- The art of the Con
The year was 1924 and inflation in
Germany had been spiraling totally out of control. He noted that the less a
mark could buy, the more of them were being printed by a German Government,
which seemed about ready to go over an abyss. Reis was always breaking problems
down into their natural components and discovered the fact that money essentially
had two basic parts, paper and a printing press. In a unique move, his own country
since 1891 had disavowed the fact that its currency would be backed by anything
but their promise that it was good as gold. Why was not his own promise every
bit as good as that of the Portuguese Government? They lied about everything
and he was a rather truthful chap if he did say so himself.
In the meantime, Reisâ€™ having cultivated
friends in high places was able to have his conviction overturned and he was
set free. He formed Alves Reis, Ltd in Lisbon and soon discovered that all Portuguese
currency was issued exclusively by the Bank of Portugal, an independent public
company. However, he learned that, by law they could only issue notes equaling
three times their capital. However, by digging further he discovered that every
time the government started to run short of money to pay its bills, it would
tell the Bank of Portugal to start the presses rolling once again. Often the
value of currency issued by the bank equaled more than 100-times the allowed
amount but that was always because the Bank of Portugal acted at the convenience
of the government.
Reis also discovered, to his amazement
that even when thoroughly over-used paper currency was returned for reissue,
there was no one that ever checked to see if the serials had been duplicated.
Apparently the Bank of Portugal did not believe that anyone could forge their
money. Making life even simpler for our forger in waiting was the fact that
the Bank of Portugal had their money printed by Waterlow & Sons of London
a prestigious old-line firm that also printed all of the English postage stamps.
A plan was starting to materialize in Reisâ€™s mind.
Reis concentrated on the various problems
that he could have faced and within several days he strongly believed that he
had the problem wiped. All that was left to do was to hire some well placed
co-conspirators and the job would be done. He went about determining who to
contact and did it in a very professional manner. He took weeks researching
in minute detail the backgrounds of hundreds of potential candidates that he
had accumulated through his research. He was looking for men with nerve, a successful
criminal career in their pasts, knowledge of finance and the ability to understand
the nuances of counterfeiting. A last but no least, men with guts. After months
of painstaking research, he had identified his candidates, they were a group
of misanthropes that seemed to have no loyalty to anything or anybody in their
histories. They all had been involved in highly sensitive dealings on both sides
of the law. But the best was the last, they all had substantial experience in
the various areas of counterfeiting and the passing of money.
He traveled extensively to interview
his contenders for this ultimate game he was in the process of creating. He
meet with each of them on their own turf and explained his plain to them openly
and in intimate detail. Ultimately high picked the three associates he wanted
to move forward with. It was shortly after that that the first part of the plan
was put into effect. A compact was created and the forged signature of the High
Commissioner of Angola was elegantly implanted on grant from that colony which
allowed Reis to print $5 million worth of escudos in exchange for a loan of
the same amount that he would make directly to the colony for the purposes of
mineral exploration. The next step was having the forged document notarized
and witnessed. From there it was hardly a stretch to have the consuls of France,
Germany and Great Britain verify the notaryâ€™s signature. The con was in motion.
From that point they were able to arrange meetings with prominent Portuguese
officials, all they way up to and including the president of the country. Unaware
of what was going on, each person in the chain became an import cog in the counterfeiting
Armed with this legitimate looking
document, there was a world-class printing firm that had to be approached.
It was the Dutch firm of Enschede & Co .Ltd. that promised that for a price
would create endless streams of the Portuguese equivalent of $25 and $50 bills.
Rather than create any suspicion in the minds of the folks at Waterlow, the
conspirators indicated that when the money arrived in Angola, the Portuguese
money would be overprinted, Angola in bold black letters to distinguish
it from the real thing. Waterlow was impressed with the concept, the menâ€™s credentials
and the opportunity they presented and without too much thought, readily accepted
the assignment. Waterlow was told that, naturally, the highest secrecy was imperative
because this matter was of extremely delicate. However, Waterlow knew that they
already had the necessary plates in house and that the printing of additional
batches would not require any serious dislocation but would be extremely profitable.
While this plan contained numerous
nuances and sub-plots, the last element in the plan was to apply for a charter
for a brand new Portuguese bank to be owned by Reis and his merry men. It was
Reisâ€™s theory that , by offering high level social and politically connected
people slots on the board of the new bank and offering them large stipends to
with the board seat, the government would have little problem approving the
new charter. Reis had covered all the bases and inserted all of the right people
to get the government to go along. The well-oiled plan was approved by the Portuguese
Government creating the new Bank of Angola e Metrople; finally, the last of
all of the pieces had been put into place. The money from Waterlow had been
shipped to Portugal and the serial numbers were thoroughly shuffled to avoid
the look of anything untoward. The bank opened for business in July of 1925,
less than a year from the time Reis had come up with his startling plan.
