Victor Lustig (1890 – 1947)
Born in Hostinne which was in the Austro-Hungarian Empire but is now in the Czech Republic, Lustig has been called America’s greatest fraudster. Whether that was really the case or not, he made a career out of scamming, his piece de resistance being the sale of the Eiffel Tower, not once but twice.
Paris in 1925 was emerging from the doldrums of the First World War but its iconic landmark was proving a drain on the civic resources, requiring constant maintenance and decoration. Reading a newspaper article about the city’s dilemma over the tower, which was only ever intended to be a temporary structure, gave Lustig an idea. Using forged government papers and posing as the deputy-general of the Ministry of Posts and Telegraphs, Lustig invited the heads of six of the city’s scrap metal dealers to a meeting at the Hotel de Crillon.
There he laid out a tale of woe. The bill for the upkeep of the Eiffel Tower was so high that the authorities had only one course of action – to demolish it and sell the structure off for scrap. Because the public outcry would be great if news of the plan leaked out, the scrap metal dealers, who had been selected for their probity, had to keep everything under their chapeaux. The dealers would have the opportunity to bid for the business. Only when the demolition began, would the public be aware of what was going on.
The dealers were then taken on a tour of inspection, giving Lustig the opportunity to see who was the keenest for the business. He identified Andre Poisson as his mark – Poisson was struggling to break into the big time and saw this as his opportunity. He took the bait. La Poisson, however, smelled a rat and wondered why everything was being transacted with such speed and secrecy. Lustig offered Poisson another meeting in which he revealed that times was hard, it was difficult to make ends meet on an official salary and if Poisson could see a way to grease his palms, he would be guaranteed the contract. The sum mentioned was a whopping $100,000.
Poisson who had fallen for the scam hook, line and sinker went to his office, returned with the money and, surprise, surprise, Lustig and his colleague took a train to Vienna with a suitcase of money to let the dust settle. Poisson was so embarrassed by being duped that he didn’t report the scam to the police. Lustig had chosen his mark well.
As the police had not been alerted, Lustig returned to Paris and, astonishingly, convened a meeting with another group of six scrap dealers, rolling out the same story and scam. This time, the chosen mark became suspicious and took the forged documentation to the gendarmerie. By the time they came a-calling, Lustig and his accomplice had made good their escape.
To Lustig is attributed the Ten Commandments for Con Men. As well as being a good listener, never looking bored and being tidy and sober, the master fraudster recommended agreeing with the political and religious views of your victim. Key to a successful scam was never prying into the mark’s personal circumstances – they will reveal them themselves – and never boast. Advice to lock away in the memory, for sure.
We will look at some of Lustig’s other scams next time.