And now for a similar story...except for one big difference. The London Bridge really WAS delivered to the American investors. The Eiffel Tower, as we shall see, was not delivered to anyone.
Victor Lustig was born Robert Miller in 1890 in Sudetenland, now the Czech Republic. As a youngster he studied many languages. He also studied people: their habits, mannerisms and especially their weaknesses, and decided to go into a career that utilised those skills. He was a glib and charming conman, who established himself by working scams on the ocean liners steaming between Paris and New York City. The passengers on these liners were relaxed, rich and very sure of themselves.
By the age of 20 Lustig was already a conman. Straight after WW1 ended, when he was 30 years old, he was a confirmed conman on the run from police in several European countries. So he restarted his career in the USA and gave himself a noble European title, Baron.
In 1925, France had recovered from World War I and Paris was booming, an excellent environment for men on the make. Lustig's master ruse came to him one spring day when he was drinking coffee at an outside Paris café with a fellow con man, a Franco American called Robert Arthur Tourbillon aka Dapper Dan Collins.
Victor Lustig and the Eiffel Tower that he sold. Twice.
They typed-up letters with Lustig's title printed on them and mailed them out to the six leading scrap metals dealers in Paris. They were asked to come meet Lustig and his secretary at their room in the fashionable Hotel Crillon. All six attended the meeting where the potential buyers were told that it had become too costly to repair the Eiffel Tower; the 7,000 ton steel structure would be sold to the highest bidder to be torn down. They were also told to keep the meeting secret; if the public found out too soon there would be an outcry.
Lustig took the men to the tower 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.
They selected Andre Poisson who was nicely insecure and thought that obtaining the Eiffel Tower contract would put him in the centre of Paris’ business community. A week later Monsieur Poisson showed up once again at Lustig's place. However Poisson's wife was suspicious of this government official, of the secrecy and the rush. 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 discretely supplement his income. Poisson understood that he was dealing with a corrupt government official who simply wanted a bribe. That put Poisson's mind at rest immediately, since he was familiar with the type.
Poisson was handed a fake contract that stated that he owned the Eiffel Tower, while Lustig was handed a real cheque for the Eiffel Tower AND a large bribe. The Baron and Dapper Dan quickly cashed their earnings ($70,000) and left immediately on a train for Vienna. Resting in Vienna they scanned the newspapers to see if Poisson went to the police, but Poisson was clearly too embarrassed to tell anyone what happened. Surprisingly, nothing happened at all.
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 reported his loss of $100,000 to the police before Lustig could close the deal! But the Baron and Collins once again managed to evade arrest, this time fleeing to America and not to Vienna.
Hotel Crillon, Paris
a very elegant location for an important business meeting
In May 1935 Lustig was dobbed in and an arrest warrant was issued by federal agents on charges of counterfeiting. Secret agents swooped on Lustig who was carrying a briefcase. Opening it up they found only expensive clothing, but in his wallet they found a key to a locker in the Times Square subway station. The locker contained $51,000 in counterfeit bills AND the plates from which they had been printed.
The day before his trial, Lustig managed to escape from the Federal House of Detention in New York City but was recaptured a month later in Pittsburgh. Lustig pleaded guilty at his trial and was sentenced to 20 years in Alcatraz Island in San Francisco, the American gaol for the worst offenders. In March 1947 he contracted pneumonia whilst still in gaol and soon died.
Dear reader, if you are going into the conman business, here are the rules that Lustig set down ..to increase your chances of success:
1.Be a patient listener.
2.Never look bored.
3.Wait for the other person to reveal any political opinions, then agree with them.
4.Let the other person reveal religious views, then have the same ones.
5.Hint at sex talk, but don’t follow it up.
6.Never discuss illness, unless some special concern is shown.
7.Never pry into a person’s personal circumstances.
8.Never boast. Just let your importance be quietly obvious.
9.Never be untidy.
10.Never get drunk.
I would add:
11. Speak French, German, English and other languages fluently
12. Do not have a spouse or children, so that you can move quickly.