The Con Man Who Sold The Eiffel Tower For Scrap

May 14, 2019

Victor Lustig is one of the smoothest con men of all time. He had numerous schemes including selling the Eiffel Tower. How was he able to do it? Cheddar investigates...


Speaker 1: The Eiffel Tower.

Speaker 1: Sacrebleu. Paris's iconic monument.

Speaker 1: Beloved by Parisians and tourists alike.

Speaker 1: It stood for over a century,

Speaker 1: and is known around the world as

Speaker 1: a triumph of art and architecture.

Speaker 1: And it's always been this way since its inception, right?

Speaker 1: Wrong. In fact the Eiffel Tower

Speaker 1: was never supposed to be standing this long.

Speaker 1: And at the time of its construction in 1887,

Speaker 1: it was heavily protested by

Speaker 1: artists, engineers, and architects.

Speaker 1: The 1,000 foot iron tower was built as

Speaker 1: the main attraction and entrance of

Speaker 1: the 1889 World's Fair.

Speaker 1: And it was scheduled to be taken down in 1909.

Speaker 1: But by 1914, the tower had proved to be

Speaker 1: a valuable resource for the French.

Speaker 1: During World War I,

Speaker 1: a radio transmitter atop

Speaker 1: the tower jammed German communications,

Speaker 1: and subsequently stalled their advancement towards Paris.

Speaker 1: However, the glory of

Speaker 1: war could not save the tower from disrepair.

Speaker 1: And ten years later,

Speaker 1: support for its removal was growing.

Speaker 1: It was rusting, an eyesore, expensive.

Speaker 1: One of those articles got into the hands of one of

Speaker 1: the most notorious criminals of the 20th century.

Speaker 1: Victor Lustig. Hey everyone.

Speaker 1: I'm Patrick Jones and welcome to The Vault,

Speaker 1: where we tell tales of true financial crime.

Speaker 1: And I do this for some reason in the intro.

Speaker 1: [MUSIC]

Speaker 1: Victor Lustig was

Speaker 1: born Robert V. Miller in Austria, Hungary in 1890.

Speaker 1: He was the son of the burglar master,

Speaker 1: or mayor of the town.

Speaker 1: No, wait. Or was he the son of

Speaker 1: the poorest peasants in town and

Speaker 1: raised in a small stone house?

Speaker 1: It's hard to say. Lustig often

Speaker 1: gave conflicting accounts of

Speaker 1: his childhood throughout his life.

Speaker 1: But what we do know for certain is that he

Speaker 1: would come to build his life on crime.

Speaker 1: Lustig was recognized as

Speaker 1: one of the smartest boys in class.

Speaker 1: He excelled in foreign languages, psychology,

Speaker 1: and the study of people,

Speaker 1: sociology. That's probably what that is.

Speaker 1: But his best attribute was his charm.

Speaker 1: And he often pushed things to see

Speaker 1: how far his charisma could take him.

Speaker 1: While studying in Paris at the age of 19,

Speaker 1: Lustig took on poker,

Speaker 1: billiards, and gambling of all sorts.

Speaker 1: On the side, he was also

Speaker 1: a notorious pickpocket and street hustler.

Speaker 1: He found an uncanny ability to hold

Speaker 1: a straight face and charm his way to success,

Speaker 1: even if it rubbed some the wrong way.

Speaker 1: One night after flirting with another man's girlfriend,

Speaker 1: Lustig earned a scar across his face.

Speaker 1: Frankly for his line of work, a scar seems fitting.

Speaker 1: Upon leaving school, he decided to use his intelligence

Speaker 1: and charm for a life of professional crime.

MALE_1: Reach for the stars. [MUSIC]

MALE_1: His first string of tricks took place

MALE_1: upon transatlantic ocean liners.

MALE_1: He would pose as a famous broadway producer,

MALE_1: and approach wealthy passengers convincing

MALE_1: them to invest in a non-existent production.

MALE_1: A scam that would now be trapped in your spam inbox.

MALE_1: And for his next scam,

MALE_1: Lustig built what's called a Rumanian Box.

MALE_1: A trunk sized wooden box with two slots on either side,

MALE_1: and multiple brass knobs and levers that could

MALE_1: purportedly duplicate any paper currency.

MALE_1: Vulnerable victims would insert bills,

MALE_1: only hundreds,

MALE_1: and the machine would print out an exact copy.

MALE_1: Of course, the device would need

MALE_1: six hours to process the fresh new bill,

MALE_1: which in reality Lustig had

MALE_1: previously planted. It was a scam.

MALE_1: But once Lustigs Mark was convinced of the boxes powers,

MALE_1: he would sell them a device at an extremely high price,

MALE_1: anywhere between $10,000 and $30,000.

MALE_1: At this point, Lustig would run off,

MALE_1: never to be heard from again.

MALE_1: "See yeah." His victim left with

MALE_1: only a fancy empty wooden box.

MALE_1: "At least it's fancy."

MALE_1: From 1909 to 1925,

MALE_1: Victor Lustig gained fluency in five languages,

MALE_1: obtain 22 aliases and racked up more than 40 arrests.