In sort of a test the waters, they
began to circulate a small amount of their money around town. Naturally, it
passed the litmus test because it had been printed by the same people, on the
same presses, with the same plates as the real thing. For all intents and purposes
it was the real thing. However, with a lot of shinny new bills circulating in
Lisbon, some shop keepers started questioning their legitimacy. The Bank of
Portugal investigated the allegations and then publicily denied that there
was any counterfeiting going on at all. The shinny money was every bit as good
as the older dirtier money, however the dirty money would stain you hands and
the new stuff would not. Many people opted for the newer variety in order to
keep their hands clean.
This certainly made things easier.
In the meantime the bank had entered in almost every commercial area doing money
exchanges, mortgages and consumer lending at a price somewhat under that of
their competition. Business in Lisbon thrived because people now had money to
spend while the forgers had conceived of the most unusual method of money laundering
ever heard of. Moreover, although no one could realize it, the forgeries that
were getting into circulation were getting businesses that had been moribund
up and running once again. There was a better feeling in the air in Portugal
but nobody could figure out way. With the economy picking up sped, the Bank
of Portugal was not keeping up with the need. More money was needed as it was
flying out the tellerâ€™s windows at an outrageous clip. Seeing the crisis evolving
Waterlow soon delivered twice the original amount and then anti was upped another
The last piece of the puzzle was now
put into place. The Bank of Portugal even though it was the currency arm of
the Portuguese Government was also a public company. With the laundered funds
that the Bank of Angola was receiving, it started to buy shares in the Bank
of Portugal in the open market. However, the conspirators were also living well
and the five-hundred pound escudos were flouting around the city of Lisbon like
pebbles on the beach. Still there were those that thought something untoward
was going on. The Bank of Portugal had started another and more serious investigation.
The government it turns out had by this time discovered the fact that numerous
bills had duplicate serial numbers and the jig was literally up. The partners
scattered among the more friendly locals where the smarter ones had stashed
substantive reserves. Although the fraud had been discovered, the Bank of Portugal
became catatonic when they realized that the fraudulent bills in circulation
we exactly the same as the real bills. In reality there was no real or unreal,
there were just the bills. Numerous useless meeting were called by senior officials
who had not a clue about what to do in this dreadful situation.
While the Bank of Portugal people
were running around the room in ever widening circles trying to figure out how
to resolve this weighty problem, Reis realized that the plot had unraveled,
this as just round one and he was determined not only tough it out but to confuse
the police to a degree that they would not know where to turn next. He counterfeited
some official looking documents, which implicated the Governor and Vice Governor
of the Bank of Portugal into the counterfeiting ring. The Portuguese press not
wanting to name the Bank of Portugal as the dubs looked around for a mark and
came up with the Russians as the bad guys in this one.
Upon hearing that the Russians were
involved in the counterfeiting, everyone in Lisbon started running in circles
like a headless chickens not having the slightest clue as to what to do next.
The Chief of Waterlow was brought to Portugal under armed guard and barely escaped
with his life because of the turmoil that he had innocently been a part of creating.
Crowds of people in Portugalâ€™s capital chanted for his execution. In all major
Portuguese cities, there were runs on the banks and substantial street rioting
occurred when people could not immediately access their funds. The Bank of Angolaâ€™s
cliental suffered an even worse fate because there was no insurance on bank
accounts in Portugal. The Bank of Angola was summarily closed on a permanent
The peopleâ€™s faith in the government
tanked and a military junta was able to take the reigns of the country in a
rather bloodless coup. Sadly, for Reis, it was to a military tribunal that was
going to be responsible for his fate. For his efforts, Reis received a sentence
of eight-years in jail and twelve years in exile in the Azores. Waterlow was
sued by the Bank of Portugal for a fortune but the timing of the trial was delayed
because by this time, Sir William Waterlow, the man that had made the deal with
Reis was now the Lord Mayor of London. Suing the standing mayor of London would
not have been a good move under any circumstances When the trial finally did
commence, the defense argued that the Bank of Portugal had really suffered no
actual damages primarily because the country had nothing backing their currency.
In a split vote, the Bank of Portugal won the case from Waterlow along with
$3 million for legal fees. However, it was a private bank and when push really
came to shove; the Bank had made $3 million on this little escapade. Reis died
in 1955 and one of the great criminal minds in history was buried in a small
plot without the least fanfare.
This was the greatest bank robbery of all time and we hardly
know about it. It the one additional step that Reis had just started, the buying
in of the stock in the bank, the man would have literally owned Portugal.