The Man Who Sold The Eiffel Tower Twice

Victor Lustig, was born in 1890, in Austria-Hungary – present day Czech Republic. He was an exceptionally smart kid and a fast learner, but with a trouble-causing attitude. After finishing school he used his charisma, education and fluency in five languages for conducting various scams.
Most of his first cons were committed on ocean liners sailing between France and New York City. In those first days he changed his identity to “Count Victor Lustig”.

Count Victor Lustig

The Tower

In the wake of WWI, Victor fled to the US. There he began earning a level of infamy for his scams amongst various law agencies. But small bank scams weren’t enough for Count Victor’s appetites. He travelled back to France in 1925. During his stay in Paris he read a newspaper, stumbling upon an article about many maintenance problems Eiffel Tower is facing. Maintaining it required significant financial investments, which Paris couldn’t afford at the time. There were even rumors that the city is planning to demolish it. These stories inspired him to plan a new con. Lustig started to prepare for the scam, hiring a forger to make fake government documents for him.

When preparations were finished, he invited a small group of scrap metal dealers on a private meeting held at a luxurious hotel. Lustig posed himself as the Deputy Director General of the Ministry of Posts and Telegraphs. During the meeting he convinced the dealers that the French government wanted to sell the Eiffel Tower for scrap, but everything must be kept behind a veil of secrecy, because the subject was quite controversial. Lustig took the men in a limousine tour around the Tower to show the bad condition in which it was. One of the dealers, man named Andre Poisson fell for Lustig’s cleverly curated scam. Poisson made a bid and later gave Count Victor the cash. Lustig hopped on a train for Vienna, took the money and disappeared.

capture from series Drunk History, episode “Landmarks”

Victor psychologically assessed Mr. Poisson and guessed that he would be too ashamed to tell anyone how he was fooled. But he kept track of what was going on in Paris anyway. After some time it was obvious that his guess was right and he thought “Why not do it again?”
So after a month Lustig was on his way to Paris again. He, again, set up a meeting in a prestigious hotel and invited six scrap dealers. With limousine tour, speech and everything. And he again managed to sell the Eiffel Tower to a naïve, greedy businessman. But, this time his scam didn’t go unnoticed. Police was informed, but not before he managed to escape again. Lustig fled to the US and continued his work there.

“Rumanian Box”

One of his most notable scams, besides selling the Eiffel Tower is the “Rumanian Box”. The small box was built from cedar wood and contained complex mechanism that Lustig claimed to be able to copy banknotes. In reality it wasn’t the case.
A Texas sheriff purchased this device from Lustig for thousands of dollars. When he later realized that he was tricked, he started pursuing Lustig. He followed him to Chicago and when they met again, Count Victor managed to convince him that he wasn’t operating the device correctly and gave him a big amount of money as a compensation. When he was arrested later, the sheriff realized that the money was counterfeit.

Count Victor Lustig met his demise because of his greed. Unsurprisingly. In 1930 he started dabbling in the counterfeit banknote business. He made such flawless banknotes, they fooled bank tellers. Victor arrogantly chose to make $100 bills, the ones that were most heavily scrutinized by the bank tellers. Big number of fake banknotes significantly affect international confidence in the dollar.
Arrest of the Texas sheriff connected the counterfeit banknotes and Lustig. The Police and the Secret Service was onto his tracks. At a point it became a game for Count Victor – he traveled with a trunk full of disguises, easily transforming into a priest, bellhop, porter etc. He often disguised himself as a baggage man because it allowed him to easily escape any hotel taking his luggage with him.

The chase and capture

As you can imagine, he couldn’t do it forever though. In 1935, on a spring day in May, while walking the streets of New York, Lustig felt someone pulling him by the coat and clear voice that said “Put your hands in the air”. He ended up in Federal Detention Center in Manhattan and soon escaped, leaving a note on his pillow containing a quote from Les Miserables: “He allowed himself to be led in a promise; Jean Valjean had his promise. Even to a convict, especially to a convict. It may give the convict confidence and guide him on the right path. Law was not made by God and Man can be wrong.”

Lustig was finally arrested and convicted in November 1935. They sent him to Alcatraz, where he spent rest of his days. He died in 1946, after filling more than thousand medical requests and more than five hundred prescriptions. Prison guards and medical experts believed that he was faking and magnifying his ills, thinking he was preparing for an escape. But he wasn’t faking and he died from pneumonia.

Until this day true identity of the man named Count Victor Lustig is unknown. Lustig had at least 47 aliases and a dozen of fake documents. Three years ago a historian began researching Lustig’s life and origins. He went to Austria-Hungarian town in which Victor was born and searched through all historical documents and available records. His long and detailed search ended nowhere, as he couldn’t find a trace of evidence that even suggested Lustig was born.

Count Victor’s true name remains a secret but he will always be remembered as “the smoothest con man that ever lived”.

 “Ten Commandments for Con Men” – attributed to Lustig:

  1. Be a patient listener (it is this, not fast talking, that gets a con man his coups).
  2. Never look bored.
  3. Wait for the other person to reveal any political opinions, then agree with them.
  4. Let the other person reveal religious views, then have the same ones.
  5. Hint at sex talk, but don’t follow it up unless the other person shows a strong interest.
  6. Never discuss illness, unless some special concern is shown.
  7. Never pry into a person’s personal circumstances (they’ll tell you all eventually).
  8. Never boast – just let your importance be quietly obvious.
  9. Never be untidy.
  10. Never get drunk.