Victor LustigVictor Lustig
– March 11
) is held to have been one of the most talented confidence trick
sters who ever lived. He is best known as "the man who sold the Eiffel Tower
Victor Lustig was born in Bohemia
but soon headed west, demonstrating his talents even in his early
twenties. He was a natural conman, glib and charming in multiple
languages. He established himself by working scams on the ocean liners
steaming between Paris
and New York City
, but eventually decided to stay in Paris for a while and see what he could find there.
first con involved a money-printing machine. He would demonstrate the
small box to clients, all the while lamenting that it took the device
six hours to copy a $100 bill. The client, sensing huge profits, would
buy the machine for a high price, usually over $30,000. Over the next
twelve hours, the machine would produce two more $100 bills. After
that, it produced only blank paper. Its supply of $100 bills had been
exhausted. The client would inform the police, only to find that Lustig
had closed up shop and moved on.The Eiffel Tower Scam
, France had recovered from World War I
, and Paris was booming. Expatriate
from all over the world went there to enjoy being at the leading edge
of the latest trends. It was flashy, fast moving, and an excellent
environment for a con artist.
Lustig's master con began one
spring day when he was reading a newspaper. An article discussed the
problems the city was having maintaining the Eiffel Tower. Even keeping
it painted was an expensive chore, and the tower was becoming somewhat
Lustig saw a story behind this article. Maybe the
city would decide the Eiffel Tower was not worth saving any longer.
Lustig outlined the possibilities and developed them into a remarkable
Lustig adopted the persona of a government official,
and had a forger produce fake government stationery for him. Lustig
then sent six scrap metal dealers an invitation to attend a
confidential meeting at the Hotel de Crillon
on Place de la Concorde
to discuss a possible business deal. The Hotel Crillon, one of the most
prestigious of the old Paris hotels, was a meeting place for diplomats
and a perfect cover. All six scrap dealers replied and came to the
There, Lustig introduced himself as the deputy
director-general of the Ministry of Posts and Telegraphs. He explained
that the dealers had been selected on the basis of their good
reputations as honest businessmen, and then dropped his bombshell.
told the group that the upkeep on the Eiffel Tower was so outrageous
that the city could not maintain it any longer, and wanted to sell it
for scrap. Due to the certain public outcry, he went on, the matter was
to be kept secret until all the details were thought out. Lustig said
that he had been given the responsibility to select the dealer to carry
out the task.
The idea was not as implausible in 1925
as it would be today. The Eiffel Tower had been built for the 1889 Paris Exposition
, and was not intended to be permanent. It was to have been taken down in 1909
and moved somewhere else. It did not fit with the city's other great monuments like the Gothic cathedral
s or the Arc de Triomphe
, and in any case at the time it really was in poor condition.
took the men to the tower in a rented limousine to give them an
inspection tour. The tower was made of 15,000 prefabricated parts, many
of which were highly ornamental, and Lustig showed it off to the men.
This encouraged their enthusiasm, and it also gave Lustig an idea who
was the most enthusiastic and gullible. He knew how to be attentive and
agreeable, and let people talk until they told him everything he wanted
Back on the ground, Lustig asked for bids to be
submitted the next day, and reminded them that the matter was a state
secret. In reality, Lustig already knew he would accept the bid from
one dealer, Andre Poisson
Poisson was insecure, feeling he was not in the inner circles of the
Parisian business community, and thought that obtaining the Eiffel
Tower deal would put him in the big league. Lustig had quickly sensed
However, Lustig knew he was walking over
dangerous ground. Fraud was bad enough, but the authorities would be
very displeased at his having put over the fraud while impersonating a
high government official. And Poisson's wife was suspicious. Who was
this official, why was everything so secret, and why was everything
being done so quickly?
To deal with the suspicious Poisson,
Lustig arranged another meeting, and then "confessed". As a government
minister, Lustig said, he did not make enough money to pursue the
lifestyle he enjoyed, and needed to find ways to supplement his income.
This meant that his dealings needed a certain discretion.
understood immediately. He was dealing with another corrupt government
official who wanted a bribe. That put Poisson's mind at rest
immediately, since he was familiar with the type and had no problems
dealing with such people.
So Lustig not only received the
funds for the Eiffel Tower, he also got a bribe on top of that. Lustig
and his personal secretary, an American conman named Dan Collins,
hastily took a train for Vienna
with a suitcase full of cash. He knew the instant that Poisson called
the government ministries to ask for further information that the whole
fraud would be revealed and the law would intervene.
happened. Poisson was too humiliated to complain to the police. A month
later, Lustig returned to Paris, selected six more scrap dealers, and
tried to sell the Tower once more. This time, the mark went to the
police before Lustig managed to close the deal, but Lustig and Collins
still managed to evade arrest.Later Years
Later, Lustig convinced Al Capone
to invest $40,000 in a stock deal. Lustig kept Capone's money in a safe
deposit box for two months, then returned it to him, claiming that the
deal had fallen through. Impressed with Lustig's integrity, Capone gave
him $5,000. It was, of course, all that Lustig was after.
There were others who made a profit selling civic landmarks, of course. In the early 1920s
, a rival to Lustig was the fast-talking Scotsman Arthur Ferguson
1934, Lustig was arrested by federal agents on charges of
counterfeiting. The day before his trial, he managed to escape from the
Federal House of Detention in New York City, but was recaptured 27 days
later in Pittsburgh
. Lustig pleaded guilty at his trial and was sentenced to 20 years in Alcatraz
. On March 9 1947, he contracted pneumonia and died on March 11 at the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri
* Book: The Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower
by James F. Johnson as told to Floyd Miller, Doubleday, 1961.
* The Confidence Artists by Greg Goebel