me on the secure phone, sweating me,” says Art. “It had been six months and I didn’t have much money left.”

Art ceased operations and avoided his Miller Beach spot for two weeks. Conveniently, just as the feeling that he was being watched faded, his fluorescent ink arrived. He picked it up at the safe house and his plan was to stop by his apartment for a quick nap before heading off to his printing hole.

“I set the ink on the counter,” he remembers. “And I go to the bedroom and I come back and my son’s standing there looking at it.”

SINCE LEAVING THE HALFWAY HOUSE, Art’s son Little Art had been on a far more stable trajectory than his father. After working various jobs as a janitor, car dealer, and even an industrial press operator, he obtained his commercial driver’s license. He was now driving a truck and sharing an apartment with his girlfriend. He hadn’t seen his father in weeks and had the day off so he figured he’d drop in on his old man.

“Motherfucker, you’ve been lying to us this whole time!” Little Art shouted. “This is what you’ve been doing?”

The moment was an uncanny reversal of the confrontation that had led to Art’s arrest almost ten years earlier — except this time his son had caught him in the act of counterfeiting.

As Big Art puts it: “He went berserk.” Perhaps because the circumstances were so similar, Little Art’s visceral reaction was to again flee the house, and once more his father chased after him to try to get him to talk. This time they both had cars, but Little Art wasn’t trying to escape. He made sure his father followed him right back to Thirty-First and Shields, to the exact location where he’d been arrested nine years earlier. Then he got out of the car and waited.

“You remember this spot?” he barked when his father joined him, pointing to the curb. “I remember you sitting there, crying. I went to prison with you, fucker.”

Art stammered that he’d been trying to live clean ever since his release, that nothing seemed to be working out, and that he didn’t know what else to do with himself. He could feel the weakness of his words the moment they left his mouth.

“Don’t know what to do with yourself? Get a fucking job like the rest of us, jagoff,” Little Art countered. He told his father that he should prepare to go back to prison because he was going to tell his mom, who was still a Chicago police officer, what he had seen. Then he got back in his car and drove off.

Art raced back to his apartment in a panic. Sarah would soon be dropping by after teaching her classes, and for all he knew his son was now informing on him to his cop mother. Continuing the operation now was unthinkable. Even if Little Art kept his secret, what kind of message would it send if he continued? He’d put himself in an impossible situation. Counterfeiting, his go-to solution for all his problems, was the problem.

Art found himself driving to the car dealership of his friend Jimmy “Pops” Saclamathis. Pops was there behind his desk, his usual cheerful self, but he saw right away that Art was in distress. “He was a wreck,” Jimmy remembers. “He was agitated and he was looking for guidance. He told me that he’d fucked up bad, and I gathered that meant he’d slipped, probably counterfeited, but he didn’t get into details.”

“Today is the only day you need to worry about,” Jimmy said to Art. “Whatever’s going on, change what you can today.”

Art decided on the change he would make: He would drive to Cincinnati and tell his gangster backers that they weren’t getting their product.

Before he left, he told Sarah that he was in trouble and that he needed to go to Cincinnati to deal with a situation. Art didn’t mention that he might not be coming back. The gangsters he had long dealt with in Chicago were certainly capable of killing, but Art had always enjoyed a degree of protection because people there could vouch for him. He had no idea how the Cincinnati gangsters would react upon learning he didn’t have their money, but the long drive gave him plenty of time to wonder if the reason his old counterfeiting mentor, Pete da Vinci, had disappeared years ago was because he had taken a similar one-way trip.

Courtesy of Art Williams, Jr

ART’S CONTACT IN CINCINNATI WAS the equivalent of what the Italian mafia would call a captain. He’d made the initial deal with Art with permission from the gang leader, who Art had never met. Art had told the captain only that he needed to meet, without going into any details. When they arrived at their spot, a fried chicken restaurant, for all the captain knew Art was bringing him counterfeit.

“I’m being watched and I don’t have the money,” Art told him. “All I have in this trunk is my fucking art, my paintings. Here, I’ll show you.” Art opened up the back of his little BMW’s trunk, where he had four paintings. The largest and most impressive was a 72-inch vertical of the 1996 New Note, in black and silver. The other three were modified versions of military payment certificates — a form of currency the US once used to pay troops who were overseas.

