Counterfeiter Emanuel Ninger - "Jim the Penman"

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Counterfeiter Emanuel Ninger - "Jim the Penman"

Emanuel Ninger, known as 'Jim the Penman', was a counterfeiter in the late 1880s. He drew, by hand, $50 and $100 United States Notes. He worked for weeks at a time on each note, and this was profitable because at the time one of those notes was extremely valuable (about $2000 or $4000 in today's dollars). He gained a following, as the invariably wealthy people that ended up with these banknotes tended to realise their worth as works of art.

A fake $50 bill by counterfeiter Emanuel Ninger. This bill was seized in 1896.

Above: A fake $50 bill by counterfeiter Emanuel Ninger. This bill was seized in 1896.

He was apprehended by the United States Secret Service in 1896, after a banknote ended up in a small puddle at a bar. A none-too-amused bartender realised that the ink was staining and the note was not genuine. Ninger served six months, and was forced to pay a restitution of $1; (the rumour that the $1 was one of his own works is more than likely an urban legend). He disappeared and probably did not make more works, though the art community was holding out, hoping for more to be discovered. None ever were.

Ninger was somewhat romanticised during his time, as almost a 'Robin Hood'-like character, whose crimes were deemed 'victimless', both because only the extremely wealthy could afford the bills that he was forging, and also because with the proper art connections, one could stand to profit by receiving a Ninger work.

This raises some fundamental questions about the value of currency, and the value of art. An artist that has explored these questions in great detail is JSG Boggs. Contemporary artists that treated the art of fooling the eye (trompe l'oeil) more legitimately include William Harnett, John F. Peto, and John Haberle.


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