Why Victor Lustig’s Con-Artist Commandments Matter
He sold the Eiffel Tower twice even though he didn’t own it. Here’s how the best closer ever got it done.
No one wanted the Eiffel Tower. It sounds odd now that it’s the ultimate French icon, but after the World’s Fair rolled out of Paris, the locals didn’t care to keep the wrought-iron spire. Much was made of what could be done with the metal, but the only man who made real money was Victor Lustig, a conman who’d spent the better part of a decade on cruise ships selling boxes that created an infinite amount of currency (spoiler: they didn’t). Lustig was a successful small-time operator, but he wanted to do something more significant. Fortunately for him, Andre Poisson was in the same boat.
Poisson was a businessman looking to make a name for himself. When Lustig, posing as a government worker, approached him about purchasing and scrapping the tower, he figured he might finally have an opportunity. Lustig wooed him, giving him tours of the site and convincing him of his insider status. He then demanded a bribe, making himself seem both less and more credible. Poisson finally handed over the money. Lustig skipped town. The Eiffel Tower was sold.
Poisson never made a formal complaint. He was too embarrassed.
It’s a charming story—oft-repeated in sales circles—but Lustig’s questionable accomplishment wasn’t merely the product of an ingenious plan. It was the result of a Lustig’s decision to apply lessons about human psychology he’d learned over the course of a successful if less-than-distinguished career. He bested Poisson through discipline and by reacting to his demands with a sort of programmatic dissembling that made his pitch sound increasingly impressive rather than increasingly suspicious.
Lustig died, as men like Lustig often do, in prison in Missouri, but not before he wrote down his commandments for con men. Today, they serve as a primer for salesmen, serious debaters, and—if they’re smart—anyone looking to get ahead. Lustig’s story may be further proof that crime doesn’t pay, but it also shows that having a system does. Here’s the system created by a truly great con man:
- Be a good listener. The myth of the fast-talking, silver-tongued con man should be ignored.
- Never appear bored. Show nothing but interest in your victim.
- Agree with the victim’s politics. Wait for the other person to reveal any political opinions, then agree with them.
- Agree with the victim’s religion.
- Hint at sex talk without being explicit.
- Never discuss illness unless they bring up the subject.
- Never ask about personal circumstances.
- Never talk yourself up. Your brilliance should be obvious.
- Never be messy or untidy.
- Never get drunk or take drugs.
What’s most impressive about Lustig’s rules is how easy they are to follow. It isn’t an ideal game plan if you’re looking to have a good time—or show your clients a good time—but it’s practical and efficient. It works even when it shouldn’t.
Photos by ND/Roger Viollet/Getty Images