After returning from a Caribbean vacation, Robert Ripley, the creator of Ripley’s Believe It or Not, excitedly announced that he was going to buy Paricutin, a newly formed volcano that had suddenly erupted on farmland in Mexico. No one knows what the famous impresario’s true intentions were, but he milked the story for all it was worth, telling the media that it would fill a spiritual void within him, that he felt it was a sound investment in mineral rights, and that he would charge spectators an admission to view it. When the Mexican government got wind of Ripley’s intentions, whatever they might have been, it prohibited any transaction of the land between the farmer and the showman.
In 1925, a Paris newspaper was lamenting the poor condition of the Eiffel Tower, and how it might be cheaper for the French government to demolish it instead of repairing it. The article sparked an idea in the mind of Victor Lustig, a notorious Czech-born con artist with a long list of schemes, and an arrest record to match.
Victor had counterfeit documents made on official government stationary that listed him as the Deputy Director General of the Ministère de Postes et Télégraphes. He invited five scrap iron dealers to a posh hotel, where he told them that the government had secretly decided to dismantle the tower and that the 7000 tons of metal would be sold to the highest bidder among them. Thoroughly convinced by the charlatan’s presentation, bids were submitted, and Lustig zeroed in on scrap-man André Poisson. Lustig contacted Poisson to insinuate that a bribe would ensure his proposal would be selected. After the dealer had obliged, the swindler took off for Austria to enjoy his spoils. Astutely surmising that his victim would be too embarrassed to report the deception to the authorities, the wily flimflam man was free to return to Paris, and pull the same scam a second time on a new set of buyers.
Eventually, Lustig’s luck ran out, and he was arrested in 1936 for a counterfeiting scam. He died in jail 11 years later.
“If you believe that, then I have a bridge to sell you.” Everyone has heard this sarcastic comeback, and its origins have been traced to New York’s Brooklyn Bridge, which, since its completion in 1883, has been “sold” by a variety of scam artists.
Its most notorious salesman is George C. Parker. His method was to target immigrants and tourists with an opportunity to build tollbooths and collect tolls. Parker could extract payments for as much as $50,000 or as little as $50 from his victims. He claimed to have fooled a couple of people a week into taking the deals he offered.
He later broadened his market, with ruses to sell the Statue of Liberty, Grant’s Tomb, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. After a series of arrests for fraud, he was sent to prison and died there in 1936.
Just after WWII, as the Cold War began, the U.S. Government took an interest in acquiring Greenland, at the time a colony of Denmark with about 600 residents. The Pentagon felt it offered great strategic value, and could be used station troops and to monitor Soviet ships.
An offer was made during a United Nations meeting between then U.S. Secretary of State James F. Byrnes, and the Danish Foreign Minister. The offer was declined, but in 1951, a NATO treaty was signed that allowed the U.S. to station troops there anyway. If Greenland had become a state, it would have been the largest in the union.
Dennis Hope had spent a year in the early 1980s dreaming up ways to build a career in real estate. While looking out his window at the moon one night, he recalled learning that the 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty stated that no country could own the moon, but made no mention of individuals. Inspired, he wrote a letter to the United Nations claiming ownership of the moon but didn’t receive an answer. “I sent the United Nations a declaration of ownership detailing my intent to subdivide and sell the moon, and have never heard back,” said Hope. He went on to sell over 611 million acres of moon land, with customers including three former presidents—H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, and Jimmy Carter. While he has met resistance from the International Institute of Space Law, he continues to stand by his claim and continues to find willing buyers.
In 2015, Naguib Sawiris, a wealthy Egyptian businessman, began efforts to purchase an island from either Greece or Italy, to provide a safe place for international refugees in the area to live and work. The philanthropist says he has received many donations of money, and volunteers to help him realize his goal.
So far, his letters to both the Greek and Italian Prime Ministers have gone unacknowledged, but with the European Union nations having difficulties contending with the massive influx of migrants, Sawaris is holding out hope. “I know that the Greek government owns a lot of islands that are uninhabited and they need the money. It would be doing the EU a favor, that is giving [Greece] the money anyhow. So it would look good that they are helping a humanitarian idea. It would be saving the EU from a burden and helping to do something [about the refugee crisis].”
As the cultural leaders of 1967’s “Summer of Love,” the Beatles were in their most experimental state of mind. John Lennon expressed the desire find an island to purchase, where the Beatles and their entourage could live communally, unencumbered by the mores of straight society. Their good friend Magic Alex suggested that a Greek isle would be suitable, so the Fab Four, along with friends and family, boarded a luxury yacht and set sail.
The first few days were spent tripping on acid, island hopping, and making plans for their Mediterranean paradise. Eventually, they found an 80-acre island off the coast of Greece named Leslo, and agreed it was the perfect spot for the plans they had hatched along the trip. When they returned to London, they requested the necessary permission from the UK government—to leave the country with £90,000 needed for the purchase. By the time the request was granted, the former mop-tops had already moved on to other interests, and the whole pursuit was abandoned.
After playing an American tourist duped by an English swindler, Scottish actor Arthur Ferguson worked up a scam to try out on Americans touring London.
Times were tough economically in Britain just after WWI, so the thespian posed as an agent for the Prime Minister’s office working to sell off some of London’s most famous landmarks to help the country out of its fiscal woes. More than once he was able to convince some wealthy, but gullible, travelers that he was legit. $5000 was his usual take for Big Ben, $30,000 for Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, and a down payment of $10,000 for Buckingham Palace. After years of ripping off the unsuspecting foreign rubes, the complaints from tourists at the American Embassy finally caught up to Arthur, so he moved to the U.S., and developed similar deceptions, using that country’s landmarks. He was later arrested and spent five years in prison for an attempt to sell the Statue of Liberty.
When Cecil Chubb, a barrister in Salisbury, attended a local auction and purchased the ancient landmark for £6,600 in 1915, (roughly £600,000 today), it may have saved what is now considered a national treasure from becoming a neglected ruin.
Though it is sometimes claimed Chubb bought it as a present for his wife, it’s more likely that he wanted to ensure that his fellow countrymen retain ownership of the monument: “I thought a Salisbury man ought to buy it.” Three years after the purchase, Chubb donated it to Britain, with the provision that a fee “exceeding one shilling” should not be charged to visit the ruin, and the residents should have free access. The transition was marked with a ceremony, and Chubb later received a knighthood. Stonehenge now attracts a million travelers a year and is a protected Unesco World Heritage Site.