Once called “the smoothest con man that ever lived,” this fascinating Smithsonian story briefly recounts the exploits of one Victor Lustig. He made money by traveling aboard luxury cruise ships and convincing rich men that he owned a money box that could duplicate $100 bills. But perhaps his biggest con was how he sold the Eiffel Tower for scrap metal:
By 1925, however, Victor Lustig had set his sights on grander things. After he arrived in Paris, he read a newspaper story about the rusting Eiffel Tower and the high cost of its maintenance and repairs. Parisians were divided in their opinion of the structure, built in 1889 for the Paris Exposition and already a decade past its projected lifespan. Many felt the unsightly tower should be taken down.
Lustig devised the plan that would make him a legend in the history of con men. He researched the largest metal-scrap dealers in Paris. Then he sent out letters on fake stationery, claiming to be the Deputy Director of the Ministere de Postes et Telegraphes and requesting meetings that, he told them, might prove lucrative. In exchange for such meetings, he demanded absolute discretion.
He took a room at the Hotel de Crillon, one of the city’s most upscale hotels, where he conducted meetings with the scrap dealers, telling them that a decision had been made to take bids for the right to demolish the tower and take possession of 7,000 tons of metal. Lustig rented limousines and gave tours of the tower—all to discern which dealer would make the ideal mark.
The crazy part? Lustig got away with the crime without getting caught. So judicious was he in his conning abilities that Lustig once scammed Al Capone for $50,000.
Another interesting detail: Wikipedia mentions that “The Ten Commandments of Con Men” are attributed to Victor Lustig:
- Be a patient listener (it is this, not fast talking, that gets a con man his coups).
- Never look bored.
- Wait for the other person to reveal any political opinions, then agree with them.
- Let the other person reveal religious views, then have the same ones.
- Hint at sex talk, but don’t follow it up unless the other person shows a strong interest.
- Never discuss illness, unless some special concern is shown.
- Never pry into a person’s personal circumstances (they’ll tell you all eventually).
- Never boast – just let your importance be quietly obvious.
- Never be untidy.
- Never get drunk.