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Buying the Eiffel Tower? Sure, No Problem

It is not unusual to hear that famous objects and real estate, from breath-taking artwork to expensive mansions, are put on sale in hope to find a new owner. Even though this crazy world of consumerism we live in has normalised bombarding people with crazy offers or advertisements, how would you react if someone offered you a world-known sight, let us say the Eiffel Tower, for example?

Although seeming impossible or like a joke for an April Fools’ Day, one man actually made it happen. He managed to sell the Eiffel Tower – and not only once, he almost succeeded twice. However, how come that France let their national pride and symbol of love fall into hands of privatization? It did not. It was a fraud about which a French government had no idea of, let alone approved. Nevertheless, based on an article from Bonjour Paris, here is a story about this unbelievable, yet true sale.

The seller’s name was Victor Lustig, and he was born in what is now the Czech Republic in 1890. Well, as written in an article by A Wealth of Common Sense, it is actually not known for sure what his real name was and where exactly he was from. In fact, it is believed he was hiding under up to 45 aliases.

I think we can agree that people use so many fake names only when they are trying to hide something that is highly likely illegal or at least illegitimate. And Victor was no exception. He was one of the most notorious con artists of the 20th century, pickpocketing and conducting numerous frauds and burglaries, according to A Wealth of Common Sense. Although he was arrested for some minor crimes as a young adult, most of his criminal plans were successfully conducted – not only because of his secretive identity, but also because he was sophisticated. His wealthy family was able to pay for his quality education, therefore he understood well how the world works, which helped him when he was deciding on what clever moves to do next. Moreover, he had a very special charm with which he easily persuaded people to give him money and possessions.

In 1925, he was in Paris in a hotel room and was reading through a newspaper, when he spotted an article regarding the Eiffel Tower. An author was explaining how this gigantic iron monument was built for the 1889 Paris World’s Fair, a fair that attracted millions of visitors and with which the French wanted to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the beginning of French Revolution.

The tower was supposed to be dismantled 20 years later, however that did not happen – the main reason was that its iron construction enabled it to serve as a giant antenna which could send and receive wireless messages. That function came especially handy for a French military during the First World War, because they were able to secretly listen to messages of their opponent, a German military. In addition, I believe they let it stand also because it became a very popular sight, which is always beneficial for a country’s reputation.

Nevertheless, an author of the article in the newspaper also emphasized how the great tower was unfortunately rusting and was in need of expensive repairs and constant maintenance which also cost France a lot of money. Moreover, it weights around 7000 tons and required more than 60 tons of paint, according to A Wealth of Common Sense. However, the journalist was probably joking when he wrote in the end that it might be better to just sell it. But Victor took it very seriously and exploited this brilliant idea for another fraud. That time, he wanted his evil project to be so extraordinary that the world would definitely remember it.

Before he went into action, he had always planned everything cleverly. He printed some fake documents and made sure that they appeared to be from the Department of Post, Telegraph and Telephone, which was at the time the government department in charge of public buildings. What is more, he created a fake identity and was presenting himself as a director of the department. The next step was to send letters to the top Parisian iron salvage companies and invite them to participate in an “important government project”. Their first meeting was arranged at the Crillon Hotel, a very well-known place where political deals were made.

The companies completely fell for it and sent their representatives to the meeting. To make it look even more official, Victor gave an excellent presentation of the project and tried to convince them into cooperation by putting emphasis on facts that the tower was a huge financial burden and was originally not even meant to stay forever, so the government had supposedly decided to dismantle and sell it. All representatives also promised to keep it a secret because this action might have been controversial.

Lastly, Victor took his potential business partners to lunch and drove them to the tower for a look. Overall, the whole process looked very realistic. Finally, he asked them to place their offers the next day.

Because Victor was smart and had lots of experience from a long criminal career, he was very good at reading people and right away knew exactly who would have been the easiest to manipulate with. Out of five representatives, it was André Poisson, who was not very self-confident and often unsure of his own actions. Victor knew Poisson’s weak point were emotions, so he made up a lie that he was an underpaid government employee and therefore really needed some additional money. He was willing to guarantee Mr. Poisson the contract if he had paid some more. Empathic Mr. Poisson believed him because he knew many government employees were not respected, and paid around 250 000 francs (approximately $1 million today).

Right after Victor got his suitcase full of money, he jumped on a train to Vienna. He was checking the newspapers every day, waiting for this scandal and his name to appear on the front page. Surprisingly for him, nobody reported about it.

What had happened was that Mr. Poisson had gone to the Post, Telegraph and Telephone headquarters. He had inquired when the tower would have been dismantled, but instead, he had received nothing but laugh. He had realised it was a fraud but was so embarrassed that he had not mentioned it to anyone else and had not reported it to the police.

As soon as Victor realized what had happened, he returned to Paris with a plan to sell the tower again. He reached out to some different companies and repeated the whole process of fake documents and convincing. Unfortunately for him, this time, a potential buyer cleverly did some research, found out the truth and immediately reported it to the police. Victor did not manage to finish up the second sale, however he was lucky enough to escape just in time.

He continued with his criminal career in the United States, selling his fake-money printing boxes that people thought were real. Eventually, he was caught and sent to Alcatraz prison, where he even scammed Al Capone. In that prison, he then died ill at the age of 57.

Although I definitely do not support any kind of frauds or other types of criminal activities, I am impressed how smoothly Victor’s plan worked. He was probably a very intelligent man, carefully planning every move and very good at manipulating with people’s emotions. After all, in a world of criminals, every little mistake can be fatal. On the other hand, maybe the plan went so good because everyone else was so naive. I mean, nobody even checked whether Victor was a real employee, and just agreed to pay thousands of francs?

Well, I guess we will never know for sure what made this story so extraordinary – Victor’s skills, or buyers’ naiveness. Nevertheless, one thing is for sure: this story is a reminder to always be careful before buying. When something seems either totally realistic or too good to be true, always check the facts.