Artist Hans-Jürgen Kuhl first gained attention for his andy Warhol imitations before becoming one of Germany’s most popular counterfeiters of cash. Now 72, he told Makeshift how he came to craft tens of millions of virtually undetectable fake dollars.
Makeshift: How did you start out?
HJK: In the 1960s and 1970s, I worked as a graphic designer and a fashion designer. My first experience counterfeiting wasn’t until 2001, when Germany was switching to the Euro and I was asked by a cultural secretary to do some work commemorating the Deutsch-mark. It was more of an artistic project, to make a beautifully styled banknote.
How did you then make the jump to illegal counterfeiting?
It was basically through a sting operation. I started earning less through my art and over the course of about a year and a half was approached by someone—who pretended to be a russian businessman—who was, in fact, an undercover agent. He kept offering me lucrative sums for copying banknotes. I eventually gave in. I started approaching the problem as an artist and getting excited by the process. I knew there was some risk, but the challenge was too tempting.
Isn’t that entrapment?
Yes. So in the end I was just given 15 months’ probation.
But you didn’t stop there.
I stopped for a little while. But then I fell on tough times again. And once you’ve broken the law once, the second time is way easier. You’ve already transgressed. So the second time an Albanian businessman approached me to make dollars. But by the time I finished the printing, he changed his mind and decided he only wanted euros, so the deal fell through. I was left with 30 million close-to-perfect dollars. I didn’t feel safe selling them and obviously couldn’t use them in Germany, so I just shredded them—all USD 30 million. And, unfortunately, I shredded a few personal letters too. That was a big, big mistake. a few weeks later the police were at my door, and this time I went to jail for six years.
What’s the biggest challenge in counterfeiting?
One of the hardest notes to copy is dollars because you have to do a steel engraving. But it is impossible to steel engrave. So I ended up doing a normal offset and then silkscreen and then combined this with a rough, thin film of plastic that gave the touch of a steel engraving.
How do you think counterfeiting will evolve?
In my opinion, the age of counterfeiting is over. It’s too dangerous, too inefficient. Something like online bank robbery is way easier, way more rewarding.
Do you still think about it?
Well, I think about it, sure. and plenty of people still come to me with newly issued bank notes and ask, “Jürgen, is this one impossible? Can you copy it?” and I laugh. Of course I can copy it. But I’m not going to do it. The amount of money governments spend in making notes impossible to copy is a waste of tax dollars. They should have asked me to help them out.