The Curious Case of Nicky Isen

Everyone from the Main Line to Center City knew Nathan “Nicky” Isen was one of Philadelphia’s most prominent gallery owners. But what was he really selling?
Left: Illustration by Peter Strain. Right:  The I. Brewster Gallery near 21st and Race. Photograph by Christopher Leaman

Left: Illustration by Peter Strain. Right: The I. Brewster Gallery near 21st and Race. Photograph by Christopher Leaman

The stakes are so high, everyone wears funeral smiles — gray grins, barely there before they’re gone. The courtroom falls silent when Nathan Isen walks in, looking a little sheepish. A small group of friends awaits, including Ralph Yaffe of Boyds and Scott Isdaner, whose family co-founded Pep Boys. They shake Isen’s hand, wish him luck, awkward because no one knows if this is hello or goodbye.

The third-generation descendant of a prominent Main Line family, Isen has, for more than 30 years, sold artwork to Philadelphia’s doctors, lawyers, the well-to-do and the purely aspirational. And he is here today, in federal court at 6th and Market, to be sentenced on a money-laundering charge.

“I didn’t think I was gonna make it,” says Isen. “I had chest pains on the way over here. Massive.” His voice is a loud stage whisper, dramatic yet blithely unconcerned. “Are you okay?” Yaffe asks. He sounds unconcerned, too, as if Isen is always suffering massive chest pains.

“Heartburn,” Isen replies. “I’m sure it’s heartburn.”

At 61 years old, Isen (friends call him “Nicky”) is of average height, with longish whitening hair. He carries extra weight that gives him a kind of mountainous shape, as if he’s been formed, haphazardly, from a pile of mashed potatoes. And he has a boyish, playful smile. A little later, he bounces lightly, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.

“I have to pee,” he announces.

“Go,” his friends tell him, and off he darts, his white socks flashing against his black pants and shoes. Today, as he faces a potential 20-year prison sentence, Isen seems awkward and ineffectual. But patrons of his gallery describe him as confident, a gatekeeper to the world of art, bold enough to ask attractive female customers to turn for him, slowly, like runway models, so he can see them from behind.

Isen has ended up in court on this day in April 2015 because of his relationship with Ronald Belciano, a Main Line weed dealer who was sentenced to federal prison. Isen pleaded guilty to money laundering, and now he’s come to receive his penalty. The whole setup reads, to anyone concerned with the criminal justice system, as though Isen isn’t exactly a danger to society. And so the questions mount — about who Nicky Isen is, how he came to serve as collateral damage in a pot bust, what exactly he’s selling, and the true value of art itself.

LIKE A LOT OF PEOPLE, I first learned about Nicky Isen almost by a kind of osmosis. He has operated the I. Brewster & Company Gallery at a few separate locations around Center City — on Sansom Street, on Walnut, and now near 21st and Race. If you’ve walked around downtown at all in the past 30-odd years, you passed Isen’s shop. So when a man came to me, a few years ago, to complain that artwork Isen authenticated was fake, I had my doubts.

Thomas Aloia, a building contractor, called in January 2013 to tell me he’d attended an auction run by Dominic Briscoe and Isen’s son, William, who billed the event as his grandmother’s estate sale. “They said it was ‘blue-chip art,’” Aloia told me.

Aloia bid on and won prints by some big-name artists — Miró, Dalí, Botero. Aloia spent a bit less than $10,000 that day, a meaningful entry point for someone without a fortune to spend. “William Isen actually kept berating us,” Aloia said, “insulting the audience by saying the prices we bid were too low.”

When Aloia was finished bidding, he’d won nine pieces. He wanted to come back with blankets and twine to protect his purchases for the drive from the Main Line to East Falls, where he lives. But he says Isen’s son and the other people working the auction were pushy, insisting he pay and take the art immediately. “They wouldn’t hold it or store it,” Aloia told me. “That should have been a red flag, but I didn’t understand the process. I was new at this, so I went ahead and took the art home.”

The art had been authenticated by Nathan Isen. Each frame bore a card listing the particulars of the work. This offered some small assurance to Aloia. The stuff was “authenticated” — someone had verified that it was real, either an original work or an official reproduction. But once Aloia had his new art home, he remembered, “something seemed off” about his purchases.

