Crafty people always find ways to make money, whether it is legal or not. Some become so creative in their ambitious plans to profit for doing nothing so their frauds end up in history. Victor Lustig was a con artist from Austro-Hungarian Empire, famous for scams on transatlantic cruise ships: since the ocean liners were usually loaded with rich people, it was a perfect environment for a chevalier of fortune. During the First World War Lustig settled in the US, just in time to make profit from the unfolding Prohibition, and in May 1925 the adventurer went to France, where he became responsible for one of the most impressive cons of all times.
It were those May days in Paris when a short article in a newspaper caught Lustig’s attention. There was a statement that the Eiffel Tower was in such a poor condition that the extensive repair was required. A brief comment followed: the expenses of maintaining the attraction, such as keeping it painted, caused a lot of financial issues, so the government was even considering to dismantle the tower completely. Back in 1925 it was not as a shocking news as it would be today. The Eiffel Tower was never planned as a permanent construction: ironically, the most recognizable Parisian cultural icon of modern times was designed only for the Exposition of 1889 and was supposed to be removed as soon as this world’s fair was over. However, the construction proved to be valuable for the communication purposes and so it was not torn down just yet, but in the first quarter of 20th Century no one could be entirely sure what destiny awaits the Eiffel Tower. That is why the remark that it can be demolished intrigued Lustig the most. The idea which came to his mind was incredible and promised large and easy profit: if the public was indeed questioning whether the Eiffel Tower would remain forever on the Champ de Mars, but nothing was happening yet, Lustig would be the first one to sell the rights to tear it down. And get rich.
How is it possible to sell something if you do not own it? In case of Lustig, it was not difficult. First of all, he had a counterfeiter of documents make him official government stationary and personally appointed himself as Deputy Director General of the Ministère de Postes et Télégraphes. Then Lustig contacted some scrap metal dealers (five or six, sources vary) and invited them to his hotel suite in order to discuss an urgent matter. After the dinner Lustig did a surprise announcement: the government has decided to dismantle the Eiffel Tower, and his guests were chosen as the most trustworthy businessmen. Lustig said that his responsibility was to choose only one dealer to carry out this task. He noted that the tower was never intended to be permanent, and emphasized that this government decision was controversial and therefore should be kept secret to avoid the public outcry.
There is no surprise that the dealers found the idea of getting the Eiffel Tower metal profitable and attractive, and therefore were willing to pay as much as to get to windward of the other rivals. In a few days they submitted their bids, but Lustig had already chosen his victim. André Poisson was the most passionate about the deal: feeling that he did not really belong to the inner circles of the business community in Paris, he believed that obtaining the Eiffel Tower contract would help him to secure a place in a big league. So Lustig informed Poisson that he has won the rights to the tower’s metal. However, the ‘Deputy Director General’ hinted that there was a small problem: he ‘confessed’ that as a government official he does not make enough money and so needs to find other ways to supplement his income. Poisson understood immediately and offered a bribe to secure a deal. The Eiffel Tower was sold. With all the funds for the tower plus a large bribe in a huge suitcase, Lustig light-heartedly fled for Austria towards the life of luxury.
Lustig did not even make any attempt to hide and enjoyed lavish lifestyle in Vienna for six months, checking from time to time whether the reports about his fraud would hit the French papers. But there were none: it seemed like Poisson was too embarrassed and humiliated to inform the police. So Lustig decided to return to Paris, where he contacted some other scrap metal dealers and pulled the same scam with them. Yes, this is right: the smooth operator sold the Eiffel Tower again. However, this time Lustig was not so lucky. His new victim reported to the police about the con, and the story exploded in the press.
Luckily for him, Lustig evaded arrest and headed to the US. Incredibly, the con artist sold the Eiffel Tower twice in history, made a fortune and got off scot-free. This is inconceivable to the extent that it starts to seem funny; and ironically, Lustig’s surname (meaning “funny” in German), speaks for itself.
Margarita Poluektova is a second-year Politics, Philosophy and Economics student at the University of Manchester