“I’ve had some shows, but this is a tough business to get into and that’s all I want to do, be an artist,” Art continued, his voice cracking. “This is all I can give you right now because they’re watching me. You can do whatever you want with me, I get it, but this is all I have.”

“All right, calm down. I understand,” said the captain. He knew Art well enough to know about his dreams of being an artist, but logically concluded that it would be best if Art himself explained to his superior why all he had for him were paintings of money. “We’ll go see him,” he told Art.

Art was about to get back in his car to follow the captain, but the captain told him to move the paintings into his truck, he was going to drive them. “That made me nervous,” recalls Art. “That left me no way out.”

They drove to a large warehouse in one of the city’s industrial zones. When Art walked in, it was full of people who he assumed were gangsters and their friends. The captain led him to a back area that had been converted into a music studio where there were fewer people, including the boss. “He was thin, well built, bald, with a little scruff, and he talked clean,” says Art. “He also had that watchful gleam in his eye.”

Art told the capo the same thing he’d told the captain: He was being watched and he couldn’t say when, if ever, he’d be able to complete the job due to his notoriety. He had nothing to give the capo except his paintings.

“I can tell you this much,” Art added. “I will make it as an artist. I will be a great artist.” If he was going to go out swinging, he was going to swing big. 

The capo studied him intently. He had likely seen men beg for their lives before, but this was almost certainly new.

“Bring me the paintings,” he said. Art and the captain ran out to the truck and carried them in. Art arranged them against the studio wall where there was good light. The gang leader studied them.

What calculations the boss made are known only to him. He of course knew that Art was a famous counterfeiter and that he had never ratted out anyone. He also knew that Art had come to him, and if it was true that Art was being watched, there was the possibility that he was being watched as well. Lastly, he seemed to like what he saw.

“Okay,” he told Art. “Leave these here and go be an artist.”

“IT WAS THE WEIRDEST MOMENT of my life,” Art says of squaring his debt to the gangster with his paintings. Technically, it was also his first big sale as an artist, four paintings for $100,000 — and his life. He drove back to Chicago with an empty trunk, grateful that he wasn’t stuffed inside it with a bullet in his skull. The first thing he did when he got home was hug Sarah.

Then he dismantled the print shop at Miller Beach. Lucky for him, Little Art never told his mother about discovering that his father was counterfeiting again. “I was angry and I wanted to scare him, but I didn’t want him to go back to prison,” he says. Art had taken care of today. Now all he had to do was figure out how to support four kids and himself. A few weeks later he learned that it would be five kids when Sarah told him that she was pregnant.

Any other time this might have been purely happy news, but Art quickly became depressed trying to figure out how he would support the new baby. He did still have his studio space in Lacuna Lofts, but he was out of inspiration. One day when he went there to paint all he could think about was his predicament. He sat by himself in the lobby, his head in his hands.

“Hey, Arty, what’s going on with you, man?” came a voice.

It was Joe Cacciatore Sr., owner of the Lacuna Lofts and one of the wealthiest men in Chicago. Art hadn’t seen the patriarch since he had come with his son, Joey Jr, to one of his shows a few months earlier. He’d always liked Joe. Despite his wealth and power, he was humble and never forgot that he came from Bridgeport. For obvious reasons, many of the people Joe interacted with sought to impress him, but Art had never felt that way.

“I can’t do anything right, Joe. I’ve failed at everything I’ve tried. I put in the work, but every time I can’t take care of myself or my family, I go off the edge.”

Joe sat there quietly, thinking, while Art struggled to control his emotions.

“I got an idea,” Joe finally said. The resident artists visiting the Lofts over the next six months would be painting murals and working with the community and it was important that they had someone who understood them and could help them realize their visions and goals. This wasn’t charity; like all professionals, artists can be exacting and demanding and quirky. With their long history as patrons of the arts, the Cacciatores knew the difference between tossing money at artists and nurturing them. Joe asked Art if he could live off of $5,000 a month doing this. With tears in his eyes, Art told him yes.

Art spent the next six months as a paid intern, doing everything from coffee runs and sourcing supplies to showing visitors the town. Lacuna’s guests included heavy hitters like Ford Smith, Jeff Blackburn, and WRDSMITH. “It was the greatest apprenticeship I ever could have had,” says Art. “I was still a prison artist and they were all badasses. I got to see how they work. I worked on every mural they did.”