He stayed up late that night, looking online for information about Briscoe and Nathan Isen, and quickly found that others had raised questions about both men. Thinking he’d been had, he fired off emails asking for his money back, a request he says both men brushed off. In one curious line of response, Isen wrote: “The owner’s grandson was on the premises to help out if he could,” not identifying William as his own son or “the owner” as his mother, Sondra. (Briscoe and William Isen did not return calls seeking their comment for this story.)

Within a few months of Aloia’s call, I discovered that a lot of eyes were on Isen. A member of the local art community told me some sort of investigation was under way, and a pair of sources in federal law enforcement told me Isen was being probed for money laundering and for possible art crimes, too.

I slowly discovered what the feds also found: There is no art crime to hang on Nathan Isen. But his troubles demonstrate that even a concept so simple as innocence can be deeply complicated — a hall of mirrors run by a man who can make us see what he wants us to, or perhaps more precisely what we want to, without committing fraud.

FINDING THE LIKES OF ISEN in a story like this one is a shock. His parents were Main Line royalty, a union of two particularly prominent families. Nathan Isen (his grandfather) and Alan (his father) were best known for running Paramount Packaging, a manufacturing company that sold packaging products. His mother, Sondra, was a Robinson — a deep and wide clan of businesspeople who owned cemeteries, car dealerships and real estate, including the Robinson Building, a high-rise at 15th and Chestnut.

The social significance of the pairing triggered spasms of excitement in their community. Like their parents, Alan and Sondra attended Har Zion, the moneyed Main Line temple, and the exclusive Green Valley Country Club. “Very popular, very warm and wonderful people,” remembers Gil Goldstein, a friend who has now retired to Palm Beach. “Alan was very charitable, but he didn’t talk about it, which is admirable.”

The Isens had three children — daughter Nancy and two sons, Nicky and Peter. Peter Isen led one of the family paper companies, worked in real estate, and got involved in politics in Longport, New Jersey, where he served on the planning board. Nicky graduated from Wharton and enjoys a reputation as Wharton-smart. He pursued a love for art and opened his gallery. Like his father, he married into even bigger money, pairing off with a Berman, Leslie, a major name in city real estate circles. The couple raised four sons, now ranging in age from 24 to 32, and live in Villanova with a menagerie of big dogs and squawking birds.

Factions of the Isen family continue to grow the empire. Most famously, Nicky’s uncle Harold divorced his wife Reva, who then married Buddy Robinson. Their daughter is billionaire fashion designer Tory Burch. Isen’s cousin, Robert Isen, now serves as chief legal officer and president of corporate development for Burch, sitting on one of the great treasure heaps in modern American commerce. By way of comparison, Nicky Isen is only moderately wealthy. And in court, his attorney portrayed him as a tad desperate — operating a family business, his gallery, that his four sons aren’t prepared to run without him.

“This sounds,” says one real estate executive, who grew up on the Main Line and doesn’t want his name to be used for fear of the social implications, “like a ‘shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves’ story.”

The old saying captures how the momentum of a wealthy clan diminishes in the span of a few generations. In a move that suggests a family’s decay, the Isen brothers wound up embroiled in a lawsuit. Peter sued Nicky when he slipped and fell in his brother’s kitchen at a family bar mitzvah celebration. The case, filed in 2005, ran on for seven years before they settled. The depositions capture Isen at his most eccentric.

“I have a very, very, very poor memory unfortunately,” Nicky stated. “I lost my whole memory.”

He never explained why. Earlier, when asked if he also fell at the party, Nicky said, “I slip all the time. I have metal shoes.”

“Literally metal soles?” asked one of the attorneys.

“Yes, my shoes are very slippery,” Isen replied.

“You don’t have any particular recollection of falling at the party, right?”

“No more than any other day.”

The whole thing reads as an attempt to portray himself as the truly sympathetic brother. “I am the one,” Isen said. “who is always in pain.”

“WHAT ARE YOU BUYING when you’re buying art?”

I’m sitting at Isen’s sentencing hearing, waiting for the proceedings to begin, when one of his supporters asks me this question. I start to respond, something about how art makes us feel, when the man answers his own question. “You’re buying paper,” he says. “With color on it. Everything else is shtick.”

I must look shocked.

“I’m not surprised Nicky ended up in a situation like this,” he continues. “And it’s not because he’s a bad guy. He’s not. He’s a good guy, with a sweet heart. But he’s a salesman. It’s the world he’s operated in all his life. The art world.”

