An exhibition titled, “Funny Money – The Fight of the United States Secret Service against Counterfeit Money” opened April 9 at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
Organized by the American Numismatic Society, the Federal Reserve Bank and the United States Secret Service, the exhibit gives a unique insight into the workings of the Secret Service in its fight against counterfeiters. Better known today for its protection of the U.S. President, the Secret Service was originally set up in 1865 to combat and prevent counterfeiting.
The material in the exhibition, most of which has never been displayed before, illustrates the work of one of the more mysterious government agencies, which has rarely made its operations as public as in this exhibition.
In the 1860s, more than one-third of all circulating currency was estimated to be counterfeit, which presented a serious threat to the economy. Within the first two decades, the Secret Service established routines for investigating counterfeiters and bringing them to justice. Newspaper reports from the period paint a vivid picture of a culture in which counterfeiters were both vilified for their crimes while being admired for their skills in producing and passing counterfeit money.
Counterfeiters such as William Brockway and Victor Lustig were very famous in their day, and the press reported their various activities in great detail. Whereas traditionally men are convicted of counterfeiting, the material shows the involvement in these operations of women, who were employed to pass fake money, supervise work or finance the purchase of equipment.
The exhibit introduces the various techniques employed by counterfeiters. Until the advent of the computer and ink-jet printers, counterfeit notes were made with engraved plates on offset printing machines. Today counterfeiters often use a home office set-up to produce small batches of counterfeit money.
It features a note made by Albert Talton, who was arrested in California in 2007 in one of the largest and best organized counterfeit rings. He and his team produced millions of counterfeit dollars by using equipment and supplies from office supply store Staples.
Thanks to the help of several retired Secret Service agents, the exhibit sheds light on an investigation of the largest counterfeit ring in U.S. history, during which 85 people were arrested in the late 1980s in Queens, New York. The gang produced $100 million of counterfeit money, which was connected to a Colombian drug operation. Surveillance photos, mug shots and other records show the painstaking work of the special agents over several years. Other parts of the exhibition illustrate the techniques of counterfeiters to produce counterfeit money as well as the new techniques of using scanners and inkjet printers. The Secret Service’s operations in South America and abroad, where counterfeit money often plays a part in the trade of drugs and arms, are also well-illustrated.
“Many of the counterfeiters through the ages are motivated by greed, but in almost all the stories there is an element of pride in producing a good product,” said Dr. Ute Wartenberg Kagan, exhibit curator. “On the other hand, the investigative work of the special agents is so much less glamorous and gets little attention.
“Through the exhibition you can see how some agents follow certain criminals for years, and a relationship develops. When putting together the exhibition from the photos, reports, newspaper clippings, surveillance and arrest photos, I got to know some of these criminals and special agents quite well, and I hope that ‘Funny Money’ conveys some of this atmosphere to the visitors of the exhibition.”
The exhibition runs through Dec. 31.
To arrange a preview or accompanied viewing of the exhibition, or an interview with the curator, contact ANS administrator Joanne Isaac by e-mail at Isaac@numismatics.org, or by phone at (212) 571- 4470, ext. 112.