MALE_1: Hall of Fame numbers,

MALE_1: but his biggest scheme was yet to come.

MALE_1: This is a drum roll. Let's say you drum.

MALE_1: In 1925, Lustig was back in a Paris hotel room,

MALE_1: when he came across an article

MALE_1: regarding the Eiffel Towers disrepair.

MALE_1: It accounted a public poll in which

MALE_1: the majority of the city wanted it removed.

MALE_1: [NOISE] Lustig saw an opportunity and a lot of money,

MALE_1: in the form of 7,000 tons of metal.

MALE_1: He devised a plan where he would pose as

MALE_1: a government official and sell

MALE_1: the Eiffel Tower to metal scrappers.

MALE_1: First, he contacted a counterfeiter to

MALE_1: create official government documents,

MALE_1: detailing the demolition, plan, and contract.

MALE_1: He even created photo stationery

MALE_1: with his new municipal title,

MALE_1: deputy director-general of

MALE_1: the Ministere de Postes et Telegraphes.

MALE_1: "Lay off me, I didn't take French in high school."

MALE_1: The more titles the

MALE_1: fisher it seems, you're trying too hard.

MALE_1: It's too many names.

MALE_1: It was on the stationery that he wrote letters to

MALE_1: the cities five most prominent metal scrappers.

MALE_1: The letters invited the scrappers

MALE_1: to a confidential meeting at

MALE_1: the luxurious Hotel de Crillon in Paris.

MALE_1: "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry for that."

MALE_1: With his signature charm,

MALE_1: Lustig performed a speech detailing the city's plan to

MALE_1: remove the iconic structure and sell its metal for scrap.

MALE_1: To justify the secretive nature of the meeting,

MALE_1: he warned of the potential for

MALE_1: negative press and public outcry

MALE_1: if the word were to get out.


MALE_2: After a wine, dinner and

MALE_2: a limo trip to the tower he intended to demolish,

MALE_2: Lustig narrowed down his target to Andre Poisson,

MALE_2: an insecure man relatively new to

MALE_2: the scrapping industry looking for his big break.

MALE_2: Poisson agreed to the deal and gave Lustig

MALE_2: $70,000 cash for the rights to the Eiffel Tower,

MALE_2: that's over a million dollars in today's money.

MALE_2: And just as soon as the deal

MALE_2: was made and the money was in his hands,

MALE_2: Lustig fled France for Austria.

MALE_2: After a week of no communication,

MALE_2: Poisson realized what had occurred.

MALE_2: The Eiffel Tower was not for sale.

MALE_2: He was scammed by a professional con man.

MALE_2: But to prevent embarrassment and

MALE_2: protect his livelihood, he kept quiet.

MALE_2: He never filed a report. Poor guy.

MALE_2: In a shockingly brazen move,

MALE_2: Lustig came back to Paris

MALE_2: six months later and

MALE_2: tried to sell the Eiffel Tower again,

MALE_2: though this time the iron dealer became

MALE_2: suspicious and contacted the French authorities.

MALE_2: But before police could act,

MALE_2: Lustig being just one step

MALE_2: ahead as always, vanished yet again.

MALE_2: [MUSIC] This time Lustig fled to

MALE_2: the US where he continued scamming

MALE_2: more unsuspecting casualties of his legendary charm.

MALE_2: Finally, after an extensive

MALE_2: counterfeiting scheme in which he and

MALE_2: a chemist released one million dollars

MALE_2: of today's money into the economy a month,

MALE_2: an encounter with legendary gangster Al Capone,

MALE_2: an arrest and subsequent escape from a Manhattan prison,

MALE_2: Lustig was finally apprehended

MALE_2: 28 days later in Pittsburgh by federal authorities.

MALE_2: He was sentenced to 20 years in prison,

MALE_2: and this time he was sent to Alcatraz.

MALE_3: Alcatraz, the dead rock in San Francisco Bay.

MALE_2: Or The Rock as it's commonly

MALE_2: known where he spent his final years.

MALE_2: But before his death,

MALE_2: Lustig is credited with writing

MALE_2: the 10 commandments for comment.

MALE_2: Here they are. Be a patient listener.

MALE_2: Never looked bored.

MALE_2: Wait for the other person to reveal

MALE_2: any political opinions then agree with them.

MALE_2: Let the other person reveal religious views,

MALE_2: then have the same ones.

MALE_2: Hint at sex talk,

MALE_2: but don't follow it up unless

MALE_2: the other person shows a strong interest.

MALE_2: Never discuss illness,

MALE_2: unless some special concern is shown.

MALE_2: Never pry into a person's personal circumstances,

MALE_2: they'll tell you all eventually.

MALE_2: Never boast. Just let your importance be quietly obvious.

MALE_2: Never be untidy.

MALE_2: Never get drunk.

MALE_2: The secret agent who called Lustig,

MALE_2: called him the smoothest con man ever,

MALE_2: and who can argue with him?

MALE_2: Which surprisingly it isn't written on his tombstone

MALE_2: because that's badass and it should be there, I would.