Smooth Operator: How Victor Lustig Sold The Eiffel Tower

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In May 1925, an article appeared in a Paris newspaper about the decaying condition of the Eiffel Tower. Thirty-some years after it had been erected, the city’s signature piece of architecture was in need of extensive repair. There was a passing comment in the piece about how the French government had considered that it might be cheaper to tear down the Eiffel Tower than to fix it.

Most people reading that article would have said, “C’est la vie,” and moved on. But Victor Lustig was not most people. He was the world’s most notorious con artist. And when he read it, he heard the ka-ching of inspiration for what would become his greatest caper.

Fluent in five different languages, with over 22 aliases, a quick intelligence, and an almost hypnotizing charm, the Czech-born Lustig had been swindling people out of money and property for years. He began by plying his shady trade on cruise ships full of wealthy travelers. One of his favorite ruses was to pose as a producer of Broadway musicals, then prey on people’s secret desires to be in show business by getting them to invest in non-existent productions. By 1925, Lustig had racked up over 40 arrests, and was wanted by law enforcement agencies around the world.

The Eiffel Tower Con

Lustig never went into a con without research and careful preparation. In Paris, his first move was to have a counterfeiter of documents make him official government stationery, with his name listed as the Deputy Director General of the Ministère de Postes et Télégraphes. He then wrote letters to the five most prominent scrap iron dealers in the city. The letters, vague but official-sounding, invited the five men to meet with Lustig in the suite of a fancy hotel, to discuss an urgent matter.

After Lustig wined and dined his marks, he announced that the government had decided to tear down the Eiffel Tower, and the resulting 7000 tons of metal would be for sale to the highest bidder among them. As part of his pitch, he reminded his guests that the Tower was built as an entrance arch to the 1889 World’s Fair and was never meant to be permanent. He quoted Alexander Dumas, who had once called the Tower “a loathsome construction,” and writer Guy de Maupassant, who said, “What will be thought of our generation if we do not smash this lanky pyramid.” Lustig gave an emotional performance, and then in a resigned tone, explained that the costs to maintain the Tower were simply too high. Of course, the government’s decision to tear it down was controversial and so must remain hush-hush. The scrap dealers swallowed the story hook, line and sinker.

A few days later, they submitted their bids. But Lustig had already chosen his mark—André Poisson. Lustig informed Poisson that he had won the right to the Eiffel Tower’s metal. But there was a small problem. Lustig said that while public servants like himself were expected to dress well and entertain lavishly, they made a meager salary. Poisson understood that he was being asked for a bribe to secure the deal, and he obliged.

Money in hand, Lustig fled for Austria. There, as was his custom, he lived the high life, at the expense of yet another unsuspecting victim. For weeks, Lustig checked the French newspapers for reports of his Eiffel Tower con, but there was nothing. He had a hunch that Poisson would be too embarrassed by how easily he fell for the ruse to go to the authorities, and he was right.

Six months later, Lustig returned to Paris and pulled the exact same stunt with five different scrap iron dealers. Amazingly, he sold the Eiffel Tower again. This time though, his mark went to the police, and the story hit the papers. Lustig soon fled Europe for the United States.

International Swindler

There Lustig continued his life as an elegant scoundrel, with cons like selling a miracle box that could supposedly print flawless counterfeit money. He also famously swindled Chicago crime boss Al Capone. Lustig got Capone to invest $50,000 in a con he was working on. Lustig let the money sit for two months, then went back to Capone to say his plan had fallen through. Just as Capone was about to get violent, Lustig handed him back his $50,000. Capone was so impressed that he gave Lustig a $1000 reward, which was exactly what Lustig anticipated.

Lustig was finally arrested in 1936, on a counterfeiting charge, and served 11 years in jail before dying behind bars in 1947.

Before his death, Lustig wrote down the Ten Commandments for aspiring con men:

1. Be a patient listener (it is this, not fast talking, that gets a con-man his coups).
2. Never look bored.
3. Wait for the other person to reveal any political opinions, then agree with them.
4. Let the other person reveal religious views, then have the same ones.
5. Hint at sex talk, but don’t follow it up unless the other fellow shows a strong interest.
6. Never discuss illness, unless some special concern is shown.
7. Never pry into a person’s personal circumstances (they’ll tell you all eventually).
8. Never boast. Just let your importance be quietly obvious.
9. Never be untidy.
10. Never get drunk.

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October 17, 2012 - 10:00am
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