The Eiffel tower is that landmark that indicates that you are in Paris, France. You may just find yourself in Paris with some money to spare, and you would like to do an investment in property. Are you thinking about buying the Eiffel tower? Just imagine yourself in front of the Eiffel tower and that it belongs to you! But then, everyone notices the tower but they don’t give a damn who the owners are. And yet, there were attempts to sell the tower, and believe it or not, not only once but twice!
LET’S JUST GO BACK TO THE EIFFEL TOWER
The tower was built in commemoration of the French Revolution and was intended as a showpiece for an upcoming World Fair. It was duly completed in 1889. through the years it sported several colors including yellow, but the final and current color was adopted in 1968. During World War One, radio signals from the tower were intercepted and that was instrumental in the capturing of the world-renowned lady master spy, the provocative Mata Hari.
The somewhat controversial structure was only intended to be in use for some 20 years, and then it would have been dismantled for scrap metal. The structure was built at a cost of US$1.8 million in 1889. Today’s estimated building cost would probably be in the region of US$38 million. It’s important to keep those facts in mind to understand why someone would try and sell it and why someone would be interested in buying it.
THE PROPERTY AGENT
The so-called property agent was none other than Victor Lustig. Ironically he was born in 1890, just about the time his ‘property’ was completed. If ever there was a born criminal and con artist, it was Victor Lustig. He gave up studies at the age of 19 when he decided that there were much easier ways to make money. Lustig lived by the 10 commandments of a true con artist.
The Smithsonian Magazine listed some of these ‘commandments.’ The most important one is to be a patient listener and never to appear to be bored. That is followed by waiting for a person to express his or her political or religious views and then wholeheartedly agree with it. His next important ‘business’ principle was never to get drunk, always be neat and tidy and then to appear to be important. In other words, to be the true pretender.
THE BUSINESS OPPORTUNITY
Victor’s great opportunity came in 1925. He discovered that the Eiffel tower may be dismantled because of the high maintenance cost incurred. He immediately decided that he wanted to be the ‘agent’ that sells the tower. It was of little consequence to him that the tower did not belong to him or that he had no mandate to sell it.
He was a careful planner. With the help of a corrupt government official, he obtained a false ID and some fake government papers. Lustig then pretended to be a government official that was ‘discreetly’ trying to sell a ‘controversial’ landmark as scrap metal. He called a meeting with some important Parisian scrap dealers and discussed the ‘confidential’ deal with them. His smooth-talking convinced one Andre Poisson to get involved in the deal. He introduced Poisson to a corrupt official who agreed for a bribe to supply a ‘change of ownership’ document. The unconfirmed sales price was 100,000 Francs.
Needless to say, Victor Lustig fled to Austria with all the money. Once there he discovered that Poisson was too embarrassed to report the scam to the police and that he was home free. He promptly decided to try the same scam again. But this time one of the ‘buyers’ reported the matter to the police who took an immediate interest in him. He escaped to the USA. In an out of prison, he tried the one con after the other and finally, in 1947, when he died, he had the reputation of being one of the world’s biggest con artists of all time.
THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE
The East River Bridge, later called the Brooklyn Bridge is the landmark that connects Brooklyn and Manhattan. The building of the bridge was approved in 1867 and funded with some US$5 million set aside for the project. JA Roebling was the designated engineer for this massive project. He sustained a severe injury, (his toes were crushed and were later amputated), during the surveys. He subsequently died of his injuries and the task was completed by his son, John Roebling. Following years of extremely difficult construction work, the bridge was finally opened on May 24th, 1883.
You may ask yourself if anyone would be stupid enough to buy a landmark like that. Truth is, there were more than enough people that showed interest. The reason is always the same, greed or fame or both. Greed and the search for fame caused the downfall of many, and it provided plenty of opportunities for mischief by con artists.
George C Parker was such a man. Born in 1860 he made a ‘living’ as ‘property agent’ by selling landmarks. Apart from the Brooklyn Bridge he also tried to sell amongst others, the Statue of Liberty. One has to remember that communication in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was poor. If you appear to be important and was convincing in your approach, a lot of greedy people would have fallen for scams like that.
The bridge was probably what we would be calling a ‘toll road’ nowadays. Ever since the bridge was opened there was a ‘fee” to cross it, whether you were on foot, cart or on the hoof.
Parker’s main scam was to sell the ‘toll rights’ on the bridge. As a matter of interest, this toll was abolished in later years. Parker was far from stupid. He chose his ‘customers’ well. His main target was tourists with some money to invest. As a brilliant forger, he always had ‘proven’ documentation ready. He managed to sell the bridge several times, including a top-notch sale that netted him some US$50,000. The poor investor normally got egg in the face and realized that he had been conned when trying to set up new toll booths on the bridge. Parker’s persistence in selling landmarks got him in trouble and placed him on the radar of law enforcement agencies. The police put an end to his schemes and brought him in for his day in court. He died in jail while serving a life sentence for his escapades.
Footnote: Parker was not the only person that tried to sell the bridge. One William McCloundy tried to sell the bridge in 1901 as well. According to Barry Popik from ‘The Big Apple’, he was 68 years old when he tried his scam. He picked up a jail sentence of two and a half years for his attempt. It appeared that his victims were mostly overseas tourists that were in the USA for business. They were found to be easy prey for the local (American) con artists.
Even today the ‘property market’ is rife with con men. They are just more sophisticated and technologically advanced than their predecessors. Interesting to know is that the term ‘conman’ originates from the escapades of one William Thompson who used to ‘gain the confidence’ of his victim when swindling them. The term was inspired by novelist Herman Melville in his book “The Confidence Man” published back in 1857. Unnecessary to mention, the victims of these scams had less flattering names for these gentlemen.
THE GREATEST OF THEM ALL
India is not without its famous ‘property agents.’ A gent called Natwarial or Natwarlal, a lawyer by profession, has the reputaion that he was the greatest of them all. It is reputed that he ‘sold’ the Taj Mahal as well as the Indian House of Parliament including all of its members! Can you believe that? Who would want to buy a full house of bickering politicians even if the building has some value! He was a master of disguise as well as a brilliant forger.
Maybe, because of his legal upbringing, he was a great pretender and a master in staging a con. He prepared meticulously and approached only carefully selected victims. As a born opportunist he was always ready with a ‘foolproof’ presentation that fooled most. The fact is that suckers are born every day. It is rumored that even the famous Tata family was the victim of one of his schemes!
Naturally, his escaped brought him under the scrutiny of the law. He was in and out of prison for most of his life. In the end, he had to serve some 113 years in jail, but he managed to escape several times. He served only about twenty years of his sentences. His last escape made him famous. At the age of 84, while being transported to a hospital in a wheelchair, he managed to escape and was never caught again. His lawyers reported his death in 2009 and that at the ripe old age of 97!
I don’t think is necessary to advise all FDN’s (and other tourists), to be very careful when ‘investing’ in national monuments and landmarks. It’s highly unlikely that a country would sell national assents like that!
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