Stranger than Fiction: The Portuguese Bank Note Crisis of 1925

Spurious reprints by Artur Virgilio Alves dos Reis rivaled legitimate ones printed by the Portuguese government.

Confidential missions, forgery, miscommunication and international money scams? Am I describing the plot points to a movie or the most successful paper money scam of all time? Surprisingly, it’s the latter.

If you’re a paper money collector, then there is no doubt that you’ve heard of the Portugal Bank Note Affair of 1925. The story goes as such: Led by Artur Virgilio Alves dos Reis, a group of people nearly wrecked the Portuguese economy by spuriously printing over 100 million escudos in 500 Escudo notes and introducing them into general circulation.

An operation this large required secrecy, with only a few key players fully aware of the situation and many of the associates “believing” that the whole operation was legitimate.

1922 Portugal, Banco de Portugal 500 Escudos (Pick# 130), front
PMG graded About Uncirculated 55 Net
Click image to enlarge.

1922 Portugal, Banco de Portugal 500 Escudos (Pick# 130), back
PMG graded About Uncirculated 55 Net
Click image to enlarge.

Many people today would want to call this a counterfeiting operation, but to call these notes counterfeit, in the purest sense of the word, would be wrong. A counterfeit is defined as an item “made in exact imitation of something valuable.” However, part of the genius of Reis’s plan was to use the printer that already produced currency for the Bank of Portugal, Waterlow & Sons.

Though Reis first contacted a different printer under the same ruse, it was suggested by them that he go through the printer who originally created the notes because it would be hard to reproduce the engraved plates with exact accuracy. Through forged and questionably notarized documents, Reis convinced Waterlow to reprint a large run of notes by stating that they were for the Portuguese colony of Angola and impressing upon him the importance of secrecy for political reasons.

This means that notes that were printed for this scam were, in fact, genuine 500 Escudo notes; and by the end of the heist, there were nearly as many officially issued 500 Escudo notes as there were bogus reprints.

In today’s technological age, it’s hard to imagine a time when a heist such as this would have worked. The plot relied heavily on a lack of communication between the real bank officials and the printer, as well as a general air of secrecy surrounding the whole “mission.”

When issues regarding the request arose due to the printing of duplicate serial numbers, they were dismissed by Reis under the notion that the notes would receive an overprint once they arrived in Lisbon, but before they were sent to Angola. All communications with the printer were done via written letter and, with luck on their side, a letter raising concerns about the duplication that was sent to Bank of Portugal official got lost in the mail between England and Portugal.

Of course, as with any nearly perfect plan, there had to be a weak link. The first detections of the operation came through Reis’s attempts to launder his money.

After making many small real estate and retail investments, Reis and his accomplices opened a bank, Banco de Angola e Metrópole, to aid in the laundering of the unauthorized bills. Ultimately, this bank drew a lot of attention for being able to issue low interest loans with little or no deposits.

Over time, the officials caught on but couldn’t pin down Reis’s or his crew with any hard evidence. It was the duplicate serial numbers, noticed by chance, that finally busted the operation in December of 1925.

All in all, the Portuguese Bank Note Affair of 1925 is more than just an interesting story. As counterfeiting becomes more sophisticated with modern technology, this story harkens back to a time when it only took a little bit of organization and a lot of luck to pull off a hoax of this scale.

The political implications of this scam were far reaching and caused the general public to lose what little trust they had in the financial institutions of their country; some would even say that this crisis was one of the causes of the fall of the Portuguese Republic in 1926. Additionally, Waterlow & Sons never fully recovered and was eventually sold to the well-known printer Thomas De La Rue.

But what became of Reis? Unlike some of the Hollywood-scripted bank heists, Reis did not get to move to a tropical island and live out his days in luxury, enjoying the profits of his scam. After serving 15 years of a 20-year prison sentence, Reis was released and offered a job at a bank, which he turned down. He died 10 years later, living in poverty.

1922 Portugal 500 Escudos (Pick# 130x) - "Reis Issue", front
PMG graded Choice About Uncirculated 58
Click image to enlarge.

1922 Portugal 500 Escudos (Pick# 130x) - "Reis Issue", back
PMG graded Choice About Uncirculated 58
Click image to enlarge.

If you are interested in finding a little piece of Portuguese history, PMG officially recognizes Reis’s spuriously printed notes in our population, under Portugal 130x.

To identify a Reis reprint from a genuinely issued 500 Escudo note, look for serial number prefixes with double vowels (e.g. AA, AE, AI...) or prefixes above "AN." Expect to pay a pretty penny for this note, however, as a Reis reprint (graded by PMG in AU58) sold through Heritage Auctions in 2016 for over $7,500.

Check out this note in the PMG Pop Report!

Sources

  • algarvehistoryassociation.com/en/portugal/131-alves-reis-arch-forger
  • Bloom, Murray Teigh. The Man Who Stole Portugal, London: Secker & Warburg (1966).
  • introtoglobalstudies.com/2013/09/the-greatest-fraud-ever-artur-virgilio-alves-dos-reis-and-the-portuguese-bank-note-affair/



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