Victor Lusting: The Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower… Twice!
On the 11th of March 1947, Victor Lusting, a Czech con artist, best known as ‘The man who sold the Eiffel Tower’, died in Springfield, Missouri. At the time of his death, he was still serving his sentence of twenty years in Alcatraz Island for major money forgery. A glib and witty man, he spoke several languages and gained fame for his audacity and fearlessness, but, most of all, for his knowledge of human psychology. He could judge a man in an instant, discovering their weak points and using them for his own benefit. “Lusting knew that most men build up defences against crooks and other troublemakers. The con artist’s job is to bring those defences down. One sure way to do this is through an act of apparent sincerity and honesty. Who will distrust a person literally caught in the act of being honest?” (Robert Greene, The 48 Laws of Power).
This technique carried him through the most unbelievable forge transactions that brought him significant financial profits and left his victims empty-handed. One of his first scams was a ‘money-printing machine’. “He would demonstrate the capability of the small box to clients, all the while lamenting that it took the device six hours to copy a $100 bill. The client, sensing huge profits, would buy the machines for a high price, usually over $30,000. Over the next twelve hours, the machine would produce two more $100 bills. After that, it produced only blank paper, as its supply of $100 bills became exhausted. By the time the clients realized that they had been scammed, Lusting was long gone.” (Timi Ogunjobi, SCAMS – And How to Protect Yourself From Them). In a similar way, he persuaded Al Capone to trust him and invest $50,000 in a stock deal. But the most impressive of all of his scams is probably that involving the Eiffel Tower. In 1925, on the run from the police, Lusting arrived in Paris and soon sniffed another ‘golden deal’ for himself. In a newspaper he found an article about the costs of maintenance of the Tower. The article also suggested that it would be probably cheaper to scrap it than to maintain it.
“The Tower was finished in 1889, as the focal point of the Paris World’s Fair. The date of the Fair was symbolic. It was the centenary of the French Revolution… The planners of the Paris World’s Fair wanted something… spectacular…, so they decided to go up: to build a tower that would be the tallest manmade object on earth, topping out – before the installation of its present-day radio and TV masts – at 1056 feet. No doubt a biblical suggestion was at work, consciously or not. Since the Fair would embrace all nations, its central metaphor should be the Tower of Babel. But the Tower embodied other and socially deeper metaphors. The theme of the Fair was manufacture and transformation, the dynamics of capital rather than simple ownership. It was meant to illustrate the triumph of the present over the past, the victory of industrial over landed wealth that represented the essential economic difference between the Third Republic and the Ancien Régime. What more brilliant centrepiece for it than a structure that turned its back on the ownership of land – that occupied unowned and previously useless space, the sky itself? In becoming a huge vertical extrusion of a tiny patch of the earth’s surface, it would demonstrate the power of process. Anyone could buy land, but only la France moderne could undertake the conquest of the air.” (Robert Hughes, The Shock of The New).
However, the Eiffel Tower was not intended to become the permanent element of Parisian landscape. Built specifically for the Fair, it was actually meant to be taken down in 1909 and moved to another location. Collating these facts with the information from the article, Lusting plotted his intricate plan of ‘selling’ the Tower. He promptly set himself up as a high-ranking government official and invited five scrap merchants to come and meet him confidentially at the Hotel Crillon. Then he explained the delicacy of the matter, which, as he said, would most likely cause public outrage, and asked the merchants to tender their secret bids for the demolition work. Each one of them submitted bids, and Lusting chose the most gullible of them, not only making him pay the full amount for the Tower but also – to gain extra credibility – a hefty bribe to secure the deal. Expecting an outbreak of a great scandal, he fled immediately to Vienna.But the silly merchant, too ashamed of his naivety, kept the details of the unfortunate deal to himself. Encouraged by such a lucky turn of the situation, Lusting went back to Paris to seal another deal, which he carried out in exactly the same manner as the previous one. Only this time, the police were brought in and Lusting had to make his way to America, where in 1935 he finally got caught for major money forgery. Sentenced to twenty years in prison, he would never commit another scam again. Yet, judging by what he once said, it is most likely that he never regretted his risky escapades. He said: “Everything turns gray when I don’t have at least one mark on the horizon. Life then seems empty and depressing. I cannot understand honest men. They lead desperate lives, full of boredom.”