Selling the Eiffel Tower
Eiffel Tower, looking toward Trocadéro Palace, Paris Exposition, 1889.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Eiffel Tower was never meant to be a permanent part of the Paris landscape. The structure, built in 1889 for the World’s Fair in Paris, was supposed to have been dismantled in 1909 and either relocated or – perhaps – scrapped. To be sure, the possible demolition of the 7,300-mt, 324-meter tower made of puddle iron had long been a dream of the French scrap community, and in 1925 it appeared as if that dream were about to come true.

The story begins with Victor Lustig, an infamous Czechoslovakia-born con man who could speak five languages and who operated under some 45 aliases. While reading a Paris newspaper, Lustig saw an article about the problems and costs the city was facing in maintaining the Eiffel Tower. The government was even reportedly considering tearing down the landmark. This news gave Lustig and idea for a brilliant scheme.

Assuming the alias of a government official, he sent letters on forged government stationary to five or six ferrailleurs, or major French ferrous scrap merchants. In the letter, Lustig invited the recyclers to attend a confidential meeting at the Hotel Crillon to discuss a possible government contract. At the meeting, he explained that the growing maintenance costs made it necessary for the city to scrap the tower. Lustig then asked the assembled recuperateurs to submit bids for the contract, urging them to keep the mater secret to avoid a public outcry.

As it turned out, Andre Poisson, an aggressive young scrap dealer from the 3rd arrondissement, won the sham bidding process. Some reports say Poisson stayed after the meeting and city a deal with Lustig’s “personal assistant,” an American con man named Daniel Collins who was masquerading as Monsieur Jones. For a sizable contribution to Lustig’s retirement fund, Jones agreed to fix the bid in Poisson’s favor. Other reports day that Lustig quickly identified Poisson as the easiest mark among the scrap dealers, offering the contract to him in exchange for a bribe.

In any case, when the award was announced, Poisson was indeed the “winner.” Poisson presented his check the next day and was given an elaborate bill of sale for the tower. Elated with the scrap deal of the century, Poisson went home to prepare for the massive recycling task ahead.

Their scheme complete, Lustig and Collins cashed Poisson’s check before nightfall then hightailed it to Vienna. We don’t know exactly when or how Poisson discovered the swindle. We do know he was so embarrassed that he never filed charges, didn’t report his tale to the Paris newspapers, and never revealed how much he paid the two con artists.

Courtesy of Wikicommons.

Amazingly, Lustig and his accomplice returned to Paris (only a month later, some say) to try to sell the Eiffel Tower again. This time, their mark went to the police to report that he’d been conned out of $100,000. The story hit the press, forcing Lustig and Collins to fee to America. The law eventually caught up with Lustig in 1935 when he was convicted of counterfeiting and sentenced to 20 years in Alcatraz penitentiary, where he died of pneumonia in 1947. His death certificate reportedly listed his occupation as “salesman.”

Tom Mele, Connecticut Metal Industries Inc. (Monroe, Conn.). Originally published in “Scrap,” September/October 2002.