Our Greatest Con Man Remains a Mystery

'Count Victor Lustig' once sold the Eiffel Tower
By Luke Roney,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 20, 2016 12:34 PM CDT
Our Greatest Con Man Remains a Mystery
Victor Lustig reportedly sold the Eiffel Tower to scrap metal dealers.   (AP Photo/Jacques Brinon)

He called himself Count Victor Lustig. Others knew him as "the smoothest con man that ever lived" and a "top man in the modern world of crime." After all, he did sell the Eiffel Tower. And his counterfeit US banknotes were so authentic that authorities were concerned they could "wobble international confidence in the dollar." But the true identity of Lustig, who died of pneumonia in 1947 after a stint in Alcatraz, may never be known, writes Jeff Maysh in his book Handsome Devil, an excerpt of which is in Smithsonian. In 2015, a historian from Lustig's purported hometown of Hostinné (in what is now the Czech Republic) failed to find any evidence that "the world’s most flamboyant con man" was ever born. Lustig, Maysh writes, became a criminal early on, "progressing from panhandler to pickpocket, to burglar, to street hustler." Later, he moved to the US and graduated to bigger scams, making himself a millionaire in the process. Some highlights:

  • Lustig dressed well, was charming, and spoke five languages. He was no over-the-top "bogus count," the New York Times once wrote.
  • After reading a newspaper article about the Eiffel Tower needing repairs in 1925, Lustig passed himself off as a government official and convinced scrap metal dealers to bid on buying it. (Lustig got one payday off the scam and nearly pulled it off twice, notes TodayIFoundOut.)
  • Lustig, who traveled with a trunk of disguises, wrote the 10 Commandments of the Con, which included: "never look bored," "never boast," and "never get drunk."
It all came to an end in 1935 when Lustig was arrested (or re-arrested after escaping the "inescapable" Federal Detention Center in Manhattan) on charges related to counterfeiting. Read the whole story here. (More history stories.)

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