The Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower

There is no better place to start than with the most famous con artist in history, Viktor Lustig. Although Viktor Lustig was a con man for most of his life, he became famous mainly for his scam in which he "sold" the Eiffel Tower. Let's take a closer look at how this scam, unimaginable in our times, was carried out


So, what really happened back then?

The year is 1925, and an article is published in a Paris newspaper about the problems with the management of the Eiffel Tower, which has become very expensive. While reading this report, 35-year-old Lustig senses an opportunity and prepares a plan to sell the Eiffel Tower.

The plan was simple. The maintenance of the Eiffel Tower is too expensive and thus the city decided to have is dismantled and sell the iron as a scrap metal. This scenario was quite plausible in 1925, since the Eiffel Tower was constructed for the 1889 World’s Fair and was not intended to stay permanently in the city.

For the operation to be successful, it was necessary to create a credible persona who would have the authority to carry out such deal. At the beginning of the 20th century, there was an institution called the Ministry of Posts and Telegraphs, which was responsible for the Eiffel Tower. This was the reason why Lustig acted as a Deputy Director General of the ministry for the purposes of his scam.

Viktor Lustig had fake government invitations to a confidential meeting made at a counterfeiter, which he sent to six local scrap metal dealers. The invitations located the meeting at the Hotel de Crillon, one of the oldest and most prestigious hotels in Paris at the time.

All six businessmen arrived, and Viktor Lustig, pretending to be the Deputy Director General of the Ministry of Posts and Telegraphs, explained that they had been selected because of their good reputation of honest traders. Then he presented his plan to sell the Eiffel Tower due to the high maintenance costs and emphasized that everything must be kept secret due to possible outrage of the general public.

After the meeting at the hotel, Viktor Lustig took the dealers to the tower for an inspection. By doing this, he had the opportunity to observe the reactions of all participating businessmen, which led to the determination of the one who is the keenest on the deal. After the inspection, he asked the businessmen to send him their offers by the next day and reminded them again that this was a state secret. At this point, he already knew that he would accept the offer from a dealer named Andre Poisson, who felt left out of the inner circles of the Parisian merchant community. He was hoping that the deal would get him among those who were then the upper crust of the merchant community.

However, Poisson's wife was not excited as much, and she thought the whole situation strange. Her head was swimming with questions like: "Who is this clerk?" And "Why is everything done so quickly and must be kept secret?". So, Viktor Lustig had to make a move and organized another meeting to add the hallmark of authenticity to the whole scam. He convinced Poisson and his wife that, as a deputy director, he did not make as much money as he needed to make a living, and therefore his businesses require a certain degree of discretion. In other words, he asked Poisson for a bribe. Poisson believed that almost every French clerk is corrupted and thus this story confirmed his belief in the legitimacy of the given proposal. At the same time, it dispelled the doubts of the Poisson's wife, who had the answer to her question: "Something does not suit me at the clerk."

And so Viktor Lustig got a payment of 250,000 Franks (approximately 1 million current US dollars) for the sale of the Eiffel Tower, plus, as a bonus, he got a considerable bribe from Poisson.

In the following days, Lustig made off to Vienna by train. But contrary to the expectations that the police would be looking for Lustig, nothing happened. Poisson was so ashamed that he hushed up the whole thing.

How could he get away with this?

In this case, Viktor Lustig managed two things:

  • To take advantage of the current situation which the general public was aware of thanks to the newspaper (bad state of the Eiffel Tower together with the maintenance costs);
  • And to misuse Poisson’s longing for a big contract leading to a great amount of money (there is about 10,000 tons of iron in the Eiffel Tower) as well as to his move up the social ladder, which would again lead to other more lucrative contracts.

Moreover, a plausible story had to be created for such scam and since the Eiffel Tower was managed by the Ministry of Posts and Telegraphs, the role of the Deputy Director General seemed to be the best option, and for several reasons:

  • A person in this position has an adequate authority to conduct a business like this one as well as high enough standing in the society hierarchy so these high ranking merchants would be willing to talk to him.
  • At the same time, the person of a deputy is not, unlike the General Director himself, a person known to the general public, therefore, when they saw Lustig at the meeting, no suspicions had arisen.

This story alone would be of no use in itself if the meeting would not look so legitimate. As the saying goes: “The Devil is in the details”. Which means that any detail, even the smallest one, which could give rise to a suspicion has to be removed or set correctly.

In this particular case, the following had to be covered:

  • Forged invitations which had to look as official letters from the Ministry of Posts and Telegraphs. Which means for example correct stamps and format in which the letters were written.
  • The place of the meeting also made sense. Since it was a secret meeting, a place outside the ministry building had to be selected and at the same time, it was the most prestigious hotel in Paris at the time, which gave the meeting an air of importance.

Although we have no chance to find out how exactly the meeting had been conducted, it is clear that Lustig had to look, speak, and act as a high-ranking Paris official (that is, to be well-groomed and dressed adequately to the salary of an official in this rank, choose appropriate accessories, etc.).

In the next phase of this deliberate scam, he took the participants of the meeting to the Eiffel Tower. The goal was to observe their behaviour. Lustig could provoke further reactions in the businessmen by direct confrontation with the object of interest (the Eiffel Tower), which told him which of them would be the "lucky one" buying the tower from him. It is because our bodies reveal more about us than we care to admit, and unless we are a secret agent or a person trained in the management of emotions and their nonverbal manifestations, it is practically impossible not to reveal these displays of nonverbal communication, at least not always and under all circumstances.

When it comes to the dealers whom Lustig took to see the tower, they could display the following non-verbal and verbal manifestations, including the frequency of their occurrence:

  • Staring at the object of interest;
  • Facial expressions indicating excitement and interest;
  • A great number of questions regarding the sale together with questions indicating serious interest in the purchase.

The tour had also one more purpose, which was to get as much information about the dealers as possible in order to determine the target to whom the tower will be sold. People in general tend to tell a trustworthy person showing an interest information that can be easily misused by an experienced con man. And also, a confident person acts differently from a person who feels insecure.

Lustig probably identified Poisson as a target due to his verbal and nonverbal displays as well as of the whole group during the tour. These could be of the following nature:

  • Business relations were mentioned during the conversation between Lustig and Poisson and Poisson had an opportunity to complain.
  • The group of other businessmen could knowingly single Poisson out (they were not friendly with Poisson, he spent most of the time during the tour alone, isolated from the others, etc.).
  • Potential displays of insecurity and nervousness, together with their intensity (hands in pockets, self-touching etc.).

The moment the target of the scam was identified, an impression of urgency had to be raised. Therefore, Lustig emphasized the need for the bids to be send by the end of the next day. And finally, he needed to make sure that the scam would not be exposed until the money was handed over. For this reason, a lie about the state secret was used, which was easy to believe given the situation.

Poisson sent his bid to Lustig, however, there were some suspicions regarding the purchase. Each of us has encountered a similar situation in everyday life. It is that moment when we meet a stranger and for some reason, there is something that we cannot consciously describe which doesn’t suit us about them.

Lustig therefore called another meeting, where he needed to create a situation rationalizing the given doubts, which would again weaken Poisson’s alertness as well as his wife’s.

And this was why he indirectly asked for a bribe at the said meeting, thus efficiently putting their concerns to rest.

The rationalization could look something like this:

  • The thing that did not suit me about this person was the fact that he is corrupted, and therefore, the whole business feels suspicious. So, I have nothing to fear, only the business will cost me more money.

The scam was successfully completed at this moment.

Next time, we will take a look at the story of Stanley Mark Rifkin who defrauded 10.2 million US dollars from the Security Pacific Bank in 1978.