Born on January 4, 1890 in Hostinné, now a part of the Czech Republic, Victor Lustig is favored with legend status by the media at large. For many of his frauds, he posed as a count of eastern European origins. What he really was, is a sharp little crook who enjoyed a long criminal career with great relish. Since his death in prison, he has been described in glowing terms as a “genius” “amazing” and so on. As Charles Ponzi is linked to mass fraud, Lustig is revered as a master confidence trickster. Both these men and their warped morality have contributed hugely to seeding the fraud culture that now consumes all of humanity.
Victor Lustig first came to fame for having sold the Eiffel Tower twice. He is also known for writing “rules of the con”, ten lines that show what a mean and insincere little man he really was. His frauds were broad and global.
Fluent in five languages, Lustig moved to America in 1922. A couple of years later, he read in a newspaper article that the Eiffel Tower in Paris was in such disrepair, the French were thinking of tearing it down. This gave him the idea for a great scam, so off he went to Paris.
What might ever be said about the guy, Lustig was a clever criminal and always planned his frauds well. As soon as he got to Paris, he put together a bunch of fake “official” documents. He was listed here as the Deputy Director General of the Ministère de Postes et Télégraphes. Then with this new identity, he booked a swanky hotel suite. Once established here, he then invited six top French scrap metal dealers to a meeting. Posing as a Ministry employee he first swore them all to secrecy. He told them they had been chosen to bid on a Ministry job.
Then Lustig wined and dined them in style. Even taking them to inspect the tower in a rented limousine. He explained the secrecy was necessary because of a possible public backlash at the idea. We went on to tell the government wanted the rusting tower torn down and sold as scrap. He was in charge of finding the highest bidder, he said. The pitch was too good to resist and the first dealer up with a cash bid won the “deal”. It was only when the buyer tried to take possession of the tower, he found out he had been duped. Like so many fraud victims, he was too ashamed of his folly to go to the police. Of course, the con man was long gone.
The first Eiffel Tower scam had worked so well there was no public hue and cry. So, about a month later Lustig decided to do it again, and returned to Paris. The second fraud worked also, but only with a lucky and narrow escape for the con man.
Other “Count” Lustig scams (Money-printing machine).
One of Lustig’s trademark U.S. scams involved a “money-printing machine” known as the Rumanian Box or the “money box.” He had a carpenter make him elaborate boxes with cranks and slots with gears that caused it to operate agonizingly slow. He then showed clients the little box and set them up for the kill by sitting with them for six hours as the box cranked out a $1,000 bill. The clients apparently were not bothered by the wait and bought the machines for more than $30,000 each.
Lustig had primed the machine with two $1,000 bill and then blank paper. With the sale completed, he left the client to watch for another 12 hours as it cranked out the bills. By the time the machine produced its first blank paper, Lustig was long gone.
He worked this scam for years until he finally drew the attention of federal law. They made it a point to track him down and they did.
When Lustig was finally arrested, the police found a key on him that led them to a locker containing $51,000 in counterfeit bills and money-printing plates. He was sentenced to federal prison, where he failed in a desperate escape bid. Age had caught up with him and he failed. “Count” Lustig eventually lost his reputation as a master criminal and became just “poor old” Mister Lustig.
He was sentenced to 15 years in prison with five additional years for the escape attempt. He died a prisoner on March 11, 1947, in Springfield, MO. His age, 57. His true legacy is that of a failed criminal, but fake news will tell it differently.