The Eiffel Tower was getting on in years in 1925. All other buildings that were erected for the 1889 World Exhibition have long since been torn down, even the Galerie des Machines, the spectacular main hall with its iron and glass roof. But the tower is standing, looking over Paris – and needs to be serviced further. Every seven years the landmark has to be repainted because of the threat of rust, according to the builder Gustave Eiffel. And that means painting by hand, from top to bottom, with 60 tons of paint, up to 18 months of work – and above all: enormous costs.
Today, around 3 million euros are spent on one coat of paint, a breeze to preserve one of the most famous buildings in the world. But in the 1920s, some of the Paris city fathers found all of this too time-consuming and too expensive. And when a new coat of paint was due for the fifth time in 1925, an old demand haunted the Parisian gazettes again: simply remove the Eiffel Tower.
In the spring of 1925, Victor Lustig sits in an armchair in the lobby of a fine luxury hotel not far from the Eiffel Tower and lets his newspaper sink into his lap. Between heavy velvet curtains he looks across the Trocadéro square to the opposite bank of the Seine; at the foot of the tower the first primroses and tulips are blooming on the field of Mars.
Here in the hotel he is known as “Count Victor Lustig”, and nobody suspects that behind the elegantly dressed regular guest with full, black hair, there is a con man who will go down in history: as the man who sold the Eiffel Tower. Not to mention that he just had the idea of his greatest coup.
Lustig’s hand slides down his tailcoat to the pockets that he has had sewn in. Usually he keeps in it the winnings that he stole from playing cards in the casinos of the ocean liner with which he regularly travels across the Atlantic. Profits have only shrunk recently. But what he has just read about the Eiffel Tower in the newspaper reminds him of a conversation he had with a building contractor in Kansas City years earlier. There he casually learned something that Lustig’s pockets could now fill again: how well you can earn money with demolition work and scrap iron.
Poker instead of university
Victor Lustig was 35 years old at this point. He is the son of the pipe and tobacco dealer Ludwig Lustig, mayor of the city of Arnau in Bohemia (today the Czech Hostinné) – and he was supposed to become a solid lawyer. On the upper reaches of the Elbe, in Vienna and Dresden, Lustig attended the best schools and learned French and English. Then he was sent to the university in Paris. The 19-year-old just preferred to hang around in the poker and billiard halls at night than in the lecture halls during the day.
Even in those days, Paris was debating the future of the Eiffel Tower. The loud protests of well-known aesthetes like Guy de Maupassant against the construction of the “useless, ugly monster” had ceased. The attraction remained popular with wedding couples and tourists with a head for heights. But the operator license granted to the builder expired in 1909 after 20 years. Allegedly, the city, now owner of the tower, calculated the cost of demolition.
When Lustig moved to the USA shortly afterwards, he took a piece of knowledge with him: how frivolously the city fathers made their tourist magnets available. Or at least could do it.