Eiffel tower

Holy cow! History: The man who sold the Eiffel Tower

You’ve heard of gullible suckers buying up the Brooklyn Bridge and talkers selling Florida swamps.

But in the 1920s and 1930s, a con man was so brazen he actually sold Paris’ beloved Eiffel Tower – not once, but twice. He stole money from a notorious mobster and had the lawmen tearing their hair out in frustration.

This is the remarkable legacy of “Count” Victor Lustig, the crook of the crook.

Born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Lustig was exceptionally bright, exceptionally charming, and spoke several languages. A better life was announced beyond his small village, and he went in search of it.

After the First World War, his criminal career began by crossing the Atlantic on luxury liners. He dressed like a GQ model, displayed impeccable manners, and was smooth as silk. He befriended easily and was soon on good terms with the wealthier passengers.

Asked about the source of his wealth, Lustig confessed a secret: he had a “piggy bank” that printed $100 bills. Intrigued, his victims always begged to see him. In the greatest secrecy, he finally showed a wooden box said to contain an intricate contraption with rollers and printing plates which, fueled with radium, printed perfect C notes. The only problem, Lustig lamented, was time. It took six hours to print a single invoice. He twisted a few knobs and buttons, turned off the lights, and closed the room. When they returned, a clean $100 bill came out of the machine. They returned six hours later, just as another hundred new ones emerged.

At that time, dupes begged him to sell them the machine, which he always did with great reluctance. Each piggy bank brought in between $10,000 and $30,000. One reportedly brought in $47,000. By the time Lustig safely departed the ship, the buyer discovered that the box was producing only blank paper after dispensing the two genuine $100 bills that Lustig had loaded into it.

He needed a lot of money because in 1919 Lustig married an innocent Kansas girl and started a family. He also began a long-term affair with a millionaire lady in New York named Billie Mae Scheible. (More on her later.)

In 1925 Lustig came of age. He moved to Paris and embarked on his boldest plan yet: to sell the Eiffel Tower. It wasn’t as absurd as it sounds today.

Built for the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1889, the tower was only meant to last 20 years. When Lustig showed up in the City of Light, he was 36 and a rusty horror. As unbelievable as it may seem now, many Parisians wanted him gone.

Lustig had printed off an official-looking letterhead identifying him as Deputy Director of the Minister of Posts and Telegraphs. He sent letters to six leading scrap dealers, inviting them to a secret meeting to discuss removing the landmark. Absolute secrecy was essential, he insisted, to avoid a public outcry.

When “Count” Lustig scammed (the headline “count” was as genuine as his piggy banks) it was a five-star operation all the way. He obtained a suite in the elegant Hôtel de Crillon and met the merchants there. Afterwards, they all went by limo to take an inspection tour of the tower. Back at the hotel, he invited them to submit sealed bids the next day.

One dealer was particularly keen to win the contract. André Poisson requested a private meeting with Lustig. He explained that he was new to Paris and didn’t have the insider connections that other dealers had. Lustig said he understood; he also lamented that as a government bureaucrat he struggled to make ends meet. (Wink wink.)

Poisson took the hint. He paid the equivalent of $20,000 to buy the tower and another $50,000 to guarantee his bid would win.

Lustig was on a train that traveled to Vienna in less than an hour with $70,000 in cash (worth $1.1 million today). Incidentally, when Poisson realized he had been had, he was too humiliated to call the cops.

Now here comes the most amazing part of all: a month later, Lustig was back in Paris to commit the same scam. But it didn’t go well this time. When Lustig sent letters to six other scrap dealers, one of them smelled a rat and alerted the police. Lustig got wind of this and was on an ocean liner for America when officers showed up at his hotel.

Armed with 47 aliases and dozens of fake passports and IDs, Lustig fought his way from one crook to another.

He ended up in Chicago, where he had the nerve to shove Scarface himself. He told Al Capone he had a good deal. (It was the Roaring Twenties, remember, when Wall Street was hot.) But he needed $50,000 to fund it. Lustig promised to double the gangster’s money in two months. Exactly 60 days later, he unfortunately returned the $50,000, telling Big Al that the deal had failed.

Impressed by his “honesty”, Capone gave Lustig $5,000 to invest, which Lustig pocketed as he hurriedly left town.

He has been arrested more than 40 times and beaten the shot in court or escaped from his cell. In 1930, he teamed up with a chemist and colleague named Tom Shaw. They were soon churning out $100,000 a month in excellent counterfeit bills. The Secret Service couldn’t find out who was floating all that bogus money.

Their breakup came in 1935, thanks to the green-eyed monster. Lustig still continued his affair with dear Mrs. Billie Mae. Until he moved Shaw’s mistress, who quickly told Billie Mae. The enraged madam went to the police and spilled the fuse.

Now that the Feds knew who they were looking for, it was only a matter of time. When they finally caught him on a New York sidewalk, Lustig’s wallet contained a hidden key; he opened a subway station locker stuffed with counterfeit $51,000 bills and plates that had printed them.

Alcatraz was the next stop for this remarkable criminal, where he was sentenced to 20 years. In early 1949 he contracted pneumonia and died in a prison hospital.

In a final irony, Lustig’s death certificate listed his profession as “apprentice salesman.” An apprentice ! Victor Lustig knew more ways to get people to part with their money than Steve Jobs, Zig Ziglar and other top salesmen had ever learned.

It’s a shame he used all that charm and skill for selfish purposes.

J. Mark Powell is a novelist, former television journalist and history buff. Do you have a historical mystery to solve? A forgotten moment to remember? Send it to HolyCow@insidesources.com.