The Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower

Eiffel-towerIt was in May of 1925 when Victor Lustig first conceived the scheme that would make him a legend. With documents and letterheads proclaiming him the Deputy Director of the Ministere de Postes et Telegraphes (the Ministry of Postal Services and Telecommunications), Lustig had sent out notes to prominent Paris scrap metal businesses urgently asking them to meet him at the Hotel de Crillon. Six dealers came, curious what the French government wanted with them. After an expensive meal and plenty of wine, Lustig declared, in his typical charismatic fashion, that the city of Paris was going to knock down the Eiffel Tower and sell it for scrap metal. This was a huge secret and the public could not know at this point, of course, but he wanted the scrap metal businesses to bid against one another to see who would get this extremely valuable government contract.

Negotiations began in earnest with Andre Poisson winning the bid for seventy thousand dollars (about a million dollars today). It was a lot of money, but to Poisson, who was new in town and wanted to establish a reputation, it was worth the huge contract. Of course, there was one very big problem. Victor Lustig did not work for the Ministere de Postes et Telegraphes. In fact, Lustig did not work for the French government at all. Victor Lustig was a con man.

Victor_LustigBorn in Arnau, Austria-Hungary (today Hostinne, Czech Republic) in 1890, not much is known of Lustig’s childhood besides he was born as Robert V. Miller to an upper middle class family. At an early age, he decided to travel the world. In order to finance his adventures, he took to conning rich people. Fluent in several languages due to the varied cultures of his homeland, he rode ocean liners between Europe and America playing the part of a rich, free-spending young man – and gave himself a new moniker, the “Count.”

The Count would wine, dine, and charm potential marks, until eventually conversation turned to his line of work and source of obvious wealth. Reluctantly and asking for utmost secrecy, he would reveal his “money box” (also known as a Rumanian Box). A well-known con, the “money box” was essentially a fake money printer – spitting out bills that were hidden in the machine. The contraption was made out of beautiful mahogany and was the size of a steamer trunk. He would ask his mark for a hundred dollar bill, insert it into the machine, wait a few hours for “chemical processing,” and when they came back, two of the bills would emerge. As Lustig would put it, “the box literally paid for itself… and then some.”

The enterprising new friends of Lustig would beg him to sell it, despite Lustig’s “reluctance.” After much cajoling and rising bids, Lustig would agree to sell it for, sometimes, up to thirty grand. After a few more test runs – and a few more hundred dollar bills – Lustig would depart the ship and leave the money box with its new owners. It would be only a matter of time before they realized it was scam, but it didn’t matter. Lustig was already gone, onto his next con.

His coup-de-grace of cons came to him when he was reading a newspaper article about the Eiffel Tower. The article remarked on the high cost of maintenance and repairs for the Tower, making mention that it was rusting. You see, the Eiffel Tower wasn’t revered back then as it is today. When it was built in 1889 for the World’s Fair in Paris, it was never meant to be permanent; in fact, it only had a permit to stay standing for twenty years, until 1909. Due to the value provided for radio transmissions and tourism, the city of Paris kept it erect. Despite this, many Parisians believed it to be an eyesore, including famed writers Alexandre Dumas (who called it a “loathsome construction”) and Guy de Maupassant (“What will be thought of our generation if we do not smash this lanky pyramid.”) All of this history, background, and public sentiment gave Lustig the idea.

Despite the interest of the six Parisian scrap metal business, Lustig had already identified his mark – Andre Poisson. As mentioned, Poisson was new to the business community and was wanting to make a splash. As the Count had suspected, when he took all the potential contractors to the tower in a limo for a tour, it was Poisson who very clearly was the most serious about winning the contract.

However, Poisson’s wife wasn’t so sure. She thought the whole thing seemed fishy, with all the secrecy and quick moving nature of the deal. To calm her fears, the Count arranged a meeting where he confessed… Lustig explained to Poisson and his wife that he was but a lowly bureaucrat, expected to impress, but hardly making enough to pay his bills. Thus, beyond any orders for normal discretion when facilitating contracts like this one, he tended to like to keep things extremely quiet on closing the deal to avoid unwanted attention. Poisson knew exactly what this meant – Lustig was open to bribes. Poisson and his wife, actually rather relieved, obliged, giving the Count fifty grand to make sure Poisson would win the bid. Adding in the twenty grand for the actual contract, Lustig had seventy grand, or about a million dollars today, in his hands. Within an hour of receiving the money, the Count left Paris.

Shockingly, despite the huge sum that had changed hands, upon realizing he had been had, Poisson decided to keep his mouth shut. The money was probably gone either way, but at least by keeping quiet, he could keep himself from becoming the laughingstock of the Parisian business world. So in the end, the price of being embarrassed and potentially being arrested for bribery made it not worth it.