Those words cut to the heart of the case: The feds sent an undercover agent into Isen’s art gallery, looking for money laundering. Isen, a salesman, might have just been looking to make a sale. The other issue Isen’s supporter raises proves more perplexing: We hold art in such high esteem, but is its value based on anything real?

As it turns out, Isen is no stranger to shtick. And the list of ways he adds a little flair to his business and biography is long. For about three years, a sign at his gallery near 21st and Race advertised a MOVING SALE, 50-PERCENT OFF ART. His gallery at Walnut Street long ago offered a similar pitch. “There were years,” says attorney Thomas Marrone, “that I laughed every time I walked by because there was always a ‘Going Out of Business’ sign in the window.”

Beyond his gallery, Isen’s chief credential is his co-author credit for Louis Icart: The Complete Etchings. Icart was a French artist, famous for sketches that capture Paris and New York in the 1920s and ’30s. I reached one co-author, William Holland, who contextualized Isen’s contribution: “He is the third listed author, but his involvement was minimal. He didn’t write any of the text. He helped us find a lot of the pictures.”

Isen complains of having no memory, yet customers in his gallery marvel at how he remembers just where every print is in his cluttered shop.

I called him repeatedly to set up an interview. He kept putting me off, declining to answer my questions. “I’m dying of leukemia and my wife is dying of emphysema,” he told me. “We just want to enjoy the months we have left.”

In another conversation, he requested: “Could you not call here in the morning again? My wife is dying and can’t get out of bed before 1 p.m.”

Finally, he told me that if I called him after June 8th, he’d talk. He refused to reveal the date’s significance. And by then, a pattern had emerged: His gallery will probably move one day, and go out of business, too. And that book he co-authored? Well, he apparently didn’t write a word of it. Isen and his wife looked lively in court — his wife is brassy, vigorous and forthright — but they are dying. As are we all.

Every word associated with Isen is true, with a touch of shtick, and I couldn’t help but believe that this practice of telling truths with artful craft extends to his work.

OTHER GALLERY OWNERS in the city respond to Nathan Isen’s name mostly with eye rolls and smirks, an occasional compliment for his “showmanship” but no tears for their colleague. Beau Freeman, the eminent sixth-generation leader of Freeman’s Auction, says, “Nicky is loud, often inappropriate, disruptive. We take special care that he pays us, and he underbids at auction. I just barely tolerate him.”

The vitriol stems from the way Isen flouts industry conventions. Isen has worked with auctioneer Dominic Briscoe, who ran the event Aloia attended. Briscoe, according to the Bergen County Record in 2012, once held a series of auctions billed as containing art from disgraced financier Bernie Madoff and his victims. Briscoe has been cited in numerous states for deceptive practices. Isen authenticated much of the work at the Madoff auctions; one of those auctions was listed on a bill of sale as “being conducted on behalf of I. Brewster,” his gallery. In the same article, Isen said he often sends work to Briscoe because it’s the easiest way to make a sale and claimed to authenticate “a couple hundred” pieces of art per week, a high figure in a time-consuming field that requires expertise in particular artists and the craft of printmaking. Isen’s authentications were also used at a similar Madoff-related auction conducted by brothers Anwar and Azam Khan, who have been cited in multiple states for improper auctioneering.

Authenticators usually specialize, yet Isen’s work spans a dizzying array of artists. In Aloia’s haul alone, he authenticated work by Botero, Picasso, Dalí and Miró. He also focuses on prints rather than originals — a legitimate market, but one that deals in multiple copies of any given work and thus allows more room for confusion. For a print to be of meaningful value, the artist needs to directly approve it.

I took the pieces Aloia bought to be judged by an independent eye: Jeffrey Fuller, an art appraiser in Mount Airy and a member of the American Society of Appraisers. Fuller, a tall, thin and gentlemanly man in a spiffy bow tie, took several weeks to produce a 30-page summation. He concluded that a purported sketch by Picasso was actually an image removed from a book, Toros Y Toreros, and reprinted in a different medium, photocopied or perhaps scanned and printed. The two Degas pieces had similar issues: Étude de Tête/Atelier de L’Artiste seems to have been reproduced from a book page; Chevaux de Courses was likely “removed from a book and mounted to a new sheet of paper.” The Botero is also a reproduction of a page from a book. And the Dalí is, according to Fuller, a reproduction of a work that has itself been deemed “most likely” a forgery by an independent organization that tracks fake Dalís. Finally, Fuller writes it is “most probable” that the Miró pieces Aloia purchased — all three — were removed from a book of Miró’s works.

