The Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower—Twice!

Jun 6, 2022 0 comments

Even if you think you know who Victor Lustig is, you don’t. Beyond the charming salutations, the livid scar on his left cheekbone and the made up story about being born in the Czech town of Hostinné in 1890, there’s little knowledge of his identity. In fact this description might just bring another name to your mind—maybe Robert V. Miller, or one of the 47 aliases he rolled with during his conning days. There is one thing that sets him apart from all other swindlers in the world of con art though—it was Victor Lustic who sold the Eiffel Tower, twice.

Photo: Carlos Perez/Flickr

“Count” Victor Lustig was a man of many charms. His manner was eye-catching and his talk sparked interest in things unheard of before. By 1925 he was sitting down with the likes of white collared men smoking cigars and wooing women while pocketing thousands of dollars by trickery. In what became one of his most famous con acts over time, he would talk about a secret money box that printed only $100 bills. He would fuss and shrink back when someone showed interest in the invention, but would eventually relent to selling it. The price would range anywhere between $10,000 and $30,000, for naturally, the possession was dear to Victor. To show the authenticity of the printing machine, he would stack the box with a few bills beforehand. Once the product was sold to the most eager buyer, Victor would flee within moments, leaving behind nothing but a trail of dust while the duped was left with no new bills and a dent in the pocket. With many more schemes and tricks, the artist had garnered over 40 arrests by police across state and country lines.

Victor Lustig

But that year, bigger things came Victor’s way. While he was in Paris, the government released an announcement about the need for repairs of the great Eiffel Tower of Paris. Public opinion immediately divided on the matter, with some supporting the repairs while others voting against it. A newspaper at the time also noted that it would be cheaper to simply tear the whole thing down.

Enter Deputy Director General of the Ministère de Postes et Télégraphes—an official of the government looking to connect with scrap dealers in Paris. The man sent a letter to five dealers in the city, asking them to meet him at the Hotel de Crillon to discuss a lucrative offer that required their utmost discretion. In the room of one of Paris’s poshest hotels, the deputy revealed to the men that the government had decided to tear down the Eiffel Tower after all, and that the 7,000 tonnes of scrap from the monument would be up for sale to the highest bidder. In his opinion, the move was justified, considering how Alexander Dumas too had called it a “loathsome construction” and the tower, built as an arch for the 1889 World Fair, was never meant to stay up for this long.

Even as he watched all five of the dealers get caught in his whirlpool of lies, the opportunist already knew who his mark would be. It was Andre Poisson, a newbie in the city, whom Lustig later got in a personal conversation with. He related to Poisson how a government job barely paid enough to make ends meet, let alone lavish him with the luxe attire he needed to meet with potential clients. This subtlety Poisson instantly got, and bribed the seeming bureaucrat $70,000 to ensure that he got the winning bid in the race for scraps.

He must have soon realised that no one was tearing the Eiffel Tower down, but by then Victor was on his way across the border, ready to live a lavish life at the expense of his victim and his next mark. Victor kept track of the papers but no news of the con popped up. He thought he was safe enough to pull off the same gamble another time, and he did. Only this time his victim went to the police, narrating how he had been duped with the promise of being sold the Eiffel Tower scraps. The news made the headlines, and Victor got to read it from his comfortable spot miles away in the United States.

After going into the records for this feat, Victor went back to his money-making machine. He continued to con civilians and officers, high ranking officials and eager businessmen. In the process he also duped Al Capone—one of Chicago’s biggest mobsters at the time—with such finesse that the man did not even realise he was duped. He then partnered with a chemist named Tom Shaw to multiply his counterfeit business. Soon, the duo was circulating $100,000 per month and the money began turning up in different locations across the country, worrying the forces sick.

This Lustig money became the trail on which the authorities finally caught him. It was during its high-roll in 1935 that his girlfriend revealed his location to the federal agents on an anonymous call. Victor was caught, and she got revenge on him for cheating on her.

He pleaded guilty to his charges and was shipped off to Alcatraz for a 20-year sentence. On August 31, 1949, the man who had once made headlines for threatening the US economy died without so much as a squeak, while the world lay resting, better for the loss.

References
# Smithsonian Magazine
# Smithsonian Magazine
# Mental Floss
# Business Today

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