After the Lacuna gig ended, Art’s old friend Eric Reid helped him secure a well-paying job painting houses. Art would paint houses all day, then return to the studio to paint his canvases. His painting, still mostly anchored in the currency designs that he loved, not only evolved but he also got faster. He taught himself how to paint with both hands and move between several canvases while his paints set. One of the tropes he loved to play with was to incorporate pop culture and celebrities into the bills he painted — playful, almost Warhol-esque references like Marilyn Monroe or Al Capone. These were done with such meticulous detail that the natural reaction for viewers would be, “Well, why the hell shouldn’t they be on American money?” All this time Art remained close to Joey Jr. and in March of 2016 the Cacciatores invited him to show his work at Columbia College on South Wabash Street.

Then, as it always did, life tested him. House painting jobs dried up in winter and Art — who now had an infant son that he and Sarah named Da Vinci — got laid off. Then he lent his car to a friend who totaled it. Just weeks after that, an electrical fire broke out in their apartment. After the Chicago Fire Department  doused the flames, almost all their possessions were lost. “I’ve stood in front of judges and got time,” Art recalls. “I’ve seen people get really hurt bad. I never really knew what shock was until I walked into my house that was fucking burnt and destroyed.” All that was left worth salvaging was a charred canvas that Art had been working on as a tribute to his brother, along with a paintbrush.

Losing his job, his car, and his home was the universe knocking at his door, telling him to start counterfeiting again. But this time he didn’t. The paintbrush had survived.

Courtesy of Art Williams, Jr

AFTER THE FIRE, ERIC REID told an acquaintance of his, Frank Girolamo, that his friend Art was looking for work. Frank was the president of an insurance advocacy company that helped people assert their insurance claims, and also restored damaged property. When Frank heard about Art’s recent troubles, he offered him odd jobs at the company’s work sites, mostly in construction.

Around this same time, Bill Shapiro, the former editor of Life Magazine, was writing a book called What We Keep and was interviewing all kinds of people about the single most meaningful object in their possession. He reached out to Art to discuss his paintbrush. Art excitedly told Frank about how the interview had reinvigorated his dreams. More than ever, he wanted to paint full time.

“What if I paid you a salary to paint, gave you a space here in the office?” Frank said. For the past few months, he had been quietly watching Art break his back at the construction sites, then go home every night to paint. He was impressed with Art’s work ethic and his paintings, and had attended a couple of small showings.

“That someone like me could become an artist and have people like these come and buy my work. It’s beyond anything I had imagined was possible.”

“You don’t even know me that well,” Art said, tearing up. “You’d do that for me?”

“Just paint,” Frank told him. “If it doesn’t work out, we can always go back to painting houses.”

Frank set Art up in his company’s training room and equipped him with a full set of paints, a computer, and a printer. Art was so nervous that he couldn’t paint anything for two days. “Am I any good? Do I even know what I’m doing? I was in my head,” he says. When he finally set paint to canvas, he stuck mainly to his celebrity bills, this time marrying them with the currency in increasingly unique ways: blending faces together, adding interference patterns, creating reverse images so the paintings resembled photolithographic plates, and even experimenting with color-shifting and ultraviolet inks. Another one of his signature themes was currency in the form of puzzle pieces — an homage to his experience of unlocking the security secrets of the 1996 New Note.

After a few months, Art’s repertoire was building, so Frank — who had become his de facto manager — worked on getting him his own show. Art may have been an infamous counterfeiter but he was completely unknown as an artist. The first person Frank found was a local boxing promoter, Bobby Hitz, who said Art could display some paintings at an upcoming match in Elk Grove. “It was like at a banquet hall,” Frank remembers. “They gave us a corner to display a few pieces. Of course, hardly any people looked at our stuff because they were all interested in the boxing. We didn’t get discouraged, we just kept on moving.”

After six months and a few more small shows, Art and Frank were getting anxious; they wanted to show his work to a bigger audience. One of Art’s friends knew someone who could get Art wall space at the annual Art Basel fair in Miami, for $1,500. Most artists don’t pay to show their work at Art Basel, but Frank happily admits that, when it came to the art business, “we had no idea what the fuck we were doing.” Art loaded up one of Frank’s vans with paintings and drove straight from Chicago to Miami.

