In 1925, France had recovered from World War 1, and Paris was booming. Just what a con artist needed.
Victor Lustig was reading a newspaper one spring day when something caught his attention. An article discussed the problems the city was having maintaining the Eiffel Tower. Even keeping it painted was an expensive chore. Lustig saw the potential and the possibilities behind this article and developed a remarkable scheme.
After having a forger produce fake government stationery, Lustig invited six scrap metal dealers to a confidential meeting at the Hotel de Crillon, to discuss a possible business deal. All those who had been invited attended. There, Lustig introduced himself as the deputy director-general of the Ministry of Posts and Telegraphs and explained that they had been selected on the basis of their good reputations as honest businessmen, in an attempt to gain their trust.
Lustig told the group that the Eiffel Tower’s upkeep was so outrageous that the city no longer considered it’s preservation as practical, and wanted to sell it for scrap. He also added that he had been given the responsibility to select the dealer to carry out the task. According to him, the tower would amount to at least 7000 tons of high-grade iron
The dealers were then taken to the tower by Lustig in a rented limousine for a supposed inspection tour, but Lustig had other plans. He wanted this opportunity to gauge which one of them was the most enthusiastic and credulous. The dealers were asked to submit sealed bids and were reminded that the matter was a state secret.
The bids arrived promptly, and the following day Andre Poisson, an insecure man who felt he wasn’t in the inner circles of the Parisian business community, and thought that obtaining the Tower would put him in the big league, was informed that his bid had been accepted
Poisson gleefully obliged, and within a week, he had raised all the money needed. A final meeting was arranged. But his wife had her doubts, wondering who this official was, why everything was so secret, and why everything was done so quickly. Poisson asked Lustig why such important negotiations weren’t taking place in the ministry, but rather in a hotel.
Victor then ordered his personal Franco-American secretary, con man Robert Arthur Tourbillon (also known as Dan Collins), from the room and explained to Poisson-‘The life of a Government official is not easy. We must entertain; dress in fashion-yet all on pitifully small salaries. In letting a government contract, it is customary for the official in charge to receive…’ Poisson understood at once as he had had his own share of experiences with corrupt officials seeking bribes. However since such suggestions couldn’t be negotiated within the walls of the ministry, Poisson willingly handed over his certified cheque along with a wallet bulging with bank notes, and left, triumphantly clutching the deed of the weird sale.
Within an hour, the cheque was cashed-and Lustig and Collins were grinning at each other in a first-class compartment in the Vienna express, escaping with a suitcase full of cash.
Lustig, born in Bohemia, the son of a highly respected citizen, and Collins, a small-time American crook, stayed in one of Vienna’s finest hotels, studying the Paris newspapers. But there was no report of the Eiffel Tower scam. Why? Because the supposed buyer Andre Poisson was too embarrassed to report the hoax to the police.
This prompted Lustig and Collins to return to Paris a month later, with the intent of selling the tower once more. The crafty con men selected six more scrap dealers in an attempt to repeat the swindle. And they almost did!
Only this time, the victim went straight to the police and brought them the counterfeit contract and papers before closing the deal. Although Lustig and Collins evaded arrest and were never caught, the publicity garnered prevented a third sale for good.