Fasten your seat belt before reading this. It’s a whirlwind story that’s exhilarating, and the kind of reading you won’t be able to put down. This is the story of Arthur J. Williams, Jr., one of the world’s best counterfeiter masterminds who repeatedly went in cycles from rags to riches, and from being in prison three times to owning a posh art gallery in Boca Raton, Florida. Of all the coincidences in his life, isn’t it ironic, then, that he was named “Art’?
But to his beginnings, Art said he came from a dysfunctional family. His father was a “grifter” who was engaged in petty and small-scale swindling by opening bank accounts, cashing fake checks and moving on around the country. When life was difficult with his bi-polar wife, he “kidnapped” his kids and moved them from Chicago to a wooded area outside of Oregon. Art made the best of it and grew to like the beauty of the woods, often wandering deep inside despite the danger of bears, snakes and other wild animals. At 8 years old, he had no fear; he found comfort in nature and a way to commune with the animals. When Art’s father was sent to prison, Art was sent to foster homes. He liked the stability but did not like that he and his siblings were split up and sent to live with different families.
Despite a difficult childhood, there were always signs that Art was smart, intuitive and resourceful. When he was 12, and living in Chicago’s worst housing projects, Art remembers that his mother would cry because she could not provide food or clothing for her young children. She did try to set some good examples though. Art said, “even though we had nothing, my mom would still reach into her tiny change purse and give coins to a beggar on the street. She said you never know if it’s an angel.” She also made her children go to church every Sunday.
One day, young Art figured out how to force coins from a parking meter. After his first collection of $82 from meters, he and his little brother went to the local corner supermarket. They filled a cart with groceries and gave the owner a bag of quarters in payment. At age twelve, this was Art’s first experience in the rewards of stealing and he learned that crime could “help me survive, and put shoes on my feet and those of my siblings.” He summed up his life on the south side of Chicago as filled with theft, gangs, drugs and violence.
At age 15, Art’s mother, who worked in a nearby snack shop, inadvertently introduced Art to his first counterfeiter. The man taught Art how to print money. Before long, Art got hold of a printing press and figured out how to run off hundred dollar bills. He was also involved in burglaries to steal jewelry. He was living the high life until when, at age 20, he was shot, caught and sent to the State Penitentiary in Texas for two years. Though it was tough in prison, Art was tougher, having learned to defend himself on the mean streets in Chicago. And he was smart. He spent much of his time reading. “I’m old school. I still read,” Art said. While in prison, he read over 1,000 books. His favorite subject was reading about great and powerful men, about kings and emperors, such as Julius Caesar. He also “had a knack for comprehension”: he could memorize 300-400 license plates or pick up a technical book on microbiology and “by three chapters, I’d get it.”
Art’s second time in prison was at the Federal Penitentiary in Minnesota for 36 months. Again he spent time reading about history and the Roman Empire. He related to Alexander the Great, as an orphan who was cast aside. “I felt like him,” Art said, “and, like him, I felt there was something great inside of me. Even my mother told me when I was only nine, that someday I would be great.”
In 1996, when Art was 24 years old, the U.S. Treasury Department announced that they were issuing the most secure 100 dollar bill ever created that was “impossible” to replicate. Art said, “if I could figure out how to get the paper, ink, strip and watermark” just right, I could copy it. And he did. After many months, Art created a $100 bill that was so perfect, even law enforcement couldn’t tell if it was real or fake. Art had printed millions in counterfeit bills and for the next few years, he traveled the country, living the high life. Along the way, Art still remembered his mother’s teachings and he donated truck loads of toys, diapers, clothing and more to the Salvation Army and those in need.
‘I was doing so well,” Art said. “I was selling $100,000 in fake bills for $30,000.” Then due to betrayal by one of his connections, Art was caught and landed in Federal prison for a third time, this time for 7 years. “I stayed loyal, and never snitched, so when I got out, I was accepted and respected, even by the older gangsters.” Also important, Art felt that the Judge had said something profound to him that had changed his life forever. The Judge saw something good in Art. He said that “I was very smart, and if I gave the time to something else like I did to this, I’d be great at it.” Not surprisingly, while in prison this time, Art read about religion, searching for God. He came away believing that “all religion has one theme: to love the world.”
