The Man Who Would Be Rich

While there have been counterfeiting operations throughout history, few have been as coordinated and successful as the one that Alves Reis carried out in Portugal.

Throughout history there have been sophisticated schemes involving the counterfeiting of currency. Some have involved individuals using inkjet printers to make a quick buck while others have been state sponsored campaigns to destabilize a foreign government’s economy. Despite their varying complexity, they all revolved around the same basic theme: creating fake versions of actual banknotes. The man discussed today tried to change that paradigm. Instead of producing fake banknotes, he had unauthorized runs of genuine notes printed. The scheme involved a lot of cunning, as well as forged documents; however the payoff was immense.

Alves Reis was born in 1898 in Portugal. From a poor family, he managed to sneak his way into success through his prowess in forging documents. Using a bad check he managed to buy part of a company and gain wealth. While in jail for embezzlement in 1925 he concocted a scheme that would later be known as the Portuguese Banknote Crisis. He and a few associates forged a document in the name of the Central Bank of Portugal, the institution responsible for creating the supply of Portuguese currency, which authorized the printing of a run of banknotes. Reis took the forged documents to William Waterlow, of the printing company Waterlow & Sons, and convinced the company to print the notes. Since Waterlow & Sons had the original plates of the notes they were being asked to print, the notes printed for Reis were literally indistinguishable from the authorize prints. When Waterlow realized that the serial numbers printed were already used in previous runs, they contacted the bank. Their contact, unfortunately, was Reis who reassured them that it was okay.

500 escudo, obverse
500 escudo, reverse

Reis managed to have 200,000 copies of the above 500 escudos (the currency used at the time) note printed; totaling 100 million escudos face value. This was equal to .88% of Portugal’s GDP at the time. To put that in perspective, if this was done in the US today Reis would have received $150 billion. Reis would then use the currency to buy gold-backed foreign currencies and trade in the 500 escudo bills for small denominations. Reis would go on to buy land, jewelry, clothing and businesses throughout Portugal and Angola, creating a mini economic boom. Eventually Reis was discovered. His bank, Banco de Angola de Metropole, was investigated for illegally buying foreign backed currencies. While under investigation, their reserves of the illegal 500 escudo bills were searched. By chance, the authorities managed to find notes with the same serial number, meaning they were illegal duplicates. Had it not been for that, there would have been no proof of counterfeiting. Reis and his associates were aware of an arrest warrant out for them and while some managed to escape, Reis chose to face the charges and defend himself. The quality of his forged documents was so good that some believed that the whole plot was devised by the central bank, delaying the trial for five years. Reis was eventually sentenced to twenty years in prison, which he served in its entirety. During his sentence he would often ask why the notes he printed were deemed illegitimate despite being no different than the genuine ones. Upon his release he was offered a job, oddly enough, as an employee in a bank. However, he refused the job and lived a quiet and modest life until his death by a heart attack in 1955.

The effects of Reis’s scheme were far-reaching. Keep in mind that he was only twenty-eight years old when this happened. Due to the excess printing, the escudo lost much of its value. All 500 escudo notes were pulled from circulation and the Central Bank of Portugal managed to collect most of the fraudulent notes. Some evidence has suggested that the incident led to a military coup in 1926 against what was seen as an inept government. The bank eventually sued Waterlow & Sons and won a settlement of over £600,000. Waterlow never truly recovered from the settlement and was bought out by De La Rue in 1961 and eventually dissolved in 2009. While there have been counterfeiting operations throughout history, few have been coordinated at such a large scale and have been so successful. Reis’s plans showed that there is no counterfeit note better than the genuine, so if given the chance, why not make more of the genuine ones?

Sources:

  1. Bull, Andrew. (1997) Alves Reis and the Portuguese Bank Note Scandal of 1925. The British Historical Society, No. 24, Pgs. 22-57.
  2. Burton, Sam. (2006) Break the Bank. Cabinet, No. 21.
  3. Wigan, Henry. (2004) The Effects of the 1925 Portuguese Bank Note Crisis. London School of Economics.

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