The Greatest Con Man To Ever Live.
If like me you enjoy watching the odd heist film, you’ve probably thought there is no way people can actually get away with this stuff in real life. You obviously haven’t heard of Count Victor Lustig.
Count Victor Lustig was one of America’s most dangerous conman, he has also gone down in history as the man who managed to successfully sell the Eiffel tower, go on vacation then proceed to sell it again.
Lustig was born in 1890, in what is now the Czech Republic. He studied languages, but he was even better at studying people, their weaknesses and how they act. By the age of twenty he was a confirmed conman. By age thirty he was a wanted man in multiple European countries.
To understand how good Lustig was at reading people one needs to know the story of how he conned, feared crime boss Al Capone. Lustig asked the crime boss to fund his next money-making scheme, it was simple, Capone gave Lustig $50,000 and Lustig would double this within sixty days. Lustig put this money in a bank for sixty days, and on the sixtieth day he returned with a disappointing face and told Capone he wasn’t able to double the money. Right before Capone could angry, Lustig handed him back his $50,000.
Capone surprised by the conman’s honesty, gave him $1000, whilst it may seem that Lustig had failed his con, in fact the opposite had happened. There was never any money-making scheme to double Capone’s money, him swindling the crime boss was the money-making scheme.
Lustig’s was not just any con artist, he was skilled in reading people and paying a character. One Secret Service agent wrote that Lustig was “as elusive as a puff of cigarette smoke and as charming as a young girl’s dream,” while the New York Times editorialized: “He was not the hand-kissing type of bogus Count—too keen for that. Instead of theatrical, he was always the reserved, dignified noble man.”
Now on to the con that would immortalise Lustig as one of the greatest con man to ever live.
In May of 1925, Lustig travelled to Paris with Dapper Dan Collins, another confidence man. One afternoon Lustig was reading a newspaper and an article he saw caught his eye. The article claimed that the Eiffel Tower was in great need of repair. The cost of the repair job was very prohibitive and there was a brief comment that the government was actually exploring the idea that it might be cheaper to rip it down than to repair it.
Alarm bells rang in Lustig’s head, he knew what his next con was going to be. He decided he would be the one to sell the Eiffel tower and he got someone to forge him government stationery and appointed himself the position of Deputy Director General of the Ministère de Postes et Télégraphes. In reality this title meant nothing, but he used it sign off on the letters he sent off to five scrap iron dealers.
After entertaining the men who responded to his invitation, Lustig informed them that the government was selling the Eiffel tower, explaining it was built-in 1889 it was never meant to be a permanent structure. He told the men this was a very controversial decision on the government’s part and their discretion was important.
Four days after, the men submitted their bids, Lustig didn’t care about who offered the most money but he cared more about who was the greatest mark.
The Count chose a man named André Poisson as the lucky victim. He informed him he had won the contract but there were a few problems.
He told him the life of a government worker was a hard one, you had to portray an image of living a lavish lifestyle when in reality you got paid very little. Poisson quickly realised Lustig was asking for a bribe and in fear of losing the contract to someone else he pulled out a few large bills from his pocket. And Lustig accepted the offer.
It has been reported that Lustig played out this scam on more than one occasion.
Nevertheless, Lustig’s life was one filled with adventure at every turn, he would eventually get caught in money counter-fitting scheme so great that it threatened to shake confidence in the American economy. A judge in New York sentenced him to 20 years on Alcatraz.
In true Lustig fashioned he managed to escape until he was caught again.
He would go on to die behind bars but his death was just as theatrical as his life. His family managed to hide his death for two years. And on his death certificate under occupation a clerk wrote: