February 28, 2024

The Guggenheim Connection: Fame, Riches and a Masquerade

Lady Catarina and Mr. Guggenheim (David Birnbaum, of Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, in court records) played for the grand name of Guggenheim, and they didn’t get far. They were arrested earlier this year, along with Vladimir Z. Guggenheim — in truth, Vladimir Zuravel, a massage therapist from Moldova — and accused of trying to swindle American investors out of billions of dollars.

Even in this post-Madoff era, their caper stands out for its chutzpah. The picture painted by authorities is a tabloid monument to financial fakery, replete with whispers of rare diamonds, Iraqi oil, connections to the Chinese Politburo and even to American presidents. Capping it all were supposed assurances from the Guggenheims, one of the nation’s richest and most famous families.

In hindsight, the whole affair seems so preposterous it is hard to imagine anyone could have gotten away with it. But, online and in person, the faux Guggenheims were so convincing that, for a moment, a few big-money types almost bit. Even now Mr. Zuravel insists that Mr. Birnbaum, described as a frail man of 68, is a real Guggenheim.

The three have said they are innocent. The criminal charges against Mr. Birnbaum were dismissed on Sept. 9, apparently because prosecutors failed to file a timely indictment, though they could file new charges against him. Ms. Toumei is scheduled to appear Monday morning in the federal courthouse in Lower Manhattan.

What makes the case even more intriguing is that the three were unmasked by the real Guggenheims, who are themselves trying to capitalize on the family name in ways the dynasty’s patriarch, Meyer Guggenheim, could not have imagined when he arrived from Switzerland in 1848 to seek his fortune in America.

Meyer Guggenheim amassed his wealth in mining and smelting. One of his seven sons, Benjamin, went down with the Titanic. As time went on, the family abandoned its early pursuits for the rarefied realms of philanthropy. Another of Meyer’s sons, Daniel, was a patron of Charles Lindbergh and endowed aviation research. Still another, Solomon, built the art collection that gave rise to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan. A granddaughter, Peggy Guggenheim, became known as much for her private life for as her art collection. The Picassos, Miros and Giacommettis in her palazzo in Venice draw thousands of visitors a year.

But in 2000, a great grandson of Meyer Guggenheim, Peter Lawson-Johnston Sr., decided that it was time for the Guggenheims to get back to work. With $30 million of family money, he helped found Guggenheim Partners, a boutique financial company modeled on the Wall Street partnerships of old.

Whether this Lilliputian investment company could take on the giants of global finance was anyone’s guess. The odds were certainly long. But its early success is turning some heads on Wall Street, particularly given tough financial times. In recent years, as the great investment houses have cut back, Guggenheim Partners has hired roughly 1,700 people, leveraging a name that is often mentioned in the same breath as Carnegie, Rockefeller and Vanderbilt. It is opening a high-octane trading unit and has tried to muscle in on the lucrative mergers-and-acquisitions business. Today, its money management division oversees $120 billion in assets, only a small portion of which is Guggenheim family money.

To help lead these ventures, Guggenheim Partners has hired Alan D. Schwartz, the smooth deal maker who tried to right Bear Stearns before it collapsed into the arms of JPMorgan Chase, foreshadowing the financial shocks to come. Others have signed on from the likes of Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch.

So no one was more surprised than the executives at Guggenheim Partners when two men purporting to be Guggenheims and fronted by a charming woman calling herself Lady Catarina offered to sell $1 billion in diamonds from a private Guggenheim collection that, in fact, didn’t exist.

And not only diamonds. Ms. Toumei — known to her associates as a countess — apparently tried to coax the Coca-Cola Company into a deal involving “Guggenheim” vodka. She invited Rupert Murdoch to dinner (he never got back to her) and tried to court the Bush family. There was talk of gold, of Swiss banks, of loans to the tiny African nation of Swaziland — on and on.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=47ee47106f677ccda8845b5a5a4897b0

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