Jim The Penman

On the last weekend of every month, artist Emanuel Ninger would take the ferry from his farm in New Jersey to New York where he could convert his paintings into ready cash.


On the evening of March 28, 1896, having concluded his business and his shopping, Ninger found one last $50 note in his wallet. He stepped into a saloon not far from the ferry slip and ordered a glass of wine and a cigar. After a second glass and a chat with the owner he paid his bill in coin and headed for the door. Before leaving, he turned back and asked the saloon keeper if he might be able to change a fifty for him. He’d remembered he had to pay some of his farmhands on Monday. He got $40 in bills and $10 in silver which he shoved in his pocket without counting them and hurried off so as not to miss his ferry.


The saloonkeeper, surprised that the farmer had not bothered to count the change from what was a large denomination bill at that time, looked at the fifty more closely. It seemed fine. Turning it over he brushed his finger against part of the note that had got wet lying on the bar and the ink came off on his fingers.


That was how the authorities caught the counterfeiter they’d been chasing for thirteen years, the artist the New York Sun dubbed Jim The Penman. As noted in this article,  the Secret Service considered Emanuel Ninger a common counterfeiter. He saw himself as an American master of the impressionist school.


Ninger, who had emigrated from Germany with his wife Adelaide in 1882 wasn’t just convinced that his $20, $50 and $100 bills were as good as those printed by the government. He insisted that his were worth more. Where the Bureau of Engraving and Printing merely turned out mass produced inked rectangles, from 1883 to 1896 Ninger produced carefully rendered individual works of art.


In the attic of his farmhouse, the forger would soak the finest bond paper he could buy from Crane & Company (who supplied the stock used by the Treasury) in weak coffee to give it an aged appearance. While it was still wet, he placed the blank rectangle atop a genuine note, aligning them carefully on a piece of glass which would be held against a window. Through the transparent wet paper he could see the markings of the note below and he would carefully trace them, first in pencil then going over those markings in ink.


Ninger really came into his own when he used a camel’s hair brush to paint colours on the note. His artful brushstrokes suggested the intricately woven geometric lines known as lathework that were ordinarily engraved by the printing press. Only a magnifying glass revealed the differences between one of these copies and an original bill.


While reporting that the authorities were searching for the source of these counterfeit notes, the New York Times published a review of sorts. After examining one of his creations, the paper noted in 1891 that “nine persons out of ten would take it for the genuine article… the one who made it must have been an expert of rare ability… A marvellously fine piece of work.”


There’s a metaphor within this story that is worth noting. “Jim the Penman” focused his artistic energies on making money. He knew that if he spent a certain amount of time on one of his handcrafted rectangular artworks he could reliably earn $20, $50 or $100 depending on the face value he placed on the notes. Even though (as he said himself) his copies were “more finely produced than the original notes,” he would never be able to benefit from that added value.


We all have to eat and pay our bills, just like Ninger. But when we spend all our time and energy working as a commodity (where we get paid a reliable but fixed rate, or do the same thing over and over again because we know that ‘works’) we may never realise the true potential value of our creativity.


No matter how good a clone you might be able to make of an Apple Watch, you’re never going to make more that what the actual watch sells for. But the artist talented enough to make a convincing clone may well be capable of inventing a timepiece that is even better than the Apple Watch…with the creative accolades and financial rewards that come with it.


Would you rather be remembered as a creator or a counterfeiter?

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