Soon after being positively influenced by the Judge, there was another sign that guided Art. He had started a painting class while in prison. The first day, the teacher asked the class to paint a flower. Art did not like this subject and he quit attending the class. One day when he was outside in the prison yard, the teacher approached Art and told him that he should not quit, that he was the best in the class at mixing colors (Art knew this was a result of his knowledge of counterfeiting the ink on currency.) The teacher told him, “you don’t have to paint flowers. You can paint whatever you want but just keep painting.” Art’s first painting was a $1 bill dated 1896 which he said was “detailed and stunning.” He completed 7 paintings while in prison: paintings of currency ($2, $5, $10 bills), Madonna, and a Salvador Dali-esque surreal figure made of the face of Leonardo da Vinci on the top portion, and Michelangelo on the bottom. Meanwhile he continued to read biographies of Franklin, Tesla, Einstein, Martin Luther King, and politicians. He read “The Agony & The Ecstasy” and felt closely connected to Michelangelo and the entire Renaissance era. He was drawn to more reading about Leonardo da Vinci and how he painted in layers, about Raphael, the Medici’s and the history of Florence, Italy. He explained, “I lived in that whole period.”
During this stint in prison, Art was first kept in a single cell for a month; he suffered and began to feel that life was pointless. Then one night he had a vision in which a man came to him and said he loved him. Art found it beautiful and soothing. He wrote about it on an envelope which was all he had. This sparked him to do something new—he wrote a book. It was about learning how to be a good man and an upstanding citizen. When Art came out of prison at the age of 40, he felt the world had changed and he had much to learn to catch up. He tried opening a T-shirt business but not knowing about social media and marketing, the business failed. Art wanted to promote his artwork or his book but there was only interest in his counterfeiting. Ultimately, he sold a piece of artwork and “it paid a bill,” he said. But it was slow going since he used oils and glazes that could take a year to complete. He resorted to doing odd jobs for four years while continuing to paint at night. He said, “a few sales of artwork kept me from going back to crime. The canvas still saves me. It makes me feel human. It keeps me free.”
In 2017, Art hit a new low. He was laid o from work, his car broke down and his house burned to the ground. The only thing that survived the re was a painting Art had done of his brother. He felt that this was a sign that he should focus his life on painting. He began to paint more than 12 hours a day, from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., concentrating on his favorite five subjects: “Marilyn, Frank, Einstein, Tesla and Franklin.” He followed through on a suggestion that he move to Florida and display his paintings at the world renown Art Basel event in Miami. He was delighted when an art collector bought all of his first four paintings. This led to his involvement in huge charity events. He raised $67,000 at an event featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger and he donated $12,000 of it to the charity. Schwarzenegger invited Art to his home and hugged him. “A hug from ‘The Terminator’!” Art said smiling.
In May of 2017, Art sold $480,000 in paintings and donated $180,000 to charity. He said, “the more money I made, the more bills there were and past debts to pay off!” In January of 2019, Art opened a gallery in Boca Raton. “The return that I’ve received is more than the money. It has led me to good people.” Just as Art was telling his story, his first painting in his new gallery sold and was being wrapped to send to the buyer. Proving that life is cyclical and full of coincidences, this first painting that sold was, ironically, that of a large red flower. But it doesn’t stop there. The trendy gallery in Boca displays the art he has created of different denominations of dollar bills, surreal images of Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, and Audrey Hepburn, and more popular favorites: images of Ben Franklin with a real diamond in his shirt, embedded in the canvas. If you have an extra $25,000 available, one of these remarkable masterpieces can be yours. But at the very least, this gallery is a must see. There’s just no stopping Arthur J. Williams, Jr. now. He has turned his life around and he’s on his best cycle now…headed straight to the top.
Arthur J. Williams, Jr. Gallery is located at 480 E. Palmetto Park Road in Boca Raton.