One of the most talented con artists who ever lived was Victor Lustig. Victor was born in Bohemia and had gone west, demonstrating his talents even in his early twenties. He was a natural conman, persuasive and charming in multiple languages. He established himself by working scams on the ocean liners steaming between Paris and New York, but eventually decided to stay in Paris for a while and see what he could find there.
In 1925, France had recovered from the First World War and Paris was booming. Expatriates from all over the world went to Paris to enjoy being at the leading edge of the latest trends. It was flashy, fast-moving, and an excellent environment for a con artist.
Lustig's master con began one spring day when he was reading a newspaper. An article discussed the problems the city was facing maintaining the Eiffel Tower. Even keeping it painted was an expensive chore, and the tower was becoming somewhat run down. Lustig saw a story behind this article. Maybe the city would decide the Eiffel Tower wasn't worth saving any longer. What would happen then? Lustig outlined the possibilities in his head, and realized they suggested a remarkable scheme.
Lustig adopted the persona of a government official, and had a forger produce fake government stationery for him. Lustig then sent six scrap metal dealers an invitation to attend a confidential meeting at the Hotel Creon to discuss a possible business deal. The Hotel Creon was a meeting place for diplomats and a perfect cover. All the six scrap dealers replied and come to the meeting.
There, Lustig introduced himself as the deputy Director-General of the Ministry of Posts and Telegraphs. He explained that the dealers 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 impractical in 1925 as 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 someplace else. It didn't fit with the city's other great monuments like the gothic cathedrals or the Arc de Triomphe, and in any case at the time it really was in poor condition.
Lustig took the men to the tower in a rented limousine to give them an inspection tour. The tower was made of 15,000 prefabricated parts, many of which were highly ornamental, and Lustig showed it off to the men. This encouraged their enthusiasm, and it also gave Lustig an idea who was the most enthusiastic and gullible. He knew how to be attentive and agreeable, and let people talk until they told him everything he wanted to know.
Back on the ground, 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. Poisson who 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. Lustig had quickly sensed Poisson's eagerness.
To deal with the suspicious Poisson, 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 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 got a bribe on top of that. Lustig and his personal secretary, an American conman named Dan Collins, hastily took a train for Vienna with a suitcase full of cash. He knew the instant that Poisson called the government ministries to ask for further information the whole fraud would be revealed and the law would intervene.
Nothing happened and 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 Eiffel Tower once more. This time, the mark went to the police before Lustig managed to close the deal, but Lustig and Collins still managed to evade arrest.
There were others who made a profit selling civic landmarks, of course. In the early 1920s, a fast-talking Scotsman named Arthur Ferguson found out that he could obtain a tidy profit by selling Americans visiting London such items as Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square (for the sum of 6,000 pounds), Big Ben (1,000 pounds for a down payment), and Buckingham Palace (2,000 pounds for a down payment).
Ferguson's success in suckering gullible American tourists suggested to him that America was indeed the land of opportunity, and so he emigrated there in 1925. He sold the White House to a rancher on the installment plan for yearly payments of $100,000 USD and tried to sell the Statue of Liberty to a visiting Australian, who went to the police. The authorities had been looking for the mysterious salesman of public landmarks, and Ferguson went to jail, to be released in 1930. He profitably continued his trade in Los Angeles until his death in 1938.
Lustig, too, finally immigrated to the US, and conducted a number of scams. Eventually his luck ran out. He was arrested for counterfeiting and sent to Alcatraz Prison. He died in 1947. The clerk who filled out his death certificate had to pause when he came to the entry titled OCCUPATION. He finally wrote: SALESMAN.
2) Greg Goebels public Domain site
3) The Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower by Floyd Miller, Doubleday, 1961