Paper Money

Counterfeiter turns artistic nature into new career

Arthur Williams Jr. shows Lisa Petrillo of CBS Miami one of his artistic creations, based on the Series 1896 $1 silver certificate.

Screen captures from CBS Miami.

It’s not often that a counterfeiter’s story results in a happy ending for the culprit, but that is the saga of Arthur Williams Jr. His tale was told by Lisa Petrillo of that city’s CBS4 TV News in conjunction with the opening of the Art Basel-Miami international art fair.

Williams grew up on Chicago’s south side and, by age 12, with his mother having no money to feed the family, began committing petty crimes such as stealing from parking meters. A few years later, he advanced to counterfeiting, spurred on by what he saw as the simplicity of the old-style $100 bills. He said it took him two years to perfect the paper, but after that, CBS4 said, he became “infamous as the man who perfected the counterfeit $100 bill.”

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He was so good, in fact, that he printed too much, and began using some of the money, Robin Hood-like, to buy things for donation to children’s charities.

He was finally caught and while pronouncing his 6½-year sentence, the judge gave him advice that changed his life. He said, according to the report, “I really do hope you take this time that I give you and find something that you’re passionate about and learn everything that you can about it like you did with the money and promise you will be successful at it.”

So, out of prison and with a new wife and child, while working a succession of jobs, he began painting pictures of money. The first took a year. Then, last June his house burned down, and one thing that survived was a painting. He took that as an omen and with the help of a local businessman, he began painting in earnest, so well that he found his way to Art Basel-Miami last year. There, he was asked to exhibit his work at a private party held in an airport hangar. It didn’t take long for him to sell everything he had. 

He is back at Art Basel this year. His works are priced from $20,000 to $150,000, and all of them are selling. With tears in his eyes, he said to Petrillo, “This all happened in a year. It’s crazy. I feel very blessed and grateful.”

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