Czechs in History Victor Lustig - the man who (could have) sold the world

15-10-2003 | Jan Velinger

Welcome to Czechs in History - the programme that looks at the lives of Czechs and their legacies, great and small, be they monarchs, philosophers, politicians, or poets ... In today's edition something a little different: a tale from the underworld, the life and times of an infamous con artist, born in the Czech lands in 1890- a man known as Count Victor Lustig - whose cool audacity knew few boundaries, whose name has become the stuff of legend.

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Victor LustigVictor Lustig The con-artist. The very title reveals secret admiration and respect so many of us foster for the anti-heroes and less than savoury characters of genre movies and detective novels. That admiration extends to the so-called "perfect con", when the anti-hero pulls the wool over the eyes of an unsuspecting - and often undeserving - fool - and gets away unscathed. Characters like Sean Connery's Biggs in "The Great Train Robbery", Newman and Redford's tricksters in "The Sting", even Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lector in "The Silence of the Lambs", a modern-day vampire perpetually "disappearing" into the crowd after a most brutal final act. Woe to us. As cynical showman P.T. Barnum once remarked "There's a sucker born every minute" - a happy truth for the less than scrupulous. Like a poet his muse the con-artist plays his victim, reeling him so he falls for the ultimate charade, while the crook makes it rich. The victim, often so embarrassed - or implicated in the crime - fails to notify the police.

So, what of Victor Lustig? Well, the inspiration for his greatest swindle came long after he had abandoned his homeland. Not any surprise - a confidence artist of his stature would have wanted the world and everything in it. The year was 1925 and by then the self-styled "count" was residing in Paris, working smaller confidence tricks, while staying at finer hotels. As it happened, one day in the papers he noticed an article that caught his attention. It must have read something like this:

The article went on to speculate the tower might even have to be torn down, or even completely rebuilt.

Imagine. Could it happen to that most beloved monument? An idea began to take shape.

Whether the count smiled one of his characteristically shrewd grins, scratched his chin while deep in thought, or narrowed his heavily-lidded eyes - we can only speculate! But it must have gone something like that. Lighting a gold-tipped cigarette from a heavy in-lay lighter he would have slowly inhaled, put down the paper and looked out at Paris from his balcony. Staring at the beautiful tower in the distance - thinking this was his boldest plan yet.

All that would be needed would be fine acting, help from fellow con-man Robert Tourbillon, and imitation stationary from the French Ministry of Posts, responsible for the tower. Once set, the count invited five businessmen to the Crillon Hotel, portraying a government official, who told them the Eiffel - 7, 000 tons of it - was alas in terrible condition and would have to be torn down. The offer - top secret - was to quietly sell it off for scrap. Quickly in order to prevent a public uproar. The five businessmen were reminded they had been specifically chosen for their professional discretion. The offer was for each to bid for the tender within the week.

Of course, like ever clever con, Lustig had already picked his "mark" among the five - a man some sources call Mr P, others name as Andre Poisson, a French businessman and scrap-metal merchant hoping to make something of a reputation for himself. Within a few days he was contacted and told by Lustig he had prevailed with his offer of 250, 000 francs, about a million dollars today. It was then, at that moment, that the deal hung upon its weakest thread. Suddenly beset by doubt, Mr Poisson began to reconsider. It was then that Victor Lustig sprang his final trap. The wily gangster made it clear - that as a government official he still wanted a bribe - for all the trouble he had taken for Mr Poisson's personal gain. This, apparently sealed any doubts: in the victim's mind all Parisian bureaucrats were corrupt, so the deal could only be authentic. He paid Lustig the requested sums and in return was given a worthless bill of sale to one of the most famous landmarks in the world. Such success. Not surprisingly, he never notified the authorities, while Victor Lustig and his accomplice went underground. Within half a year they would try the same trick again - but, by then it would blow up in their faces and they would be forced to flee.

Happy chance that Victor Lustig had left Bohemia and never came back - Czechoslovak police would certainly have had their hands full of his deceitful charms. One source lists Lustig as having been arrested 45 times throughout Europe alone, using 22 different aliases for escape and profit. A regular "Mr Nice" of his day.

Now hounded on the Old Continent Lustig immigrated to America, never to return. This way, at least he hardly shamed the country of his birth, though there were others who did that. Take "Harry" Jelinek who pulled a similar stunt as Lustig by "selling" the famous Karlstejn Castle, near Prague, to an unsuspecting American couple.

In the U.S. Count Lustig opted not to turn over a new leaf: he continued his schemes to make a fast buck: selling a hoax miracle box he claimed could print flawless counterfeit money. But, his greatest success on his personal ladder was making an impression on the most famous gangsters of all time - the great Al Capone himself. Lustig then got into counterfeiting himself and eventually was caught. He would languish in jail for eleven years, and die a prisoner in Springfield, Missouri in 1947.

So, we end our somewhat unusual programme on con-artist Victor Lustig - whom light-hearted internet articles have labelled "the bouncing Czech". Today there are even business manuals that mark his exploits - as examples of daring that can be used for success. Not for crime of course, just as a manner of thinking outside the box. And perhaps therein lies the message: while most of us remain impressed by Lustig's cleverness, one can not help that think how much more worthwhile he might have been had he applied those skills legitimately. Had he done so, he might be remembered for something greater today than simply stealing from others and dying a penniless thief.

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