The Ultimate Counterfeiter Isn’t a Crook—He’s an Artist

Photo:  Jaap Scheeren

Photo: Jaap Scheeren

On a bright May afternoon in 2007, a German artist and printmaker named Hans-Jürgen Kuhl took a seat at an outdoor café directly opposite the colossal facade of the Cologne Cathedral. He ordered an espresso and a slice of plum cake, lit a Lucky Strike, and watched for the buyer. She was due any minute. Kuhl, a lanky 65-year-old, had to remind himself that he was in no rush. He’d sold plenty of artwork over the years, but this batch was altogether different. He needed to be patient.

Tourists milled about the platz in front of the cathedral, Germany’s most visited landmark, craning their necks to snap pictures of the impossibly intricate spires jutting toward the heavens. Kuhl knew those spires well. He had grown up in Cologne and painted the majestic cathedral countless times.

On the other side of a low brick wall surrounding the café, Kuhl finally spotted her. Tall, blond, and trim, Susann Falkenthal looked about 30. As was the case during their previous meetings, she wore practical shoes, an unremarkable blouse and pair of pants, and little makeup. Kuhl thought her plain look was something of a contradiction for a businesswoman who drove a black BMW convertible, but no matter.

When they first met a few months earlier, Falkenthal said she was an events manager from Vilnius, Lithuania, and gave Kuhl a card printed with a Vilnius address as well as an address from the German city of Essen. Her German was flawless.

This appointment by the cathedral was perhaps their 10th, and they greeted each other with a kiss on each cheek. Over the past few months, they had been meeting at Kuhl’s studio. She brought cake; he made coffee. They discussed jazz, Kuhl’s years as a fashion designer, the time Kuhl had met Andy Warhol, vacation spots on the Spanish island of Majorca, and eventually counterfeit US dollars.

If Kuhl couldn’t sell his beautiful fake bills, they would just end up rotting in a storage locker.

Early on, Falkenthal said she did a lot of business with Russian contacts in Vilnius, where unscrupulous types would sometimes try to bribe bouncers with fake $100 bills to gain access to exclusive events organized by her firm. Kuhl sympathized and mentioned a couple of tricks for detecting forgeries. “It’s easy to see and feel if it’s fake or not,” he told her.

A few weeks later, Falkenthal told Kuhl that she had a high-end party coming up in August. Would he be interested in printing the tickets for it? She wanted them to have unique serial numbers and some way to protect against forgeries. Kuhl suggested a strip that shines brightly when exposed to an ultraviolet lamp. Falkenthal told him the official order was for 300 tickets but then with a wink requested he print an extra 50 for her to sell on the side. She obviously isn’t the Pope, Kuhl thought. Working with her might get interesting.

After Kuhl printed the tickets for Falkenthal—including the extra 50—and was paid, he decided to take his chances with her. Not in the romantic sense, although during some of Falkenthal’s visits to his studio, Kuhl certainly noticed the way she’d drape an arm on the back of his desk chair and lean over him to inspect print drafts on his monitor. He thought they could do business. There were risks, Kuhl knew, but he tended to trust people. So he showed her a counterfeit $100 bill that he had made. As a precaution, he told her the sample had come from someone in Poland. There may be many more, he added. She asked if she could borrow it to show to a Russian friend. He said sure but warned her to be cautious. He knew from experience that this “area of business” was full of informants and undercover cops.

Falkenthal called Kuhl two weeks later. Her contact was impressed with the sample and interested in a purchase. They started with a test batch of $250,000, which she bought for 21,600 euros. The price was typical for forgeries, which generally sell at a steep discount because so much of the risk is borne by the buyer. As a consequence, counterfeiting is profitable only on a large scale. During that exchange, Kuhl told Falkenthal that he and his business partner had about $8 million more in currency to sell. “If the contact is satisfied with this first installment, we should talk,” he said. Ten days later she got back to him with good news: The man was “happy with the forgeries” and wanted to make a larger purchase. How about $6.5 million?

Seated at the café across from the cathedral that afternoon, Kuhl handed Falkenthal a note with a price for this new order: 533,000 euros for the $6.5 million in counterfeits. She agreed. Then they decided to make the handoff the next day at his studio. Kuhl also told Falkenthal that to ensure his safety he would have someone nearby during the exchange, just to be sure the handover went smoothly. “I have no choice,” he said, “even though I basically trust you.”

When Kuhl and Falkenthal stood up to part ways, Falkenthal added that she would bring her own boxes. After all, $6.5 million in $100 bills weighs about 150 pounds.