as much alchemist as conman


As long as reputable sovereign and financial entities have issued value-bearing notes, disreputable personages have attempted to imitate them for nefarious purposes. At times the counterfeiters have been nearly as productive as the legitimate mints. In the mid-nineteenth century, some forty percent of all American currency was fake. But “fake” here is a relative term. With literally thousands of currencies circulating at the time, legal tender in Cincinnati might be little more than tinder-box fodder in Columbus. National currencies, too, often ended up stoking the auto-da-fé; those of the French Bank Royale, the Continental Congress, and the Confederate States are only the most notorious examples. Under such turbulent circumstances, the difference between value and valuelessness, between “real money” and ornate scrap paper, does not admit of definite boundaries.

Perhaps no one has challenged this distinction more effectively than the forgotten Portuguese entrepreneur and swindler Arturo Alves Reis. The latter epithet, though certainly apt, fails to capture the true essence of his crimes, which were both outlandishly reckless and touchingly devoid of malice.

more from Cabinet here.