The Man Who “Sold” The Eiffel Tower
Written By Sergei Ganz
There are very few names in this world that resonate through history with whispers of skill, scam, and manipulation. Victor Lustig is one of those rare names. He was born January 4th, 1890 into an affluent Austro-Hungarian family in the city of Hostinne or so says one of his personas. Another story he told is that he was born in the city of Ludwig into a middle-class family and was the son of the mayor. He has about 40 other personas that vary but usually maintain similar times and regions of birth. However, with this mysteriousness comes more mystery about his childhood. Not much is known about Victor’s upbringing, but it is known that he was living in Paris somewhere around 1908 or 1909, and this is where our story begins.
Victor arrived in Paris supposedly to attend a university where he found himself much more mentally equipped for gambling and drinking instead of studying. This life of debauchery didn’t stop him from learning though. He was quickly able to learn English, French, and Italian fluently as well as mastering the art of pickpocketing. After some time of doing this, he graduated from burglary and went on to scamming. This is where he found his true calling.
During WWI he figured he could use his talents aboard passenger ships traveling from France to New York. Onboard these passenger ships were many wealthy travelers that Victor saw as easy marks (people to scam). Victor would tell these wealthy travelers that he was a Broadway producer seeking investors for his next show. Wealthy travelers who believed his claims were guaranteed huge returns from their investment and after much discussion would hand over fist-fulls of cash to the up and coming con-artist. Obviously, Victor would then take their money and run away never to be seen again by his fooled investor.
While on one of his scamming trips to New York, Victor came across a man that would be his teacher of all things related to the hustle. His name was Nicky Arnstein and he was a master con-artist. Nicky showed Victor the ins and outs of scamming and taught Victor all he needed to know to be a successful con-artist. These lessons from Nicky essentially gave Victor a master’s degree in con-artistry and pushed him to do bigger and bigger cons.
Victor after a few years of traveling back and forth across the pond started to use another scam to make his income. This scam was called the Rumanian Box. For the Rumanian Box to work, firstly; Victor would make a claim to a mark that his special box can make an exact duplicate of any bill. secondly; the mark would give a bill to Victor to see if his claims were true, thirdly; Victor would give the mark his original bill and a real bill to make it seem as though the box did what he claimed, and lastly Victor would sell the box to the mark for an exorbitant price and say something along the lines of “the box will soon enough pay for itself”. This then would leave the mark with a useless box and Victor with a large sum of money to go enjoy himself with.
The Rumanian Box scam, after a while, became boring to him though and he decided to go for the biggest con of his entire life. Selling the Eiffel Tower. To give context Victor knew that the Parisian people were discussing the idea of tearing the tower down because it was only meant to be up until 1909 and it cost the city of Paris a lot of money to maintain it. So, he decided to capitalize on the debate and send a letter to the five biggest scrap metal dealers in Paris. In this letter, he disclosed that the city of Paris has decided to tear down the tower and that he was the one to make the decision of who will tear down the tower as well as have the rights to its metal. Victor proposed that the five biggest scrap dealers all meet him at the Hotel de Crillon so that they could all discuss who would spearhead the new project. During this meeting, Victor realized there was one man who seemed extremely eager to prove his status amongst the other scrap dealers. His name was Andre Poisson and he was still an up-and-coming scrap magnate. After the meeting, Victor targeted him and claimed that he was who he wanted to move forward with the project with. Andre Poisson, being thrilled, gave Victor a large sum of money for the supposed Eiffel Tower project and Victor being the keen con-artist he is, fled from Paris to lay low in Austria until things settled down. Lucky enough for Victor when he returned to Paris he learned that Andre Poisson was so embarrassed by being scammed that he didn’t report Victor to the police.
As time went on Victor got married, had a daughter, and continued to be a con-artist. The last con he pulled was a counterfeiting scam in the USA which made him over 1 million dollars in fake bills. This caught the eye of the US government, which sent him to prison straight after under the charges of counterfeiting and countless other offenses. Victor then came up with the bright idea of escaping his prison using bedsheets that he tied together to create a makeshift rope. Then he repelled from one of the windows of the prison and attempted to act as a window cleaner so as not to alert any onlookers. Once both of his feet landed on the ground he was gone. However, after his escape he made the fatal error of returning to the same area where his wife and daughter were living, which made it easy for the US authorities to once again capture him; yet this time he was sentenced to serve his time in Alcatraz. There he found himself getting ill and was sent to a hospital in Missouri where he died of pneumonia on March 11th, 1947.
Victor Lustig’s life is a perfect representation of the bizarre yet compelling life of a con-artist. His life was full of highs and lows which ultimately left him dying alone in a hospital without his family. I guess karma truly does justice after all.