Last Friday, I introduced you to Count Victor Lustig, the greatest con artist who ever lived. I talked about his early career selling “money boxes” to unsuspecting rich n00bs – for as much as $46,000 (equivalent to $500,000 today). This of course made Lustig fabulously rich, and his wealth only enhanced his charm.
In 1925, he moved to Paris, set up an office in the city’s most expensive hotel, and announced that the Eiffel Tower was being sold for scrap.
Except it wasn’t.
This of course sounds completely ridiculous today, but in 1925, it was just believable enough to work. The Eiffel Tower then was not the beloved Paris institution that it is today. It had been built as a temporary exhibit for the 1889 World’s Fair, intended to be dismantled at the end of the event. They just never got around to tearing it down, and 36 years later it was starting to show its age. The French Government had no long-term plan, and rumors were swirling about what would happen to the ugly-but-not-yet-so-ugly-it’s-beautiful monument.
Count Victor Lustig read about some of those rumors in the newspaper, and came up with a CUNNING PLAN. He looked up the city’s most prominent scrap metal dealers and wrote them letters posing as Deputy Director of the Ministère de Postes et Télégraphes (a French government agency, now split into La Poste and France Télécom, now Orange S.A.). When dealers came to visit, he told them of the city’s plan (which existed only in his head). When one dealer was ready to sign up, Lustig casually mentioned that, hey, it’s tough to live on a civil servant salary.
That last part was a stroke of genius. The scrap dealer got the message and offered some extra cash as a bribe – both giving him some extra money and ensuring that the mark didn’t try to work with anyone else, like someone in the real ministry. As soon as he had the cash in hand, Lustig got the hell out of Paris.
The next week, the mark showed up at the Ministry to collect the Eiffel Tower scrap iron permit, and was laughed out of the office – and he was too embarrassed to go to the police.
And so, the next year, Count Victor Lustig returned to Paris and did it all again.