Art had his first doubts when he dropped his works off at the gallery, which was two miles from the Convention Center. Despite the fact that Frank and Art were paying for wall space, the gallery put his work in a back corner. But he was excited to be there and when Frank flew down the next day to join him, they met the man who had hooked Art up with the gallery space. His name was Joe Benson, and he ran an executive jet rental business in Miami. Joe offered to get Art and Frank into some of the shows he was attending so they could network. Art and Frank were excited until they attended their first show.

The artist’s works turned out to be eerily similar to Art’s: He painted $100 bills. Many were so alike in color and concept that Art immediately became suspicious. “I just had a feeling like this dude had been watching me on my social media and, since he’s in Miami, he could get away with it and sell it down there,” Art says. “Meanwhile, I’m sitting here with nothing. I remember feeling like complete shit.”

It was the first—and far from the last—time that Art would find surprising parallels between the art business and the counterfeiting business. The possibility that he was being counterfeited left him inherently conflicted; he was despondent, yet also saw it as a compliment. Biting their tongues, Art and Frank even met the artist and his manager. “I felt like they knew who I was,” Art says. That night Art walked by himself for hours on Ocean Boulevard, wondering if he was played out as a painter. Then, at three in the morning, he got a call from Joe Benson.

“I feel bad about what happened today,” Benson told Art. “Why don’t we throw you your own event tomorrow afternoon at the jet hangar where I work?” 

The next morning Art hustled to retrieve his canvases from the gallery and rent easels to display them at the jet hangar while Frank and Joe Benson called everyone they knew in Miami. To help sweeten the pot, the event would be a charity auction, with half the proceeds from Art’s work going to After-School All-Stars, a charity that provides free after-school programs for underprivileged youth.

Benson’s hangar was at the Miami-Opa Locka Executive Airport. Art set his paintings up in front of a private jet, then waited in the expansive clubhouse next door, which had a full bar with couches and chairs. Frank and Joe even hired a DJ, but a half hour after the party was supposed to start, not a soul was there. Art, feeling pessimistic again, stepped outside of the hangar to smoke a cigarette. “All of a sudden, a Ferrari pulls up,” he remembers. “Then a big ass limo truck, followed by all these badass cars.”

Within an hour a hundred people filled the clubhouse. As the cars indicated, the guests were well-heeled. “A day earlier no one knew Art existed, and now everyone was talking about the paintings and everyone wanted to meet Arty,” Frank recalls. Prior to the auction, Art took the microphone and shared some of his personal story, telling guests about growing up poor on the South Side, counterfeiting, prison, and his belief that he could change his life.

When it was time for the auction, Frank gleefully watched three pieces sell for $18,500. They were purchased by Ed Letko, a medical supplies tycoon from Miami. “Art’s paintings are unique, and his story is unique,” Letko says. “My wife Anna and I recognized that immediately.”

Frank looked around for Art but couldn’t see him anywhere. He stepped outside the clubhouse and began walking down the rows of parked vehicles. He finally found Art between two trucks, sobbing.

“Why the hell are you crying?” Frank asked him. “We did it. We just sold your paintings for almost twenty grand!”

“You don’t understand where I come from, where I’ve been,” Art said. “That someone like me could become an artist and have people like these come and buy my work. It’s beyond anything I had imagined was possible.”

Frank suddenly understood that Art was crying because he was happy. Well, that made Frank start crying too, and the Chicagoans stood there between the trucks crying and laughing at how improbable it all was. Was it? Art had won an art contest at Eisenhower Academy as a kid by drawing the metaphorical prison cell that he was living in. Pete da Vinci had surely seen those skills when he was a teenager and trained him to become a master counterfeiter, which as a man had led him into very real prison cells. Art had always been gifted and capable of great achievements but he hadn’t known it.

“The craziest thing is that I’m still printing and painting money and I still get the rush,” he says. “But now it’s art.”

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Excerpted from The Last Counterfeiter: The Story of Fake Money, Real Art, and Forging the Impossible $100 Bill. Copyright © 2024 Jason Kersten. Printed with permission of Diversion Books. All rights reserved.

Read original source here.

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