Artist who made near-perfect US$100 bills

From Wired comes David Wolman's indispensable piece on master counterfeiter Hans-Jürgen Kuhl, a printmaker, artist and rounder who forged millions in flawless US $100 bills, only to have the boodle nabbed in a sting before even one of his Franklins could circulate. Kuhl combined mechanical printmaking talent with an artist's eye and an obsessive commitment to detail, and came up with many ingenious workarounds for beating the Treasury's anti-forgery technology.

However, he sucked at tradecraft. He got rumbled when he took bags and bags of paper waste to a commercial incinerator. A worker noticed what seemed to be bags of US currency (at first) but turned out to be obvious cast-offs from his forging op, and the cops were called in. One sting later, and Kuhl was in jail.

He's out now, and painting again (for the first time in 20 years). He still dreams of making a forgery so perfect you could hand it to the US Secret Service.

Kuhl’s intricate production process combined offset printing with silk-screening (see “How to Make $100″). The hardest features to forge with any level of sophistication are on the front of the note: the US Treasury seal, the large “100″ denomination in the bottom-right corner, and the united states of america at the top. Real US currency is printed on massive intaglio presses (intaglio is Italian for engrave). The force with which the presses strike the paper lying over the engraved steel plates creates indentations that fill with ink, giving the bills a delicate 3-D relief and a textured feel. Its absence is a telltale sign of a counterfeit. For Kuhl this was the most critical puzzle piece: how to create that texture convincingly without the benefit of actual engraving. “I had an idea,” he says, “and I was itching to try it.”

His idea was to apply a second layer of ink, creating sufficient relief to mimic intaglio-pressed paper. But looking under a microscope, Kuhl saw that this second coat slumped as it dried, giving the image a blurred appearance. This problem stymied his progress until he read about UV-sensitive clear lacquer, which dries instantly when exposed to ultraviolet light. That, he says, was when everything clicked. “The ink wouldn’t have time to slump,” he says.

He ran a sheet of paper through the silk-screen press again, this time applying the lacquer and then drying it under UV light. “You don’t see the UV varnish—that is the key. You only feel it,” Kuhl says. This invisible coating atop the raised US Treasury seal and large “100″ in the lower-right corner of the bill was his masterstroke. One official told the German news magazine Der Spiegel that Kuhl’s dollars were “shockingly perfect.”

The piece includes a pretty good technical HOWTO on making your own forged notes. You know, for kids!

The Ultimate Counterfeiter Isn’t a Crook—He’s an Artist

(Image: James Yamasaki)


        1. UV inks and IR inks are both available via retail purchase and have been. This includes IR inks that fluoresce below 400nm or above 700nm (outside range of human eye). It’s not restricted tech

          If he knew of one it is incredibly unlikely that he was unaware of the other in a concerted effort to counterfeit to a precision undetectable.

  1. He does suck at tradecraft, if he didn’t he would have said he has no intent on ever trying to make counterfeits again, then find another country which is far less likely to detect counterfeits, make millions in their currency (maybe in smaller bills to be safe) and then move there to live like royalty for the rest of his life. Or better yet, find a bunch of third world bank branches that can’t detect counterfeits, deposit millions into each of those banks, then have it all transferred to an untraceable account like a Swiss one, then travel the world as a billionare.

  2. Interesting article. The brief description of the intaglio process is inaccurate, though. When an intaglio printing plate is inked, the ink is forced into the incised lines below the plate’s surface. The plate is then wiped, removing all the ink from the surface. Only the ink filling the incised areas of the plate remains. Under the pressure of the printing press, the paper is forced into the incised areas, where it picks up the ink. The topography of the printed surface, “a delicate 3-D relief and a textured feel,” is a result of the ink sitting on top of, and standing in relief to, the paper’s flat surface, not indentations filled with ink.

  3. Maybe the master forger in Making Money (by Terry Pratchett) was based in this guy? Who knows?

  4. While attending the Art Institute of Seattle, our Ad Design instructor gave us a screening of “To Live and Die in L.A.” because the characters utilized production techniques that we were going to start learning.  At 18 years old, that was the most blunt case of willful blindness that I had ever seen up to that point in my life.  What teacher in her right mind would put thoughts of forgery into the minds of talented students who were learning the skills necessary for it?  I have to give it to her, though.  After watching that movie, I used an X-Acto knife and colored paper and never bought another bus pass for my entire time in Seattle. This was 1987, when it was still possible to use manual skills and colored paper to forge a bus pass. They made it ridiculously easy.  I needed only a glimpse at the color scheme for that month and viola!  My passes were never questioned, not even once.

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