There are con artists, and then there are con artists. Some scam people out of a few bucks on the street, while others aim high, dream big, and sell national monuments under false pretenses.
Like many of the most successful flimflammers, Victor Lustig was sophisticated and charming—except for the whole ripping-people-off part. His story could easily have come out of fiction: uncertain origins, multiple identities, and a daring prison escape with a bed sheet rope are just the beginning. Lustig’s greatest hits include counterfeiting money and scamming Al Capone, but his most infamous enterprise was selling the Eiffel Tower. This criminal mastermind did this not only once, but twice.
The Eiffel Tower was originally built for the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris. Several years after the occasion, maintenance costs were high, and the monument didn’t yet have the prestige and symbolic value it has today. In 1925, it actually would have been easy for anyone to believe the local government was willing to get rid of it. Always looking for new endeavors, 35-year-old Lustig saw an opportunity and seized it.
Our antihero created counterfeit credentials and sent letters on fake official stationery to five of the leading scrap metal companies in the city. He invited representatives to a private meeting in a luxurious hotel, and after treating his marks to dinner and drinks (such a gentleman!) Lustig announced that the city administration was planning on dismantling the Tower. Though the project hadn’t been publicly announced yet and must remain a secret, Lustig lied, he was looking for a bidder to buy the iron—all 7000 tons of it. A big, profitable deal for any savvy businessman.
The attendants sent their bids the next day, but Lustig’s victim had already been designated. Rather than taking the most attractive offer, he accepted the deal from the most gullible bidder. Lusting got the money for the deal, accepted a handsome bribe (what a gentleman!), and promptly fled the country. (An unofficial source, i.e. the internet, informs me that the deal might have been closed for 100,000 1925 French francs, roughly equivalent to 55,000 2016 US dollars.)
The fraud was never reported to the police, probably due to the undesirable public attention (read: shame) it would bring. Aware of this key fact, Lusting returned to town only a few weeks later intending to repeat the ruse. And repeat the ruse he did!
This time, however, the unfortunate winner of the bid researched the project, found out about the scam, and contacted the authorities. Lustig didn’t get his money, but the police didn’t get to lock him up either. At least not yet.
Although Lusting’s criminal career spanned many years after the Eiffel Tower feat, he spent his final days in prison—his long track record sent him straight to Alcatraz. He was transferred to a medical facility in Missouri and died of pneumonia in 1947. His death certificate listed his occupation as apprentice salesman.
Oh, the irony!