The Ersatz Aristocrats! The Undoing of Lady Catarina Toumei

Asked why Ms. Toumei might have reached out to him in March, Mr. Zuravel said, “She’s a very friendly woman. And she has lots of friends in the world, in the U.S.A. She’s a very beautiful and charming woman.” He also said that his main goal in maintaining a Facebook page was to meet women.  

It wasn’t long after she made initial contact with him, Mr. Zuravel said, that Ms. Toumei had a direct line to Mr. Birnbaum via email and phone. Mr. Zuravel also said he stopped working for Mr. Birnbaum shortly after Ms. Toumei entered the picture.

After making Mr. Zuravel’s and Mr. Birnbaum’s acquaintance, Ms. Toumei and the pair of purported New York Guggenheims soon embarked on a whirlwind of negotiations with prospective buyers, according to a civil complaint filed in November of last year against the trio and 12 others. The plaintiffs in the multimillion-dollar suit: Guggenheim Partners, manager of more than $100 billion in assets, and its holding company, Guggenheim Capital.   

The alleged deals varied from month to month in what became a 2010 romp through the investing and commodities-dealing community. In May, Ms. Toumei allegedly registered the domain guggenheimadvisors.org, in what may very well have been the pinnacle of her online recklessness. The Guggenheim plaintiffs say that in July, Ms. Toumei, Mr. Zuravel and Mr. Birnbaum solicited purchase contracts for $1 billion to $3 billion worth of crude oil–and attempted a fraudulent purchase of $1 billion in 24-karat gold bars. In August, the trio allegedly shifted gears to try to sell Guggenheim-branded vodka to the Coca-Cola Company. In September, they tried to sell bank guarantees to Standard Holdings CEO Chad Geren and also tried to court Rupert Murdoch for a business deal, according to the complaint. October brought an alleged attempt to solicit a sale of diamonds and a stab at using the Guggenheim name to arrange an introduction to George H.W. and George W. Bush.      

Mr. Birnbaum’s lawyer declined make his client available. “He maintains his innocence,” said Mr. Birnbaum’s lawyer. “There’s a process involved here. He’s going to go through that process. And he believes that he will be vindicated in connection with any proceeding that might be brought here, but we’re not going to have any comment beyond that.” The Observer called David Birnbaum’s number to seek comment for this story. A man who answered Mr. Birnbaum’s phone suggested that we “try him next week.”

In a rough-and-tumble business with high stakes and savvy operators, it pays to be smart. The operation Ms. Toumei, Mr. Zuravel and Mr. Birnbaum are accused of running was almost comically stupid. One source who was approached by Ms. Toumei about doing a deal told The Observer he smelled something rotten very early on. “They went so far off bank procedures. That was a red flag.”    

A phone call with “Vladimir B. Guggenheim” and “Lady Catarina” did little to persuade the source. “You remember [Rocky and Bullwinkle]? That cartoon with the two Russians?” he asked The Observer. The pair was “like Boris and Natasha.” On deciding he had a fraud on his hands, the source says he called lawyers for the Guggenheim family, but continued to play along with Ms. Toumei. “I was kind of fishing. I wanted to see how far they would go along,” he said. “I was trying to push them right off a cliff.”

Eventually they pushed themselves.

On Jan. 31 of this year, the U.S. attorney’s office in the Southern District of New York followed up with fraud allegations against Ms. Toumei and Messrs. Zuravel and Birnbaum. The trio now faces up to 20 years in prison each for a scheme so over the top it should have never seemed believable to anyone.

A sale of $1 billion worth of diamonds is also mind-bogglingly implausible. By way of comparison, DeBeers, the world’s largest diamond company, took in $5.88 billi
on in revenue in 2010.

“There’s no such thing as a $1 billion rough diamond deal,” said the source.  “You just don’t swing those deals over the Internet.” 

Additional reporting by Amanda Sterling

The Ersatz Aristocrats! The Undoing of Lady Catarina Toumei