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The Counterfeiters

Fifteen years among forgers

DeSperati

I first encountered the work of Jean de Sperati one Sunday in 2007, walking through the empty streets of Mayfair, when I glanced into the window of Sotheby’s. Sperati, a printer, made stamps. Tiny things, but beautiful. Intrigued, I read a brief biography of the man, and was shocked — he was a forger. And not just any forger, but one of the most successful of the twentieth century. He achieved his fakery by the assistance of a handpress not much larger than a laptop; combined with a master’s eye, of course. He was born into a family of counterfeiters in Italy; when the family ‘firm’ was raided, he hightailed it for France, where he continued the trade. He was so good at what he did, he remained undetected for over thirty years, by which time he had flooded the global market for rare stamps with his own versions. The British Philatelic Society in London, terrified that this lucrative and specialist economy would collapse if the sheer scale of Sperati’s fakery were exposed, decided to buy the entire collection of his counterfeits, direct from the man himself — to eliminate any future threat. Today, a Sperati fake is a collector’s item in its own right and can sell for thousands.

I was fascinated by this story. I have always loved crime novels, folk tales about trickster heroes, movies like Catch Me If You Can about rogues who subvert the system. And in Sperati’s case there was the added element of the thwarted artist — a person whose skill was so great, whose work was so meticulous and painstaking, and yet who produced art that had no originality or artistic intent whatsoever. So were sown the seeds of a novel and, slowly, I commenced research.

In the early twentieth century, rare stamps were worth a fortune. An example — the Buenos Aires 1p ‘In Ps’ tête-bêche pair error (the printer’s error meant that only one horizontal version and one vertical version were ever made) sold in 1923 for what in today’s money would be more than £100,000. Back then, stamp collecting was a much more mainstream pastime than it is now – there were hundreds of thousands of collectors globally – and it did not have our contemporary image of a slightly nerdy hobby. It was something of a craze. People hunted rarities at stamp markets to complete their collections or in the hope of a fortune. And it was this community of dreaming amateurs and obsessive collectors that Sperati set out to fleece.

As I researched, I encountered more stories about forgers, and came across a particular one that astonished me. This was the outlandish tale of the Portuguese conman, Alves dos Reis. Like Sperati, he operated during the early twentieth century. He forged not stamps but money. A young, balding, bankrupt businessman, he conceived a fraud so ambitious and audacious that when it was exposed, it revealed the fragility of the Portuguese economy, assisted its collapse and contributed to the failure of the government and thus to the military coup that ushered in nearly half a century of dictatorship.

Yet, for all these dramatic consequences, Alves dos Reis’s plan was simple. It relied on the fact that the printing of banknotes was a costly and technically complex business. In fact, there were only a few central banks in the world that had the resources and expertise to print cash. The smaller European nations, and newly independent states in South America, Africa and Asia, and the Europeans’ overseas colonies, relied on a handful of companies in Western Europe to produce their banknotes. Not central banks but independent banknote printers. The three oldest were De La Rue in England, Giesecke+Devrient in Germany, and the Royal Joh. Enschedé in Holland. Nearly all the money on the planet, printed by a few workshops in Western Europe.

There was also Waterlow & Sons in the City of London. Waterlow & Sons made escudos for the central bank of Portugal. The fraudster from Lisbon forged a letter from the Portuguese government authorising him to act on the government’s behalf in arranging the production of a new batch. Somewhat incredibly, when Alves dos Reis’s English-speaking accomplice, Karel Marang, arrived in the City with the letter, Waterlow & Sons accepted it at face value. Following various meetings between Marang and the printers, the banknotes were produced. Marang had three luggage trunks made by a luggage-maker which would bear the weight of millions, called at Waterlow & Sons, had the trunks filled with crisp notes smelling of fresh ink, then drove by cab to Liverpool Street Station where he deposited his baggage in the Main Line Departure Cloakroom before going for lunch at Pimm’s in Cheapside with one of Waterlow’s executives. After some fine dining, Marang collected his escudos and took the train for the continent. Then Alves dos Reis went about depositing his new fortune in Portuguese banks. At a loss to know what to do with such a colossal amount of cash, in the end he started his own bank and began to invest in capital projects. Given that this was during the economic downturn following the First World War, his investments and cash injection actually improved the Portuguese economy — I suppose it was a case of quantitative easing, but one undertaken without the knowledge of either the central bank or government.

The authorities did, however, finally discover Reis’s fraud (thanks to the observant eyes of a teller at a currency exchange office in Porto). The exposure of the crime resulted in a general failure of trust in the Portuguese central bank and eventually in the government.

It was these two stories – of Sperati and Reis – that grabbed my imagination. So, over a number of years, while I pursued other creative projects, I developed and drafted my novel about one particular fictional counterfeiter. I set the parameters of my story rather naively and arbitrarily. Sperati was born in Italy to a family of forgers and moved to France. So would my protagonist. Alves dos Reis used a banknote-printing company to print his banknotes. So would my protagonist. I thought of Sperati as a thwarted artist — so would my protagonist be a thwarted artist: he would go to art school, fall in with avant-garde artists in Paris in the 1920s, and finally become a counterfeiter. Thus, my story grew.

But there was a problem: I knew nothing of the period or places. Foolishly, I decided to stick to my plan and have two geographic locations, Italy and France, immediately doubling my research. I knew nothing of Italy in the early twentieth century, little of Paris; I knew next to nothing about printing and even less about printing stamps or banknotes. I knew slightly more about art, but not enough. So, the research areas multiplied. I made trips to Paris and Genoa, creating a childhood for my character, walking the streets he walked, choosing a house for him, visiting the church he attended each Sunday, strolling the hallways of his art college, the bars he frequented in Paris.

This took years. Fifteen of them. Perhaps the most challenging area to research was the counterfeiting of banknotes. Unsurprisingly, banks and printing experts do not like to give away the secret of how to print money. So, for a long time, this was a sticking point. Eventually, by chance, I met a printer who had worked for various central banks as a researcher, who explained a little about the process — but with tantalising details (necessarily) omitted. I grew slightly obsessive about historical detail — I suppose that is the monkey on the back of the historical novelist. Gradually, I realised I was trying to do two projects; a research one into period, place, various milieus, and the craft of printing, and a second — writing a novel.

In the end, as an increasing number of historical details escaped my grasp, I released various obsessions and allowed my imagination to rule, to give primacy to character and story over fact, to allow myself to create a version of Genoa and Paris, of printing and art and crime, in the first half of the twentieth century. But in spite of these accommodations, my novel, The Counterfeiters, has grown enormous, and it has been a challenge to wrest the material into some kind of shape. I first looked into that Sotheby’s window in 2007. It’s only now, in 2023, that I have a workable draft. I have tried to tell an entire life of one fictional forger; the story has felt at times as unwieldy as a real person’s life, but now it is finally reaching some kind of completion. My final draft – fingers crossed – will be finished this year. And what the project has given me, I reflect as I near its end, is an imagined experience of another life, another time and another place. Although the undertaking has occasionally seemed like a slightly barmy thing to have done, the various and unexpected contents of that other life, time and place all feel like random gifts to me from the universe, surprising and exciting gifts, and ones I wouldn’t have received if I had not written the story.

Richard Lambert writes fiction and poetry. His first novel, The Wolf Road, for young adult readers, was a book of the year in The Times, Guardian, and Financial Times, and longlisted for the Carnegie Prize. He lives in Norfolk and worked for the NHS before becoming an RLF Fellow.

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