The almighty dollar is designed to be uncrackable. From the distinctive feel of the greenback's cotton-and-linen-blended paper to its watermarks and color-shifting ink, the Treasury Department goes to excruciating lengths to ensure no one can counterfeit the world's most powerful currency. But the U.S. Treasury Department was no match for Art Williams, one of the most inventive and prolific counterfeiters of recent decades. After learning the craft at 16 from his mother's boyfriend, Williams, the product of a tough neighborhood on Chicago's South Side, went on to print an estimated $10 million in fake money by outmaneuvering the government's ever-tightening security measures. Color-changing ink was replicated by automotive paint; watermarks were painstakingly sketched by hand; a close copy of the secret paper came from leftover newsprint rolls made at local mills. Williams had a successful 10-year run before he was finally caught by the U.S. Secret Service and sentenced in 2002 to three years in prison.
Writer Jason Kersten first told Williams' story in Rolling Stone magazine in 2005. Now he's returned to the subject for a book, The Art of Making Money: The Story of a Master Counterfeiter. Williams took a stab at making an honest living, but eventually returned to counterfeiting and was arrested again in 2007. He's currently serving a federal prison term scheduled to end in 2013. Kersten spoke with TIME about Williams' remarkable criminal career and the odd allure of duplicating dollars.
You say that, unlike other criminals, counterfeiters are craftsmen. Is there a part of you that admires the work that they do?
Well, sure. I've seen one of Art's bills. It's just astonishing how similar it is to the genuine article. I tend to be fascinated by any master criminal, anyone who's such a diabolical genius that they take a crime beyond the financial gain.
The counterfeiters you write about seem to have a certain reverence for the crime's long history. Art's mentor, a man nicknamed "Da Vinci," insisted on listening to Italian opera while making fake bills because the music itself was old. Is that romantic aura part of what drew Art into the crime?
Well, I think initially what drew him in was the desire to make money. But it does take a certain sensibility to be a producer of counterfeit money; you have to have an artistic sense. You have to have a respect for the craft and a creative personality. That was as much a part of it for him as having the money in his pocket the act of creation.
One striking detail of the story is how Art and his wife would travel around the country and unload their fake bills by buying random supplies and souvenirs, getting real money in change. Then they donated those supplies to charity.
They'd have all this extra stuff, and they'd drop it off at Salvation Armies and churches. That became as important to them as the money itself, that feeling of charity. He wasn't a greedy counterfeiter.
Why do you think he agreed to talk to you? Was part of him proud, and wanted to boast?
Absolutely. You can see in the earlier part of the book that he's a good kid, and he's a smart kid. He skips two grades, he's a straight-A student. That all gets subverted once he goes into the projects in Chicago. I think that 12-year-old kid is still in there wanting to come out, and I think it did with his counterfeit bills.
What was it like to spend time together?
Our core interviews for the book took place over 10 days in a basement apartment on the South Side of Chicago. I was just pulling these stories from his childhood out of him. It was a very emotional process he would break down crying, telling me about his mother going crazy and his dad abandoning him. That's when the book sort of took a different direction. Yes, it's a book about counterfeiting, but then I started seeing it as the story of a man and his life, and how those things were interwoven.
Prosecutors have cited your Rolling Stone article as evidence that Art wasn't very contrite about what he had done. Do you feel any responsibility for the punishment he received?
The article raised his profile quite a bit, and probably assisted in him getting caught [a second time]. I do think it went to his head a little bit, but it was a choice he made to go back. I didn't feel responsible in any way for what he had done.
Art's still a relatively young guy, not even 40. What do you think the future may hold for him once he gets out of prison?
I really, really hope he doesn't go back to counterfeiting. Art's a great guy with a huge problem. If you meet Art, you don't really feel like you're talking to a criminal. You feel like you're talking to a very bright guy, a very humble guy. But counterfeiters have a higher recidivism rate than heroin addicts the crime gets in the blood that strongly. So telling myself "He's all done, he's never going back" would be foolish. Even though that's what I hope for more than anything.