Were American Tourists Really Gullible Enough To Think They'd Bought Big Ben?

Were American Tourists Really Gullible Enough To Think They'd Bought Big Ben?
Nelson's Column, Trafalgar Square. Photo: David Castor

London, 1920. The first world war had taken its toll on England, and the government needed to come up with some cold hard cash fast to pay off the unbelievable debts it had wracked up fighting the good fight. Luckily, we have a fair few notable landmarks that don't do much really except add to the city's aesthetics. It was time to sell them off on the sly.

At least, that was the story spun by Glasgow-born retired actor Arthur Ferguson, who had just discovered a hidden talent — as a salesperson and conman. And what better prey than rich American tourists who weren't entirely sure how London worked but wanted a piece of it anyway? His first venture saw him sell Nelson's Column for the bargain price of £6,000, by convincing an American that the British government had appointed Ferguson to organise the highly secretive transaction. The cheque was cashed before the tourist could blink.

The con had worked without a hitch, so Ferguson decided to do it again. And again. Over the next few years he managed to convince American tourists to put a £1,000 down payment on Big Ben, and a £2,000 down payment on Buckingham Palace. Other sources say he sold the same buildings over and over again to different people. The scam worked because not only were the victims gullible and ill-informed, they were also too embarrassed to make their misfortune public once they realised the truth.

Ferguson was also said to have sold the Eiffel Tower for scrap metal, and to have emigrated in 1925 to America where he managed to lease the White House to a cattle rancher for $100,000.

It was when Ferguson attempted to sell the Statue of Liberty that he came unstuck. The Australian who wanted to purchase the impressive structure had problems coming up with the funds in time, and grew suspicious of an increasingly impatient Ferguson until finally he decided to go to the police. Ferguson was caught, and for his crimes, sentenced to five years in prison.

That's the legend, anyway. Dane Love, author of The Man Who Sold Nelson's Column: And Other Scottish Frauds And Hoaxes attempted to track down the source of this information and find evidence that Ferguson existed. Unfortunately he found nothing, and a scam of this scale would surely have made big news at the time. Or perhaps he did exist, but his exploits were highly exaggerated.

A con artist who definitely did exist, however, was Anthony Lee. Lee, a broke Yorkshireman, attempted to sell the Ritz on the cheap in 2010 for £250m. Not a bad price seeing as the swanky hotel is valued at between £450m and £600m. He managed to extract a £1m deposit before telling investors that he'd received a better offer and would not be returning the money. Lee was found guilty of obtaining money by false representation and sentenced to five years in prison.

Image: Javier Ayala

Last Updated 02 October 2017