PARIS, September 7, 2014 – When the story broke last week that France might be considering the sale of the Mona Lisa, it brought to mind the story of a man who actually sold the Eiffel Tower…twice!
If Victor Lustig wasn’t the greatest scam artist of all time, he certainly ranks among the best. So adept was he at his craft, he even swindled Al Capone out of several thousand dollars during the Roaring 20s and lived to tell about it.
Lustig was born in Czechoslovakia in 1890 when it was part of Austria-Hungary. Throughout his lifetime he had more than 45 aliases, and he spoke five languages fluently.
Early in Lustig’s career he made his money by scamming wealthy tourists during Trans-Atlantic sailings between Europe and the United States.
Traveling with another con man named “Dapper Dan” Collins, the two master thieves made their way to in Paris in May of 1925.
One day while sitting at a sidewalk café reading the French newspaper “Le Monde,” Lustig came across a small article that reported the Eiffel Tower was in dire need of repair.
What is now a national icon had been built for the Paris Exposition in 1889 and was never intended as a permanent fixture in the city’s skyline. In fact, the Eiffel Tower was originally scheduled to be taken down in 1909 and moved to another location. According to the story in the paper, the costs for repair to the tower would be prohibitive.
That’s when a light bulb came on in Lustig’s fertile brain.
After Lustig had a forger print some fake government stationery, he gave himself the title of Deputy Director-General of the Ministry of Posts and Telegraphs and arranged a highly confidential meeting with six scrap metal dealers at the exclusive Hotel de Crillon.
The meeting was “by invitation only” with the businessmen being told that they had been exclusively selected because of their high standards of quality in the scrap metal industry.
Each company was to asked submit a bid for project to tear down the Eiffel Tower, but Lustig’s primary goal in setting up the scam was to select the best “mark” for his con.
During his presentation, Lustig emphasized the need for secrecy due to the controversy that would be aroused from the public at the thought of tearing down their beloved landmark.
Within four days, Lustig had chosen his victim, a man named Andre Poisson. Though Poisson’s wife became suspicious that such an important decision would be surrounded by so much secrecy, Lustig managed to charm his way through the negotiations with yet another bit of skullduggery.
Lustig confided in Poisson that though he was a “high ranking” government official, his salary was not as prestigious as his position appeared to warrant.
The scrap metal dealer quickly realized he was being awarded the project as a bribe, and paid Lustig handsomely to secure the deal.
Once lucratively rewarded, Lustig and his pal Collins immediately fled to Austria where they lived a lavish lifestyle at Poisson’s expense.
Just to be certain there was no danger of being caught for their scheme, the rip-off artists checked Paris newspapers on a daily basis to stay informed about their escapade.
After approximately six weeks with no news of any scandal, Lustig concluded that Poisson had been too embarrassed at falling for the con and never reported it to the authorities.
Emboldened by the results, Lustig and his accomplice returned to Paris and attempted the same plot with five different scrap iron dealers.
Amazingly, Lustig sold the Eiffel Tower for a second using the identical techniques as before. This time however, he was not so fortunate. Lustig’s mark contacted the police after being fleeced of $100,000 and the Count abruptly fled to the United States to avoid capture.
Eventually Lustig was caught and sentenced to do time in Alcatraz. While serving his sentence, he contacted pneumonia and died in prison at the age of 57.
Interestingly enough, Lustig’s death certificate listed his occupation as a “salesman.”
So as officials of the Louvre and the French government mull the idea of selling another national landmark, the Mona Lisa, in order to pay some of its bills, just remember that one man already sold the Eiffel Tower twice.
And now you know the real reason behind that bewitching smile on the face Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece.
Bob Taylor has been traveling the world for more than 30 years as a writer and award winning television producer focusing on international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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