American Numismatic Society
American Numismatic Society

Count Lustig

“Count” Victor Lustig is best known as a versatile conman who sold the Eiffel Tower twice for scrap metal. Born in Bohemia, he lived the life of an aristocratic gentleman. Utterly charming and fluent in several languages, he managed some amazing stunts. Lustig was wanted by as many as 42 law enforcement agencies in Europe and the United States. Through his many fraudulent deals, he became wealthy. They included unlikely scams such as a money-making machine, which was said to reproduce any currency. His sale of the Eiffel Tower was particularly ingenious as his victim was too embarrassed to admit his gullibility and let Lustig depart with the money. Despite several arrests, Lustig often managed to escape prison. It is possible that he would have continued an international life as an imposter and criminal, if he had not turned to the production of hundreds of thousands of dollars in fake bills. He was ultimately convicted for counterfeiting and died in 1947 at Alcatraz.

Victor Lustig (Courtesy of the US Secret Service)

Counterfeit $10 (Courtesy of the US Secret Service)

The counterfeit notes that Victor Lustig distributed in New York City in 1934 were of the highest quality. Engraved by William Watts, a master counterfeit engraver, they were produced in enormous quantities and flooded the market. Watts was arrested in September 1935 and was the key witness against Lustig at his trial. Watts received a ten-year sentence.

“Smoothest Con Man Ever Born.” Undated newspaper report (Courtesy of the US Secret Service)

The photo in this article shows Special Agents Rubano and Godby with Victor Lustig after his arrest in 1935.

Newspaper clippings about Victor Lustig, September 2, 1935 (Courtesy of the US Secret Service)

Victor Lustig escaped from a downtown Manhattan detention center in what appeared to be a well-planned escape. The newspaper from September 2, 1935 gives some details of his criminal activities. He was recaptured on September 28, 1935, in Pittsburgh.

“Lustig Gets 20-year Term in Alcatraz.” Newspaper article, October 1935 (Courtesy of the US Secret Service)

The article reports that in addition to 15 years for counterfeiting, Lustig was also serving five years for his escape on September 1, 1935. It is noteworthy that his lawyer was seeking leniency as the “Count” had generally victimized persons whose own practices were sharp, such as Chicago gangsters, Arnold Rothstein, and other underworld leaders in New York and Boston.

Copy of arrest report of Victor Lustig in St. Louis, June 25, 1931 (Courtesy of the US Secret Service)

Lustig was arrested numerous times in conjunction with various criminal schemes, in this case for the altering of bond papers.