Back in 1925, funds permitting, you could have been in the position to buy the Eiffel Tower, one of the modern Wonders of the World.
It could have been yours.
Victor Lustig was what you might call a “confidence genius”. A naturally gregarious and charming man, he was also one of the most talented con artists of recent times.
Born in Bohemia, he started his nefarious ways “working” the ocean liners running between Paris and New York, running a large range of small scams.
Realising that Paris was becoming a magnet for socialites and trend setters following the First World War, Lustig decided to settle for a while.
The flash, fast moving population was just what he needed – arrogant, niave and rich – the perfect fodder for his scams.
One day Lustig came across a newspaper article about the Eiffel Tower and how incredibly expensive it’s upkeep was.
Even keeping the paintwork up to standard was a drain on Paris’ budget and so it was beginning to fall into disrepair.
Rumours even began circulating that the city may have to pull their great landmark down.
THE SALE OF THE EIFFEL TOWER
This wasn’t so unbelievable either, at least to the gullible businessmen who would feature in the ensuing scam.
After all, the Eiffel Tower was only intended to be a temporary structure, built for the 1889 Paris Exposition.
The original intention had been to strip the tower down and move it someplace else in 1909 anyway.
After all, this huge chunk of metal hardly blended with the Arc de Triumphe or the gothic architecture that most of Paris boasted.
One master forger later and Victor Lustig was now a government official with all the correct papers.
As “Deputy-General of the Ministry of Posts and Telegraphs” he had the credibility required to attract 6 scrap metal dealers to the Hotel Creon, a well known meeting place for diplomats of his new found standing.
He explained to the scrap dealers that they had been chosen based upon their fine reputations (he knew the value of flattery) and also for their abilities to remain discrete.
This was important because the City had decided to sell the Eiffel Tower for scrap to remove the upkeep costs.
Of course secrecy had to be ensured because of the public outcry that would follow any announcement.
Little did the unsuspecting metal merchants realise that Lustig had other reasons for keeping the deal quiet.
Following a tour of the Tower, Lustig asked them men to place their bids the following day and reminded them of the need for secrecy.
Having watched them carefully, Lustig had marked out Andre Poisson as being the one who had something to prove.
Indeed Poisson felt he needed to make a large gesture, complete a big deal in order to make his name and to fit in with the others.
This immediately made him more susceptible to Lustig’s charm and deception.
Knowing that impersonating a government official was far more punishable than mere fraud, Lustig “confided” in Poisson to facilitate a quick deal.
By admitting his need to make a personal profit on the deal Lustig justified all the secrecy and need for haste by appearing to be a corrupt official.
A side benfit of this “frank admission” was that Lustig would receive a bribe on top of the selling price of the tower!
The moment that Poisson paid, Lustig was off!
With Dan Collins (an American con man who acted as his assistant), Lustig fled to Vienna.
However, Poisson never went public, he was far too humiliated to admit that he had been duped.
REPEATING THE SCAM
Gaining a false sense of smugness perhaps, Lustig returned to Paris within a month and tried a repeat performance with 6 new scrap dealers.
This time one grew suspicious and went to the police.
Somehow Lustig avoided arrest and later emigrated to America where he would continue as a scammer until eventually caught and sent to Alcatraz for counterfeiting.
He died in 1947.