As it had worked out so well the first time, Lustig decided to try it again. Only six months later, he returned to Paris with the same letterheads and summoned five new scrap metal businesses. He wined and dined them, just like before, but as a deal was being consummated with one of the iron dealers, another one became suspicious. He contacted the police. When Lustig caught wind of it, he abandoned the deal and fled in a hurry to the United States, presumably on one of the ocean liners where he got his start.

If one thought the Count had learned his lesson, they would be sorely mistaken. He once again turned to the money box for his scams. Taking on dozens of alias and enduring several arrests – including one that landed him in the same Indiana jail as former professional baseball player turned famed gangster in the off-season, John Dillinger. The Count swindled innocent folks in Indiana, Nebraska, Texas, and Chicago, including one Texas sheriff who followed him across the country, only to finally catch him and be tricked again when Lustig convinced him it was the sheriff who failed to work the machine properly.

Sometime prior to 1930, he even reportedly scammed the most famous gangster of our time, Al Capone. The story goes that he convinced Capone to give him fifty grand with a promise to double his money in sixty days with his newest venture. Knowing full well Capone’s dangerous reputation, he let the money sit in a bank for 59 days. He then came back to Capone to tell him the deal fell through and that he’d lost the funds, but was willing to repay the invested amount out of his own pocket. Capone, evidently, was so impressed with Lustig’s integrity that he only made him pay back about $45,000-$49,000 of the money (reports vary on the exact amount Capone let him keep). A tidy little profit for the con man’s minimal effort.

As Lustig grew more confident and arrogant in his abilities, so did his risks – which led to him eventually being caught and given a substantial prison sentence. In 1930, he teamed up with a Nebraska chemist named Tom Shaw and began a real counterfeit operation; plates, paper, ink, the whole nine yards. The bills looked so real that they were able to release up to one hundred thousand dollars a month into the US economy (about $1.4 million today). This much money was never going to escape the eyes of the Secret Service. “Lustig money” kept showing up from New Orleans to Chicago.

Even so, the Secret Service got a little help in catching the man behind it all. You see, when Lustig’s girlfriend suspecting him of cheating on her, she turned him in. With her help, the Secret Service was able to catch him strolling down Broadway on New York’s Upper West Side. With a briefcase full of expensive clothes and no hint of nervousness, a Secret Service agent remarked to the Count that, “You’re the smoothest con man that ever lived.”

Lustig wasn’t done yet. He somehow escaped jail via a bed sheet rope, but was caught in Pittsburgh a month later. He was then sentenced to twenty years in the most famous prison of them all – Alcatraz. There, he lived the rest of his days. Despite his success as a con-artist, his death attracted no real public attention in the beginning, first reported to the public in a New York Times article from August 31, 1949, in which Lustig’s brother told a judge that the famed Count had passed away two years earlier in prison.

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Bonus Facts:

  • It is generally thought that Lustig is the author of these “Ten Commandments for Con Men”:
    • Be a patient listener (it is this, not fast talking, that gets a con man his coups).
    • Never look bored.
    • Wait for the other person to reveal any political opinions, then agree with them.
    • Let the other person reveal religious views, then have the same ones.
    • Hint at sex talk, but don’t follow it up unless the other person shows a strong interest.
    • Never discuss illness, unless some special concern is shown.
    • Never pry into a person’s personal circumstances. (They’ll tell you all eventually.)
    • Never boast – just let your importance be quietly obvious.
    • Never be untidy.
    • Never get drunk.

    Given how he was eventually caught, perhaps he should have added, “Never cheat on a woman who knows all about your scams.”  Hell hath no fury and all that.

  • As mentioned, the Eiffel Tower was not originally meant to be a permanent structure, simply being built to function as the entrance arches to the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris. The initial designs were made by Maurice Koechlin and Émile Nouguier (and later with contributions by Stephen Sauvestre) working at Compagnie des Établissements Eiffel.  Gustave Eiffel bought the rights to the patent on the design, which is why it bears his name.  The artists and other architects of France were not pleased about the tower, submitting a group letter to the Minister of Works and the Commissioner for the Exposition, stating, “We, writers, painters, sculptors, architects and passionate devotees of the hitherto untouched beauty of Paris, protest with all our strength, with all our indignation in the name of slighted French taste, against the erection … of this useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower … To bring our arguments home, imagine for a moment a giddy, ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black smokestack, crushing under its barbaric bulk Notre Dame, the Tour Saint-Jacques, the Louvre, the Dome of les Invalides, the Arc de Triomphe, all of our humiliated monuments will disappear in this ghastly dream. And for twenty years … we shall see stretching like a blot of ink the hateful shadow of the hateful column of bolted sheet metal…”  Eiffel responded, “My tower will be the tallest edifice ever erected by man. Will it not also be grandiose in its way? And why would something admirable in Egypt become hideous and ridiculous in Paris?” Today, about 7 million people per year ascend the monument, making it once of the most visited monuments in the world.
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