In most papers here, Scotland Yard has scored a "brilliant, fantastic coup." The metropolitican police detectives had smashed a ring of master forgers who had defrauded banks of countless millions.
The Daily Telegraph led its yarn about the conviction this way:
"The trial ended Wednesday of a gang involved in a multi-million-pound international bank fraud in which the Mafia and Soviet bloc countries had an interest and which the prosecution said could have wrecked the entire banking system of the Western World."
The facts appear to be more prosaic. Some of the clumsiest forgers in recent times have indeed been put behind bars. But their two-year run here went undetected largely because greedy banks were unwilling to complain. An article in Stern, a German magazine, identified the gang's leader and had as much to do with their undoing as "brilliant" police detection.
Apart from the romance draped on the tale, the case drew press attention here because Scotland Yard was shrewd enough to give the gang a headline-winning soubriquet, the Hungarian Circle. To be sure, the police lifted the label from Stern, too, but at least the Yard's public relations specialists were smart enough to spot a winner.
In fact, there was little logic in the title. Only two of the seven more important gang members were born or raised in Hungary. The leader, Henry Oberlander, is a 51-year-old Czech, and the inept forger, Francisco Fiocca, 55, an Argentinian of Italian descent.
In a world of police and press fantasy, the Sunday Times was a notable voice of sanity. From its account and those of other unromantic sources, the story goes about like this:
The Circle was a mixed lot of Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe, an ex Nazi tank commander and an old Etonian who once was an all English squash player. Around 1974, they set up a hand-operated press and other tools of the trade in a Nothing Hill apartment.
Their speciality was forged bank drafts, an order drawn on one bank and payable by another anywhere in the world in some specified currency. Bank drafts are much like the certified or cashier's checks sold by U.S. banks, instruments behind which stand the credit of the issuing bank.
The Circle discovered that bank drafts are easy to palm off. The water-marked paper on which they are printed is not difficult to obtain. By buying a genuine bank draft, forger Fiocca could examine and copy the "authorized" signature he needed.
He was careless, however. He printed serial numbers in the wrong type, got his inks mixed up and sometimes forgot to cross the t's in signatures. Fiocca even supplied poor identification. He forged one passport for the nonexistent Republica Central De Uruguay. It should have been "Oriental."
Runners like the ex-Nazi, Carl Albert [WORD ILLEGIBLE], or the old Etonian, Louis De [WORD ILLEGIBLE] Tufnell, would cash Fiocca's forgery. It might purport to be a draft on the Tenth National Bank of Pennsylvania for $15,000 in Dutch guilders to be paid by the Islamic Bank of Dubai. The Dubai bank would discover that it had received an advice note, a carbon of Fiocca's forgery, and cheerfully hand over the guilders to Lampertz or Tufnell. In a few weeks, Dubai would wonder why Pennsylvania had to sent on the fund to cover the draft and inquire. In a few more weeks, both banks would discover they had been had.
But nobody ever complained. The profits in selling and cashing drafts are high. The loan risk is zero. The whole system depends on the instant negotiability of a draft. Rather than threaten this and the golden eggs it lays, the banks stood by their code of omerta, silence.
The Circle was smart enough to spread their business around. They took perhaps 40 banks and were careful to limit the amounts to $5,000 to $20,000 at a time.
How much they got away with is not known, although the police say they have traced about $3.5 million and guess that perhaps 100 times as much was cashed. But this was not a case in which police work was notoriously strong.
Scotland Yard first got into the affair when it noticed that a well-known Soho book maker was living far better than he should. The bookie (who was not convicted of any crime) was watched closely. His frequent dealings with Oberlander, the Circle centre, were especially marked.
Stern magazine then helped by running an article on a gang of forgers it called the Hungarian Circle. Even more conveniently, the magazine published Oberlander's picture.
Now the detectives went into action. They followed Oberlander and his friends. They saw the trail take them to the Notting Hill apartment where the forgeries were printed.
On Aug. 13, 1976, just at dawn, the Yard swooped. No less than 250 detectives arrested no fewer than 32 persons.
Unhappily, the Yard had used more manpower than care. Only nine of the 32 were convicted in connection with the forgeries. The others were freed without charge, acquitted or put away for involvement in unrelated crimes. One died.
Fleet Street's press lords could be grateful, however, and not only for a splendid yarn. Runner Tunfell, the old Etonian, had once been a finacial adviser to Lord Camrose, co-owner of the Daily Telegraph, and to Lord Thomson, owner of the Time of London.
Leader Oberlander got 14 years, Fiocca got 8, and the runners 3. A conman to the end, Oberlander pleaded he lacked the 50,000 sterling that he was also fined.
At least he didn't forget the press. He spun a lovely tale of keeping 20 passports to pursue his work tracing down ex-Nazis and freeing Jews from Eastern Europe. Like all good confidence stories, there was a grain of reality in this: Oberlander had been convicted in Rhodesia for fraudulently promising Jewish families there to arrange for the escape of relatives behind the Iron Curtain.
Oberlander also insisted that the Circle was part of a larger ring of organized crime, and that the Mafia was an ultimate recipient of the proceeds.
Serious police authorities in Britain are sceptical of the existence of any organized, criminal Mafla - outside of the movies - and think Oberlander may have been influenced by the recent showing of "The Godfather".
Anyway, the Circle's deeds have cast a shadow. According to the Sunday Times, newly minted aad forged bank drafts have recently turned up in Vienna.