The con man who sold the Eiffel Tower

One of the smoothest con men who ever lived managed to fool people into buying France’s Eiffel Tower from him. Twice. His name is Victor Lustig and he was Czech.

Lustig was born on January 4 1890 in a town in Austria-Hungary called Hostinné. (This is now in present-day Czechia). [1] A skilled gambler and risk taker, Lustig travelled far and wide conning people out of their money. He dressed like a matinée idol, spoke five languages and had a hypnotic charm. The US Secret Service described him as “elusive as a puff of cigarette smoke and as charming as a young girl’s dream.” [1]

A photo of the clock tower in the main square - Hostinné, Czechia

The clock tower in the main square of Hostinné – Czechia

I visited his home town recently to see where such an enigmatic figure grew up. The town is small with few amenities. It is pleasant enough without being remarkable. Like most places in this country, you can see the effects of people leaving for major cities in search of jobs. Perhaps such a sense of disappointment in his surroundings led Lustig to leave too.

As the train chugged its way back to Prague, I contemplated what is perhaps one of the greater cons of modern times.

In May 1925, he travelled to Paris. [1] There he read an article in the newspaper about the decaying condition of the Eiffel Tower. [2]

The Tower had only been in place for 30-odd years and everyone remembered the outcry when it was built. Many had claimed that it would look ugly, others that a modern piece of architecture should not be built in a city as refined as Paris. (Alexandre Dumas called it “a loathsome construction” [4]). In the end, city officials granted permission to build the tower because they expected to remove it after twenty years.  The article that Lustig read described the pitiful state it was in and that Paris was considering tearing it down. This was a sentiment many Parisians shared. [2] [5]

A photo of the Eiffel Tower - Paris, France

The Eiffel Tower – Paris, France

Sensing an opportunity, Lustig hired a counterfeiter to produce official government stationary. He researched the scrap metal market in Paris. [5] Then he sent letters to five scrap metal dealers, signing as Deputy Director General of the Ministère de Postes et Télégraphes. He invited them to the Hôtel de Crillon on the Place de la Concorde for an official and highly confidential meeting. [3] [4] This hotel was one of the most expensive in Paris; Lustig chose it to be able to impress the five marks. He met them in a swanky suite on the top floor. [6]

There, he announced that the city had taken the controversial decision to tear the Eiffel Tower down. He talked about the exorbitant cost of repairs and engineering faults. He reminded them the tower was never meant to be permanent. and asked for their utmost discretion due to the controversy surrounding the tower. [3] [4] He told them the highest bidder would dismantle the 7,000 tons of metal in the tower. He finished by giving them official government documents explaining all the figures involved.

He gave them a week to submit their proposals.

Within the week, the dealers had submitted their proposals. One of them, Andre Poisson, was the man who Lustig had singled out as the best person to con. Poisson was new in the business of scrap metal and had the most to prove. By winning such a prestigious government contract, he would raise his profile considerably. Lustig informed Poisson that he had won the contract and invited him to a separate meeting. He asked Poisson to bring a certified cheque for a quarter of the value, i.e., 250,000 francs. (This is about USD 1,000,000 in today’s money [4]) [6].

Lustig complained about the low government salary and talked about how expensive life in Paris had become. [3][4] Poisson realised Lustig was asking for a bribe. He reassured his suspicious wife with this point – who else but a genuine bureaucrat would ask for a bribe? By acting dishonest, Lustig automatically became the real deal.

To secure the deal Poisson gave Lustig several thousand francs. [3] [6] Poisson got his hands on a ‘bill of ownership’ for the Tower and left the hotel dreaming of the profits he would make.

Lustig disappeared.

Using the money Poisson had gave him, he lived a life of luxury in Austria for some time. He kept monitoring the French press but realised that Poisson would never reveal how he was conned. That would be too embarrassing for him. Realising he was not under investigation, Lustig returned to Paris.

And ran the same scam again. [3]

This time he was not so lucky. After being swindled out of USD 100,000, the second mark went to the police, forcing Lustig to leave Europe and head to America. [3]

Have you ever heard of scams or cons whilst on your travels? Tell us about it below!

References

[1] Smithsonian Magazine, The man who sold the Eiffel Tower. Twice, 2016
[2] Mental Floss, Smooth Operator – How Victor Lustig sold the Eiffel Tower, 2012
[3] Useless Information, King Con, (Retrieved 2017)
[4] Today I Found Out, The man who sold the Eiffel Tower, 2015
[5] Smithsonian Magazine, The smoothest con man that ever lived, 2012
[6] Greene, Robert, The 48 laws of power, 2000

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