Let me first clarify that I am talking about people that counterfeit things and not people that work metal or gather things from the forest (especially considering those people are called foragers). Some counterfeit money, while others prefer to fake priceless artworks. The most intriguing thing about these types of criminals is the fact that their activities intersect between exquisite problem solving, high artistic skill, and the financial scale to actually hurt governments’ economies. Let’s take a look at what it takes to be a forger.
As with most criminal activities that take place outside the sound sets of Hollywood, they usually end after a finite amount of time. At the same time, if counterfeiters and forgers are cautious and restrained, they can then have a long and fruitful career working under law enforcement’s nose.
Edward Mueller was a counterfeiter for the better part of decade, but of course his story has a significant caveat. The way he did this is Mueller printed bills that no other counterfeiter would bother with: singles. He was excruciatingly calculating when, where and how much of them he would spend, usually only using one or two a day, always using them during busy times and never using them at the same shop on the same day. Eventually, the Secret Service, which was tasked with intercepting counterfeit currency before they started protecting the president, started compiling case file 880 which was dedicated to Mueller’s fake singles. If it wasn’t for an apartment fire, meddling kids, and even more meddlesome parents, the Secret Service would have never placed their hands on Mueller.
When Mueller’s apartment burnt down, the firefighters emptied his belongings into an adjacent ally, including a box containing some counterfeit singles. Kids playing in the alley noticed the less than authentic singles and kids’ parents then took them to the police. When Mueller returned to his apartment after living on the streets for a while, he was arrested, sentenced to a year and one day in jail, and was fined… a dollar – very funny, your Honor.
In 1950, a film called Mr. 880 was made based on his life, which made him more money than his small scale but long-lived counterfeiting operation.
Way Off the Beaten Path
Mark Landis was an art dealer with a tumulus life. Having been born into a military family who moved around often, he had the opportunity to visit Europe’s greatest museums. As a hobby, he started copying some of art history’s biggest names. This story has a sad twist but don’t worry, it gets much better.
He created an image of a Native American (which was fashionable at the time) and signed it as Maynard Dixon, an American artist who was well known for his depictions of the American Southwest. Landis donated the painting to a museum and said that everyone there had treated him nicely, nicer than he had ever been treated before in his life. He just wanted his mother to be proud of him (which she was) and he enjoyed how nice everyone treated him. He never used the donation for financial gain or tax reasons, he just did it for his own emotional satisfaction.
In a twist of fate, he was eventually tracked down by University of Cincinnati professor Aaron Cowan and Matthew Leininger, a registrar at the museum that had accepted a “Landis original” donation, and instead of being arrested he was offered an art show at the university. Although he was generally a recluse and had no intentions to profit from the work he created, he has recently developed somewhat of a following due to the incredible and admittedly innocent charm of his motivations behind his forgeries.
Famous Forger Not Famous for Forgeries
Michelangelo – yes, the Michelangelo known for works like Pietà and David, and for painting the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling – got his big break because of a forgery. How, you ask? Well, after the change of government in his native Florence, Michelangelo was only being awarded small commissions and had a hard time procuring more affluent patrons.
A patron by the name of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici commissioned a sculpture of St. John the Baptist as a child, but then convinced Michelangelo to age it and bury it so they can pawn it off at a higher price as an Ancient Roman piece. It worked (even though they were both screwed out of their ill-gained profit by a middleman), at least for a little while.
The buyer, Cardinal Raffaele Riario, realized that it was a faux Roman sculpture but was so impressed with the quality of Michelangelo’s work that he invited him to Rome and commissioned a piece for him. Of course, the Cardinal rejected the finished sculpture of Bacchus, probably as payback for being duped into buying a fake Roman sculpture. This created the most epic prank war of the Renaissances that resulted in the invention of whoopee cushions and spraying lapel flowers. Actually, it didn’t, but Michelangelo was a forger, y’all!
Big Ego, Bigger Bank Account
See, some forgers do it because they have something to prove, as if to say “I am just as talented and brilliant as these guys that you venerate in museums.” Although imitation is the highest form of flattery, copying holds little to no artistic value or validity. Sorry about the all-encompassing statement, just thought I’d share my sentiments.
The unknown forger we are talking about here created imitations so perfect that if it wasn’t for the small Omega left as a calling card on the face of the coin, not even coin experts could discern its authenticity (or lack thereof). These coins are actually so impeccable that they have created a market of their own – although they are not worth the couple of million their genuine copper siblings command at auction, his coins are actually collected and worth a few thousand dollars.
Mr. Green’s Middle Finger
A gentleman (and I use the term very, very loosely) was a petty criminal and juvenile delinquent. Frank Bourassa led a rollercoaster life but it took a turn for the better when he decided to go legit.
His decision, however, wasn’t one most criminals make, as in to leave behind their life of crime. No, he decided he’d never go back to making money on the right side of the law, and said he was miserable working long hours, suffering from anxiety, and being a slave to the business he owned. He eventually sold it and thought “why not skip the whole working part of getting money and just make it myself?”
$300.000 dollars later, he had a high tech printing “studio” that could emulate a $20 bill almost perfectly. Using the ignorance of Swiss papermakers against them and the lying fortune of one thousand Pinocchios (the units of lying measurement), he procured the exact composition of paper with a security band that read “USA TWENTY” and even a watermark. When asked by reporters how he pulled off getting the watermark, he basically said: for an American, that watermark is Andrew Jackson but for some German dude it’s just a picture of an old dude. He managed to allegedly print $200 million worth of $20 bills and has still not been apprehended by the U.S. government due to lack of evidence.
Have you heard of any other forgers? Let me know in the comment section below.