It was the year 1925 and France was on the verge of recovering from the aftermath of World War I. The city of lights was flourishing; booming with people who came from all over the world to experience the leading trends of the French capital.
The fast-growing city, thus, became an ideal environment for a con artist and Victor Lustig, born in 1890 in Hostinné, Bohemia, Austria-Hungary, was already an accomplished con man. He had moved to Paris for his studies but had embarked on the life of crime. Lustig was charming, spoke five languages fluently, and was the smoothest con man in his time.
His first known scam was a money-printing machine called the "Rumanian Box" scam where he sold his clients a small box that took six hours to print a $100 copy bill. He sold it for around $30,000 but after printing two more $100 bills over the next 12 hours, it only produced blank papers. By that time, the deceiver would already escape.
Among many of his scams committed on rich travellers in ships commuting to and from Paris and New York was one where he posed as a musical producer who was looking for investors for his "Broadway production".
He had even travelled to the US and in 1922, he conned a bank into giving him money for a portion of bonds he was offering for a repossessed property. He managed to escape with both the money and the bonds! The lucky guy, by this time, had already become a target among many law enforcement agencies for his notorious scams.
So, by 1925, Lustig was staying in Paris and was already in search of his next possible canvas.
He came across a newspaper article that discussed the problems the city was having with the maintenance of the Eiffel Tower. The well-known monument was designed by Gustave Eiffel for the 1889 World's Fair.
The gigantic structure of 1,000 feet in height, when turned into a radio tower, came in very handy for monitoring the Germans during WWI. But the gorgeous landmark built with iron weighing over 7,000 tons was falling apart and rusting away - it needed more than 60 tons of paint - an expensive chore for the city. The article ended with an opinion line stating that the city might decide to pull down the Eiffel Tower.
Lustig's scheme started brewing. He called in the city's topmost metal scrapers' and salvagers' companies. He faked his identity as a government official who was in charge of public buildings.
The five scrap metal dealers were taken to one of the most prestigious Paris hotel - Hotel de Crillon where Lustig confided to the group that the maintenance on the Eiffel Tower was becoming so expensive that the city could not maintain it any longer and had decided to privately and quietly sell it for scrap to avoid any public unrest. He stressed that the information on the matter was to be kept secret.
The masterful con artist even took the group to the Eiffel Tower for inspection in a rented limousine - this was to fish out the most gullible and enthusiastic one from the group. Lustig already knew he would accept André Poisson's bid, but Poisson's wife became suspicious.
To strike the deal of a lifetime, Lustig arranged another meeting with Poisson. He then "confessed" to the dealer that as a government official, he did not make enough money to live the lifestyle he fancies.
Lustig sold the Eiffel Tower and left for Vienna with his personal secretary, an American conman, and poor Poisson, left humiliated, did not even file a complaint to the police. After a month, greed brought Lustig back to Paris. He used the same scheme - gathered six dealers but this time, his chosen victim went to the police with the forged papers before Lustig could seal the deal.
The con man evaded an arrest and fled to the US where he kept selling his Rumanian Box scam, made counterfeiting money, and even managed to scam Al Capone once (he later gave the money back) - but soon the law caught up to him.
All cons must come to an end even the king of cons; Lustig was arrested in 1935 on the charge of counterfeiting. He managed to escape before his trial but was caught within a month. He was sentenced to 15 years of imprisonment in Alcatraz and five more for escaping custody.
After spending 12 years in jail, Lustig died on March 11, 1947 from pneumonia.