Victor Lustig, could arguably be the smartest con men ever lived. Here is an ironically charming story.
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.
Andre Poisson was fairly new to the city, and Lustig quickly decided to focus on him. When Poisson began peppering him with questions, Lustig baited his lure. As a public official, he said, he didn’t earn much money, and finding a buyer for the Eiffel Tower was a very big decision. Poisson bit. He’d been in Paris long enough to know what Lustig was getting at: The bureaucrat must be legitimate; who else would dare seek a bribe? Poisson would pay the phony deputy director $20,000 in cash, plus an additional $50,000 if Lustig could see to it that his was the winning bid.
Lustig secured the $70,000 and in less than an hour, he was on his way back to Austria. He waited for the story to break, with, possibly, a description and sketch of himself, but it never did. Poisson, fearful of the embarrassment such a disclosure would bring upon him, chose not to report Lustig’s scam.
Read the full story here.