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For One Counterfeiter, It's Art, Not A Crime

Hans-Jurgen Kuhl featured his face on bills as an announcement for an art show.
David Wolman
Hans-Jurgen Kuhl featured his face on bills as an announcement for an art show.

Hans-Jurgen Kuhl started painting when he was 10. He loved gazing at the artwork in Cologne's Ludwig Museum. As a young adult, he discovered silk-screening and soon made something of a name for himself producing Andy Warhol imitations.

Years later, frustrated by his meager living as an artist, he decided to imitate a more difficult but more immediately rewarding piece of art: the U.S. Treasury's $100 bill. Kuhl still considered it art, though the authorities used a different word when he manufactured hundreds of thousands of maybe the best counterfeit C-notes ever.

David Wolman, a contributing editor at Wired and author of The End of Money, wrote about Kuhl for the magazine. He joins NPR's Neal Conan to tell the story of the German artist who made a name for himself counterfeiting U.S. currency.

Interview Highlights

On how Kuhl is different from typical counterfeiters

"Most counterfeiters are either drug addicts who are eager to raise a quick buck. ... After a few nights without sleep, they get the bright idea to bleach some $5 bills and scan the image of a 20 and then print the artwork, the imagery of the 20 on that same $5 bank note paper. Then on the other end of the spectrum, you have sort of mobsters and thugs, people who are involved in the drug trade or human trafficking, and they are really keen on mass production and, again, a fairly poor-quality counterfeit.

"Then there is this small group of true craftspeople out there, and a lot of them are really poor when it comes to criminal capabilities, but they are true artists. And in that sense, Kuhl is right near the top of the heap, as far as talented counterfeiters through history."

On how Kuhl created such convincing fakes

"You know, a very poor-quality fake, you can tell right away. It feels like flat paper out of your printer. But there's a real textured feeling to high-quality fakes. This is because the authentic notes are made with these intaglio presses that really slam down on the paper, and the ink fills these depressions and you get this 3-D relief. And so Kuhl's masterstroke, so to speak, was to use silkscreen right atop the same image he'd created with the offset [printer]. And then he would use a particular UV lacquer that would dry instantly once he exposed it to an ultraviolet light. And that way, his silk-screened ink wouldn't sort of slump off the top of the offset ink and create this kind of blurred image. And for him, this was really the moment when everything, quote-unquote, clicked."

On Kuhl's sentence and fervent wish for one more try

"He was convicted and sentenced to six years in a, quote-unquote, open prison, where, basically, you have to check yourself in at night like a dormitory student. ...

"And, you know, he told me, I'm not going to back to this. On the other hand, some investigators I spoke with said counterfeiters are so often repeat offenders, number one, because they are always struggling for money, and number two, because of the sort of artistic challenge of it.

"But Kuhl said, you know, 'I'm just never going to profit from this. I'm such a dupe because I always end up trusting some undercover agent.' And yet, then a little later in the evening, he said to me over yet another cigarette and yet another slice of pie, you know, 'I would just love to make just one more, just one more that's absolutely perfect, and then I could tear it up.' "

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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