During his legendary criminal career in the 1920s and 1930s, Victor Lustig may not have tried to con anyone into buying the Brooklyn Bridge, but he did manage to sell the Eiffel Tower to a scrap dealer. And that was just one of many capers that the international crook known as The Count managed to pull off before the Secret Service nabbed him strolling through New York's Upper West Side in May 1935. Smithsonian's Gilbert King profiles Lustig:
Born in Austria-Hungary in 1890 Lustig, became fluent in several languages, and when he decided to see the world he thought: Where better to make money than aboard ocean liners packed with wealthy travelers? Charming and poised at a young age, Lustig spent time making small talk with successful businessmen—and sizing up potential marks. Eventually, talk turned to the source of the Austrian’s wealth, and reluctantly he would reveal—in the utmost confidence—that he had been using a “money box.” Eventually, he would agree to show the contraption privately. He just happened to be traveling with it. It resembled a steamer trunk, crafted of mahogany but fitted with sophisticated-looking printing machinery within.
Lustig would demonstrate the money box by inserting an authentic hundred-dollar bill, and after a few hours of “chemical processing,” he’d extract two seemingly authentic hundred-dollar bills. He had no trouble passing them aboard the ship. It wasn’t long before his wealthy new friends would inquire as to how they too might be able to come into possession of a money box.
Reluctantly again, the Count would consider parting with it if the price was right, and it wasn’t uncommon for several potential buyers to bid against one another over several days at sea. Lustig was, if nothing else, patient and cautious. He would usually end up parting (at the end of the voyages) with the device for the sum of $10,000—sometimes two and three times that amount. He would pack the machine with several hundred-dollar bills, and after any last-minute suspicions had been allayed through successful test runs, the Count would disappear.