Today, I'm raising a glass to the greatest salesmen of all time - the ones who sold the Eiffel Tower, the Brooklyn Bridge and various other landmarks.
A good salesman can sell you something you need or want. A great salesman will sell you something you didn't know you needed.
A con man will sell you something you don't need, don't want, and which he doesn't own. By the 1930s, the idea of selling the Brooklyn Bridge had become a cliché. But in the late 1800s, it was a very real full-time business for half a dozen tricksters.
A swindler named Reed C. Waddell would prop up a sign reading "Bridge for sale," and would be open for business. He'd take anywhere from $250 to $1,000 - not a bad day's pay then.
The bridge sellers' targets were new immigrants, those so enraptured by the American dream that they imagined anyone could buy a famous public landmark. By the 1920s, Ellis Island was handing out pamphlets warning that streets, bridges, and other public objects were not for sale.
In Europe, the scam was reversed. The Czech con man Harry Jelinek once sold Karlstejn Castle to American industrialists, allegedly while pretending to be a local baron.
Another Czech-born con man was the greatest of them all. Victor Lustig left his home country at a relatively young age, so he had to sell the landmarks of other nations.
Fortunately, he was fluent in many languages, and he chose to settle down in Paris. In 1925, French newspapers were wondering what was to become of the Eiffel Tower. It was rusting, far older than its intended lifespan. What would become of the monument? Lustig capitalized on the rumours by using nothing more than some forged government stationery and a room at a swanky hotel. He called together the six most prominent metal scrap dealers in Paris and swore them to secrecy: the government had decided to tear down the tower, and one of them would get the contract for the metal.
The mark seemed suspicious of all the secrecy, so Lustig one-upped himself. He was simply an underpaid government bureaucrat, he told the unlucky scrap dealer. Perhaps a little extra cash would help the right bidder get the rights to the landmark? Reassured, the mark gave Lustig both the cash for the tower and a bribe to top it off.
Lustig skipped town, but returned later and tried the scam again when the first victim proved too ashamed to go to the police. He would later get caught in the States, and died in Alcatraz on a counterfeiting charge.
One of the reasons I can feel some degree of admiration for these swindlers is they knew they were crooks. Once they were caught, they seldom attempted to pretend they were anything other than clever.
You still see this sort of scam every so often these days, but far more often, we see the descendents of the other style of scam artist, Charles Ponzi.
Ponzi realized that scamming one gullible mark with a lot of cash could be replaced by scamming lots and lots of poor people out of what little money they had. He invented the industrial-sized scam, and is the direct cause of people like Bernie Madoff and the folks who rope you into buying fraudulent stocks that are "guaranteed" to go up 200 per cent. Even worse are those who work at the big banks and trading houses. JPMorgan recently agreed to pay $13 billion in exchange for a wide range of financial improprieties - which is a nice way of saying they ripped off an awful lot of people, mostly through mortgage-related shenanigans.
These men are cannier than Lustig, as they have taken more, have kept most of it, and are unlikely to die in a prison cell.
Matthew Claxton is a reporter for the Langley Advance.
© Copyright 2013