|Born||Robert V. Miller
January 4, 1890
Hostinné, Austria-Hungary (present day Czech Republic)
|Died||March 11, 1947
Victor Lustig was born in Hostinné, Austria-Hungary, then known as Arnau, but soon headed West. He was a glib and charming con man, fluent in multiple languages. He established himself by working scams on the ocean liners steaming between the Atlantic ports of France and New York City.
One of Lustig's trademark cons involved 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, Lustig was long gone. This type of scheme is also called the “money box” scheme.
Eiffel Tower scam
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In 1925, France had recovered from World War I, and Paris was booming, an excellent environment for a con artist. Lustig's master con came to him one spring day when he was reading a newspaper. An article discussed the problems the city was having maintaining the Eiffel Tower. Even keeping it painted was an expensive chore, and the tower was becoming somewhat run down. Lustig saw the possibilities behind this article and developed a remarkable scheme.
Lustig had a forger produce fake government stationery for him and invited six scrap metal dealers to a confidential meeting at the Hotel de Crillon, one of the most prestigious of the old Paris hotels, to discuss a possible business deal. All six attended the meeting. There, Lustig introduced himself as the deputy director-general of the Ministry of Posts and Telegraphs. He explained that they had been selected on the basis of their good reputations as honest businessmen.
Lustig told the group that the upkeep on the Eiffel Tower was so outrageous that the city could not maintain it any longer, and wanted to sell it for scrap. Due to the certain public outcry, he went on, the matter was to be kept secret until all the details were thought out. Lustig said that he had been given the responsibility to select the dealer to carry out the task. The idea was not as implausible in 1925 as it would be today. The Eiffel Tower had been built for the 1889 Paris Exposition, and was not intended to be permanent. It was to have been taken down in 1909 and moved somewhere else. It did not fit with the city's other great monuments like the Gothic cathedrals or the Arc de Triomphe, and at the time, it really was in poor condition.
Lustig took the men to the tower in a rented limousine for an inspection tour. It gave Lustig the opportunity to gauge which of them was the most enthusiastic and gullible. Lustig asked for bids to be submitted the next day, and reminded them that the matter was a state secret. In reality, Lustig already knew he would accept the bid from one dealer, Andre Poisson. Poisson was insecure, feeling he was not in the inner circles of the Parisian business community, and thought that obtaining the Eiffel Tower deal would put him in the big league.
However, Poisson's wife was suspicious, wondering who this official was, why everything was so secret, and why everything was being done so quickly. To deal with her suspicion, Lustig arranged another meeting, and then "confessed". As a government minister, Lustig said, he did not make enough money to pursue the lifestyle he enjoyed, and needed to find ways to supplement his income. This meant that his dealings needed a certain discretion. Poisson understood immediately. He was dealing with another corrupt government official who wanted a bribe. That put Poisson's mind at rest immediately, since he was familiar with the type and had no problems dealing with such people.
So Lustig not only received the funds for the Eiffel Tower; he also collected a large bribe. Lustig and his personal secretary, Franco-American con man Robert Arthur Tourbillon (also known as Dan Collins), hastily took a train for Vienna with a suitcase full of cash.
Surprisingly, nothing happened. Poisson was too humiliated to complain to the police. A month later, Lustig returned to Paris, selected six more scrap dealers, and tried to sell the Tower once more. This time, the chosen victim went to the police and he brought them the counterfeit contract and papers before Lustig could close the deal, but Lustig and Collins managed to evade arrest.
Later, during the Depression, Lustig persuaded Al Capone to invest $50,000 in a stock deal, knowing full well that betrayal or failure meant certain death at the hands of the mobster. But a straight-out con was not what Lustig had in mind; he was playing a mind game with Capone. Lustig kept Capone's money in a safe deposit box for two months then returned it to him, claiming that the deal had fallen through. Just as Capone was deciding which bridge to throw Lustig off, the con man reached into his bag and, to Capone's shock, produced the $50,000. Capone was beyond surprised; it was the first time he could remember dealing with an honest man. But Lustig lamented that it was a shame the "deal" fell through, because "[he, Lustig,] really did need the money." Impressed with Lustig's integrity, Capone gave him $5,000 to "tide him over" until things got better. The $5,000 was, of course, all that Lustig was after all along.
In 1930 Lustig went into partnership with a middle-aged chemist from Nebraska named Tom Shaw. Shaw had the job of engraving plates for the manufacture of counterfeit banknotes. They then organized a counterfeit ring for the purpose of circulating the hundreds of thousands of forged notes throughout the country. Lustig was successful in keeping it a secret by making sure that not even the underlings knew anything about it.
On the evening of 10 May 1935 Lustig was arrested by federal agents on charges of counterfeiting after an anonymous phone call was made, out of jealousy, by his mistress, Billy May, who became jealous when she learned of the romance between him and Shaw's young mistress, Marie. Secret agents swooped on Lustig who had a briefcase on him at the time. Opening the briefcase, they found only expensive clothing, but in his wallet they found a key. Lustig refused to specify where it came from but it eventually led the agents to a locker in the Times Square subway station that contained $51,000 in counterfeit bills and the plates from which they had been printed. The day before his trial he managed to escape from the Federal House of Detention in New York City but was recaptured 27 days later in Pittsburgh. Lustig pleaded guilty at his trial and was sentenced to 20 years in Alcatraz Island, California. On 9 March 1947 he contracted pneumonia and died two days later at the Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri. On his death certificate his occupation was listed as apprentice salesman.
A set of instructions known as the "Ten Commandments for Con Men" has been attributed to Lustig:
- Be a patient listener (it is this, not fast talking, that gets a con man his coups).
- Never look bored.
- Wait for the other person to reveal any political opinions, then agree with them.
- Let the other person reveal religious views, then have the same ones.
- Hint at sex talk, but don't follow it up unless the other person shows a strong interest.
- Never discuss illness, unless some special concern is shown.
- Never pry into a person's personal circumstances (they'll tell you all eventually).
- Never boast - just let your importance be quietly obvious.
- Never be untidy.
- Never get drunk.
In Popular Culture
- "Victor Lustig". Biography.com. Retrieved 21 October 2013.
- "Biography of Victor Lustig". Hoaxes, Scams, & Con Artists. Retrieved 21 October 2013.
- Velinger, Jan (15 October 2003). "Victor Lustig - the man who (could have) sold the world". Radio Prague.
- King, Gilbert (22 August 2012). "The Smoothest Con Man That Ever Lived". Smithsonian Magazine.
- The Passing Parade - John Doremus. Evenings with George Illich, Radio 2CH, 20:40 ADST, 14 December 2009.
- Johnson, James F.; Miller, Floyd (1961). The Man Who Sold the Eiffel Tower. Doubleday & Company Inc. p. 216. LCCN 61009522.
- Lindskoog, Katherine Ann.; Fakes, Frauds & other malarkey
- Listen to an episode from radio show about Victor Lustig