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Art dealer hit with money laundering sting using marijuana scented cash
    #767062 - 01/23/15 10:52 PM (1 year, 8 months ago)

As a dealer of paintings and prints, Nathan Isen specialized in selling Warhols, Dalís, and the works of other modern artists to Main Line connoisseurs and investors nationwide.

But when a less-than-savory customer showed up at his storefront with $20,000 in cash - bound in rubber bands, stuffed in a brown paper bag, and reeking of marijuana - Isen didn't turn her away.

In fact, federal prosecutors said Friday, the 61-year-old art dealer, whose I. Brewster & Co. gallery is a Museum Row mainstay, proved only too accommodating.

He offered to keep the woman's name off invoices, prosecutors contended, advised her how to sell the art in a hurry, and never batted an eye when she explained that her money came from selling drugs.

On Friday, Isen pleaded guilty to one count of money laundering. Unbeknownst to him at the time of that 2012 sale, his cash-only customer was an undercover U.S. Homeland Security agent.
"She was introduced to me as growing marijuana, and she was buying her husband a present," Isen explained to U.S. District Judge Luis Felipe Restrepo.

The trail that led agents to Isen's gallery came after a lengthy investigation that stretched from West Coast marijuana fields to Villanova's tree-lined streets. It was there, in 2011, that agents searched the house of Ronald Belciano, a man since convicted of marijuana trafficking and money laundering, and turned up $2.6 million concealed in a fish tank and artwork valued at $619,000, which Belciano had purchased to hide his drug proceeds.

The seller, he said, was his neighbor, Isen.

Within months, Belciano had turned government cooperator and led agents directly to the art dealer's gallery.

At Isen's hearing Friday, prosecutors did not refer by name to Belciano, who was sentenced to five years in prison this week. But all the details of his case and his old address, next door to the Isen family's home, match those of the cooperating witness described in the art dealer's plea documents.

Court filings describing the initial meeting between the art dealer, his neighbor, and the undercover agent suggest that authorities went to almost comic lengths to make clear to Isen that the agent's money came from illicit dealings.

Belciano introduced her as a woman who "grew the best weed I have ever seen." He told Isen that the woman and her boyfriend had "a lot of money" and would have "plenty more" once the harvest came through, according to their recorded conversations quoted in Isen's plea documents.

When she finally struck a deal to buy 12 Dalí prints, she apologized to Isen if her cash smelled like marijuana, explaining she stored it next to the drugs.

"No receipt, no invoice . . . that's the way I like to do business," the undercover agent is quoted in court filings as telling Isen.

His response: "We never saw you before."

Isen said little Friday and nervously clenched his hands together as prosecutors recounted the details of that transaction in court.

His lawyer, Creed C. Black Jr., declined to comment on the case, except to point out that his client had been charged only in connection with the sting operation and has never been accused of laundering money for Belciano.

Isen could face up to 20 years in prison at a sentencing hearing in April.


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