In 1925 Victor Lustig sat in his Paris hotel room reading a newspaper article about the Eiffel Tower. Built for the 1889 Paris World Fair it was meant to be dismantled in 1909. The tower outlived its destiny though and was now rusting and in need of expensive repairs and maintenance and the State had difficulty finding the money for its upkeep. The journalist mused whether it might not be better to just sell it?
Victor’s eyes lit up. His immediate thoughts where that he would be the one to sell the Eiffel Tower! The fact it wasn’t his to sell was irrelevant, he was a conman and this was the perfect con.
Margo Lestz tells the story…
Victor Lustig was born in what is now the Czech Republic to a well off family. He was well educated and spoke five languages and had abundant charm which he used to swindle people. Leaving school he was arrested for minor crimes and went to work on ships sailing between New York and Paris.
By working, I mean scamming people. He sold boxes that printed $100 bills. These money-makers would cost between $20,000 and $30,000. He would stock them with a few counterfeit $100 bills which slowly emerged from the box as if they were being printed. Since it took about six hours to “print” one bill, by the time the two or three bills in the box were finished “printing”, Victor was long gone.
Selling the Eiffel Tower was an exciting prospect and Victor got some stationery printed that appeared to be from the Department of Post, Telegraph and Telephone, the government department in charge of public buildings. He acquired a fake ID and sent invitations to the top five iron salvage companies in Paris advising them that they had been given the honor of bidding on an important government project. They were invited to a meeting at the Crillon Hotel, which had a reputation as a place where diplomatic and political deals were done. It all looked very official.
On the appointed day, the five company representatives arrived. Victor gave a convincing presentation, reiterating the well-publicized condition of the tower and the problem of maintenance and upkeep costs. Because of this, he said, the government had no choice but to dismantle and sell the tower. However, it was a potentially controversial action and required the utmost discretion. All parties agreed to keep the government’s secret.
After treating them to lunch, Victor drove the five candidates in a limousine to the tower for a look. A crew of workmen there measuring and assessing the tower for paint and repairs posed no problem for Victor. He who told his guests the crew was there preparing to dismantle the 7,000 tons of iron. He flashed his fake ID e and took his group in to inspect the merchandise saying time was of the essence and he would expect their bids the next day.
In Victor’s years of scamming people, he had learned to read them pretty well and he had identified his victim almost immediately. He chose André Poisson, a man who was unsure of himself but anxious to make his mark in Paris industry. When Mr. Poisson came in for his second meeting, he confessed that his wife had some doubts and he wasn’t sure if he should go ahead with the bid.
Victor decided to put Mr. Poisson at ease by confessing that he was just an underpaid government employee. He entertained important clients in luxury, but in fact, he needed a bit of extra cash and if Mr. Poisson could add a bit of extra padding, Victor could guarantee him the contract. Since Mr. Poisson knew that government officials were corrupt and a con man would never ask for a bribe, he was convinced that all was legit. The bait was taken Monsieur Poisson paid the asking price plus the bribe.
As soon as Victor got his suitcase full of money, he was on a train to Vienna. There he watched the newspapers every day expecting to see his name and his masterful scam on the front page. He waited and waited, but there was nothing.
When poor Mr. Poisson went to the Post, Telegraph and Telephone headquarters with his bill of sale to ask when the tower would be dismantled, they laughed him out of the building. He was so embarrassed about being duped and ruining his reputation that he told no-one – not even the police.
When Victor realized what had happened, he headed back to Paris to re-sell the tower. Sending out five more letters to different salvage companies he repeated the entire process. This time, however, prospective buyers checked, found out it was a scam, and went to the police.
Victor escaped, went to the United States and resumed his counterfeiting activities. The law eventually caught up with him and he was sent to Alcatraz prison, where he even conned Al Capone.
It’s said he had a postcard of the Eiffel Tower taped on his cell wall with the words “sold for 100,000 francs” written across it. When Victor died in 1947, his death certificate listed his occupation as “salesman” in tribute to his greatest scam.
Margo Lestz lives in Nice, France where she blogs as thecuriousrambler and is the author of French Holidays and Traditions and Curious Histories of Nice, France. Margo says “Life is never boring and I learn something new every day… and there are always surprises”.