Paper money has been around for over 700 years, and so have forgeries. An exhibition at Giesecke & Devrient, a private banknote printer in Munich, presents some of the best and worst from the counterfeiters' mills.
A counterfeit 1000 DM note by Guenter Hopfinger, the "Rembrandt of forgers"
Money is both a scourge and a blessing. We chase after it most of our lives, we love it, hate it, but we can't really do without it. It has been sung by pop stars from ABBA to Pink Floyd, derided by Bob Dylan and set to music by Beethoven. So it's no wonder that ever since paper money was introduced by the Chinese Yuan Dynasty over 700 years ago, people have tried to counterfeit it, and the reasons are not only just to increase one's purchasing power.
Forged money is favored in the drug trade, or to fund terrorist activities because it is cheap and difficult to trace. And because it can drive up inflation, it has also been used as a direct weapon. The English destroyed the value of the Continental Dollar during the American War of Independence by introducing bogus currency. And during World War Two, the Nazis set up "Operation Bernhardt," which aimed to flood Great Britain with 5-pound notes forged by prisoners at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.
Not fooling anyone: a fake 500 DM note made by pasting an extra 0 onto a 50 DM note
The favorite currencies for counterfeiters are, of course, the major ones like the dollar and the euro that are readily available and easy to move. In the second half of 2009, the European Central bank pulled around 447,000 fake euros out of the market from an average of 12.8 billion notes in circulation.
It was an increase of 8 percent over the previous semester. The majority of those bills were the 20-euros denomination. Total damage to the economy was estimated at 20 million euros, according to Niels Buenemann, principal press officer at the European Central Bank in Frankfurt.
For Wolfgang Knoerle, senior vice president and division head at Giesecke & Devrient, it's not all that bad. "Counterfeiters are contributing positively to the increase in complexity of mixing various technologies not only from original printing but also from other areas. This intense development is necessary to keep 10 years ahead of the access of the counterfeiters to those technologies."
While it may seem strange that governments would entrust such a delicate matter as printing money to private companies, Knoerle notes that the companies involved – just 10 or so worldwide – have proven their technological mettle and, more importantly, their trustworthiness.
Wolfgang Knoerle says counterfeiters only help improve banknote security
"If the central bank of a country wants to place an order with you, first they check your integrity and performance," Knoerle told Deutsche Welle. "The only asset we have is the trust of our clients. If we lose this trust, we are dead in the water and non-revivable."
Giesecke & Devrient is not only one of the world's largest printers of banknotes. The Munich-based company also designs secure payment systems like smart cards and even offers solutions for ID cards and passports.
Art and artifice
Giesecke & Devrient is currently holding an exhibition of fake banknotes that gives insight into the creativity and, more often than not, the clumsiness of counterfeiters.
Over 150 items are on display, from coarsely lithographed dollars, or bizarre 500-deutschmark bills made by pasting an extra zero from a fifty-euro note, to the famed Superdollar. The latter, a top-notch forgery that even machines had trouble reading, started appearing in the 1990s and is alleged to be North Korean.
One of Wolfgang Knoerle's favorite exhibits, though, is a 1000-deutschmark bill hand-painted by legendary forger Werner Hopfinger. "It's the superb handcrafting by a German gentleman," says Knoerle with a touch of admiration, "but he brought it into circulation, was captured and put in jail for quite a while. But if he had kept it in his strong box, he would have been considered an artist, not a counterfeiter."
The Superdollar has baffled counterfeiting experts
At the exhibition, visitors may try their skill at spotting some forgeries. The first line of defense against forgery is the users' senses. Banknotes are printed on a special cotton-based paper or substrate. The printing technique, called intaglio, gives each bill a unique feel and even a special sound.
A modern banknote, of course, has other more subtle security features. The most visible are the watermarks that can be seen when the note is held to the light. Less visible are the micro-printing or even optically variable inks that change color depending on the note's tilt and tell scanners and copiers when something illegal is being done.
But security is not the only goal of a banknote printer. Recently, G&D was commissioned to make the currency for Swaziland. Climate, and the fact that people often carry money directly next to their skin, was a challenge met by giving notes a polymer coating - a solution already known to Australians, New Zealanders and Nigerians.
With all the electronic payment systems around, one would expect the money printing business to be without a future. But Knoerle is an optimist. The banknote business is growing parallel to electronic payment systems.
Banknotes, he says, are unregistered and still mean a bit of freedom. What's more, two-thirds of the world's population have no access to the infrastructure needed for electronic payment, which means that printers and counterfeiters will be with us for a while yet.
Autor: Marton Radkai
Editor: Sam Edmonds