Victor Lustig (January 4, 1890 – March 11, 1947) was a con artist who undertook scams in various countries and became best known as "the man who sold the Eiffel Tower. Twice."
Victor Lustig was born in Hostinne, Czech Republic, but soon headed to The West. He was a glib and charming conman, fluent in multiple languages. He established himself by working scams on the ocean liners steaming between Paris and New York City.
One of Lustig's trademark cons involved a "money-printing machine". He would demonstrate the capability of the small box to clients, all the while lamenting that it took the device six hours to copy a $100 bill. The client, sensing huge profits, would buy the machines for a high price, usually over $30,000. Over the next twelve hours, the machine would produce two more $100 bills. After that, it produced only blank paper, as its supply of $100 bills became exhausted. By the time the clients realized that they had been scammed, Lustig was long gone.
In 1925, France had recovered from World War I, and Paris was booming, an excellent environment for a con artist. Lustig's master con came to him one spring day when he was reading a newspaper. An article discussed the problems the city was having maintaining the Eiffel Tower. Even keeping it painted was an expensive chore, and the tower was becoming somewhat run down. Lustig saw the possibilities behind this article and developed a remarkable scheme.
Lustig had a forger produce fake government stationery for him and invited six scrap metal dealers to a confidential meeting at the Hotel de Crillon, one of the most prestigious of the old Paris hotels, to discuss a possible business deal. All six attended the meeting. There, Lustig introduced himself as the deputy director-general of the Ministry of Posts and Telegraphs. He explained that they had been selected on the basis of their good reputations as honest businessmen, and then dropped his bombshell.
Lustig told the group that the upkeep on the Eiffel Tower was so outrageous that the city could not maintain it any longer, and wanted to sell it for scrap. Due to the certain public outcry, he went on, the matter was to be kept secret until all the details were thought out. Lustig said that he had been given the responsibility to select the dealer to carry out the task. The idea was not as implausible in 1925 as it would be today. The Eiffel Tower had been built for the 1889 Paris Exposition, and was not intended to be permanent. It was to have been taken down in 1909 and moved somewhere else. It did not fit with the city's other great monuments like the Gothic cathedrals or the Arc de Triomphe, and at the time, it really was in poor condition.
Lustig took the men to the tower in a rented limousine for an inspection tour. It gave Lustig the opportunity to gauge which of them was the most enthusiastic and gullible. Lustig asked for bids to be submitted the next day, and reminded them that the matter was a state secret. In reality, Lustig already knew he would accept the bid from one dealer, Andre Poisson (interestingly, in French the word poisson, which means "fish" in English, is also used as a derogatory epithet for someone who is particularly gullible). Poisson was insecure, feeling he was not in the inner circles of the Parisian business community, and thought that obtaining the Eiffel Tower deal would put him in the big league.
However, Poisson's wife was suspicious, 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.
So Lustig not only received the funds for the Eiffel Tower, he also collected a large bribe. Lustig and his personal secretary, a Franco American con man Robert Arthur Tourbillon also known as Dan Collins, hastily took a train for Vienna with a suitcase full of cash.
Surprisingly, nothing happened. Poisson was too humiliated to complain to the police. A month later, Lustig returned to Paris, selected six more scrap dealers, and tried to sell the Tower once more. This time, the chosen victim went to the police before Lustig could close the deal, but Lustig and Collins managed to evade arrest.
Later, Lustig convinced Al Capone to invest $50,000 in a stock deal. Lustig kept Capone's money in a safe deposit box for two months, then returned it to him, claiming that the deal had fallen through. Impressed with Lustig's integrity, Capone gave him $5,000. It was, of course, all that Lustig was after.
There were others who made a profit selling civic landmarks, of course. In the early 1920s, a rival to Lustig was the fast-talking Scotsman Arthur Furguson.
In 1930, Lustig went into partnership with a middle-aged chemist from Nebraska named Tom Shaw. Shaw had the job of engraving plates for the manufacture of counterfeit banknotes. They then organised a counterfeit ring for the purpose of circulating the hundreds of thousands of forged notes throughout the country. Lustig was successful in keeping it a secret by making sure that not even the underlings knew anything about it.
On the evening of 10 May 1935, Lustig was arrested by federal agents on charges of counterfeiting after an anonymous phone call was made, out of jealousy, by his mistress Billy May, who became jealous when she learned of the romance between him and Shaw's young mistress Marie. The day before his trial, he managed to escape from the Federal House of Detention in New York City, but was recaptured 27 days later in Pittsburgh. Lustig pleaded guilty at his trial and was sentenced to 20 years in Alcatraz Island, California. On March 9, 1947, he contracted pneumonia and died two days later at the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri. On his death certificate, his name is listed as Robert V. Miller and his occupation was listed as "apprentice salesman."