Victor Lustig who named himself a “Count” was born in Bohemia present day Czech Republic. As a youngster he studied languages and also studied people: their habits, and especially their weaknesses, and decided to do exploit it for a living. By the age of twenty he was a confirmed con man. By the age of thirty he was a wanted man on the run from Police in several European countries.
After pulling several cons in America, in May of 1925 Lustig was back in Paris with his new friend Dapper Dan to plan another con , relaxing at an outside cafe. They were in need of money just as they read in the newspaper that the Eiffel Tower was in need of repairs. While others said what was really needed was to tear down the 985 foot structure. At that time, The Eiffel Tower was not as illustrious as it is today, it was only an expensive nuisance and it was costing the French government money to maintain.
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Being a smart thinker, Lustig saw an opportunity to pull another con. His first action was to have a counterfeiter make him official government documents with his name listed as the Deputy Director General of the Ministère de Postes et Télégraphes and Dapper Dan served as his secretary. He then wrote letters to the five most influential scrap iron dealers in Paris, inviting them to meet him in the suite of Hotel de Crillon to discuss an urgent matter.
During the meeting, after wining and dining with the men, he announced that the government had decided to rip down the Eiffel Tower and the resulting 7000 tons of metal would be for sale to the highest bidder among them. Due to the certain public outcry, he went on, the matter was to be kept secret until all the details were thought out.
Lustig rented limousines and gave tours of the tower to pick out the man most likely to fall for the scam; the one who seemed most anxious to get ahead. Andre Poisson was fairly new to the city, and Lustig quickly decided to focus on him. Poisson was new to the business community and was wanting to be noticed.
However, Poisson’s wife was skeptical, wondering who this official was, why everything was so secret, and why everything was being done so quickly. To deal with her suspicion, Lustig arranged another meeting, and then “confessed”. As a government minister, Lustig said, he did not make enough money to pursue the lifestyle he enjoyed, and needed to find ways to supplement his income. This meant that his dealings needed a certain discretion. Poisson understood immediately. He was dealing with another corrupt government official who wanted a bribe. That put Poisson’s mind at rest immediately, since he was familiar with the type and had no problems dealing with such people. Poisson would pay the phony deputy director $20,000 in cash, plus an additional $50,000 if Lustig could see to it that his was the winning bid. Lustig secured the $70,000 and in less than an hour, he was on his way back to Austria.
While on vacation in Vienna, he waited for the story to break, with, possibly, a description and sketch of himself, but it never did. Poisson, fearful of the embarrassment and prosecution for bribery such a disclosure would bring upon him, chose not to report Lustig’s scam.
Seeing that it worked the first time, Lustig decided to try it again. with the same techniques but with different scrap metal dealers. This time, a dealer was conned $100,000, but this dealer was unlike Poisson because he reported his loss to the police and the story exploded in the press. To prevent his arrest, Lustig fled to America
- The Smoothest Con Man That Ever Lived – Smithsonian Magazine
- Victor Lustig – Biography.com
- Victor Lustig – Wikipedia
- Smooth Operator: How Victor Lustig Sold The Eiffel Tower – Mental Floss