Some con artists stoop quite low in scamming their victims, and Victor Lustig, who twice sold the Eiffel Tower in Paris, proved himself to be no different.
Since the beginning of time, con artists have preyed on the innocent and the weak in order to make a living. Some plans are laughably nasty and ridiculous, but others are just plain bold. Victor Lustig, a legendary con man, is a prime example of boldness.
The early life of Lustig
Lustig, an Austrian-Hungarian native born in 1890, committed a variety of crimes during his lifetime. He started off as a lowly panhandler and pickpocket and worked his way up to a con artist.
Over time, he honed his shady card-playing skills to the point that he could win games by fooling even onlookers.
Later on, the writers of True Detective Mysteries noted that he “could make a card deck do everything but talk.” During his career, he was involved in a wide variety of scams, such as the infamous “Romanian money box.”
He hawked little boxes with a bunch of useless dials and rollers on the front and claimed the machine could use radium to create money. He was actually able to find foolish investors eager enough to part with their money in exchange for the promise of future wealth.
Lustig was persuasive in part because of people’s impression of him as a pleasant and cultured gentleman. Secret Service agents used the phrase “as elusive as a puff of cigarette smoke and as charming as a young girl’s dream” to describe him.
The con artist was believed to have used over four dozen aliases during his career and to have carried a passport for each one of his identities. Thus, he was able to easily move across borders and within social circles.
Selling the Eiffel Tower for $70,000
In the 1920s, Lustig learned that the Eiffel Tower, built in 1889 for the World’s Fair, was never meant to stand for more than two decades. As a result, it required frequent and expensive repairs, which allowed his story to sound legitimate.
Lustig, pretending to be a government official from Paris, met with scrap metal merchants from all across the city and told them the government intended to physically scrap the Eiffel Tower in order to save money.
He went to considerable efforts to make his story believable, including forging paperwork with the French government seal on documents and holding meetings at a nearby luxury hotel.
Lustig made it obvious to everyone who was interested that he would sell the Eiffel Tower to anyone willing to knock it down and discard or recycle all the metal.
Andrew Poisson, a trader, even paid a bribe of roughly seventy thousand dollars in cash— worth over one million dollars today—to guarantee that he would be awarded the winning bid. It was only after he had shelled out the money that he realized he had been duped. He felt so humiliated by the theft that he decided not to report it.
Second attempt failed
Lustig returned to Paris and attempted to pull off the same trick once again the following year. It is speculated that the fraudster was ready to finalize a deal with a second victim when police caught wind of this and forced him to leave the country before he could collect payment.
Lustig eventually settled in the United States, where he continued his life as a con artist. There, he also famously conned the notorious criminal Al Capone.
He had talked Capone, also known as “Scarface,” into investing in a business venture with him by assuring him that his money would be doubled.
Possibly worried about the consequences if he went through with the scam, he finally returned Capone’s money. He told him the arrangement hadn’t worked out after all.
Lustig’s death in jail
Like other criminals, Lustig’s downfall was brought on by an excessive desire for materialistic things. Lustig was usually able to stay one step ahead of the law—that is, until late on the night of September 28, 1935, when FBI agent G. K. Firestone and his partner, Fred Gruber, were on his tail.
The agents got in their car and followed Lustig for nine blocks. In the end, the federal agents pulled their weapons and arrested him. The New York judge who heard Victor Lustig’s case imposed a twenty-year jail term on him, but pneumonia took his life two years later, and he perished on Alcatraz.