Aloia paid $9,202 for the art. Fuller pegs the combined value of all nine prints at $2,390, including the frames. For five of the works, he told me, the frames were worth more than the art.

The accusation of “fraud” is tempting, but a close look reveals Isen’s authentications are accurate. He cites the Mirós as “from the rare limited edition of 1,500” — a number too big for a run of prints with any real value. The book from which these prints hail, however, did go through a print-run of 1,500. So, Isen told Aloia what these works were — without exactly saying so.

Isen described the Degas Étude as an “offset lithograph from an original drawing by Degas.” The language “offset lithograph” means, by definition, that it wasn’t printed from the plates associated with a high-quality reproduction. Isen tells the buyer, albeit elliptically: This is a copy from the work that actually held real value. Even the forged Dalí work isn’t a problem, at least not legally — after all, anyone, even an authenticator, might get fooled by a fake.

Aloia admits he got “bit” by the art bug. Excited that famous art could be his to hang on the wall, he saw what he wanted to see. “I think you’ve hit the real crux of it,” says Holland, one of Isen’s co-authors on the Icart book. “When Nicky authenticates something, he could offer more information. He could perhaps offer less, and people would find the information more useful. But there is nothing dishonest in what he’s doing. Whether it’s the art world or in politics or whatever you might be selling, you want to put your product in the best light.”

Isen’s practices are an open secret in local art circles. Gallery owners told me they’d heard complaints about Isen, as Carl David from the David David Gallery off Rittenhouse Square put it, “in the wind.” In one of Center City’s most beautiful framing shops, the proprietress told me she often gets customers who want to put images authenticated by Isen into frames more expensive than the art itself. She doesn’t warn them, and at first I regarded this cynically — after all, she’s selling frames. But David advised me: She doesn’t want to risk a lawsuit for disparaging someone else’s goods.

As time wore on, I ran across numerous secondhand stories of people who felt wronged by Isen, yet few if any principals would talk. At first I didn’t understand this silence. Then one woman, a high-ranking executive in a Philadelphia entertainment company, told me how she and her husband spent hundreds of dollars on a print from Isen that she later called “the sort of poster you’d pay $25 for in a museum gift shop.”

The woman suggested people didn’t want to talk for the same reason she wanted her name left out of this article: “They’re embarrassed to admit they were taken,” she says. “Whatever business you’re in, getting fooled isn’t good for your reputation. And I think with what Nicky’s doing, people blame themselves. The old saying is ‘Buyer beware,’ and I think that’s right.”

With time, my admiration for Aloia’s openness only increased. But I also started to think of his honesty as a kind of luxury an East Falls resident could more readily afford. As another highly successful real estate executive told me, sources might stay mum to protect their own reputations — and for reasons more tribal: “Nicky’s a Main Liner,” he said. “He’s one of us, and everybody wants to keep up appearances.”

BENEATH ALL THE SOCIAL NICETIES, it seems Isen has been known to federal law enforcement for a long time. One gallery owner claims to have been enlisted by the FBI as a consultant to look at work a wealthy man with homes on the Main Line and at the Shore had bought from Isen. The man paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for what he thought of as investments. “I’d say 30 or 40 percent of it wasn’t right,” says the gallery owner. “Some were essentially exhibition posters.” The man ultimately complained to Isen, according to the gallery owner, and got his money refunded. The feds apparently backed off.

Robert Wittman, a retired FBI agent who specialized in art crime and still works as a consultant, won’t confirm or deny any investigation never made public. But he agreed to look at Aloia’s purchases and explained that he’d been “aware of” Isen for maybe 20 years. Wittman says Isen held “estate auctions” at big mansions listed for sale. “People figured the art was owned by the same person who owned the mansion,” says the ex-agent. “But Nicky had just relocated the inventory from his store. I’d been there, and I’d seen it.”

Such behavior isn’t exactly criminal, and art crimes are tough to prosecute. “Proving fraud,” says Wittman, “requires knowing someone’s state of mind, and someone who has authenticated a painting can just say, ‘Hey, that’s what I thought it was.’ How are you going to prove they knew otherwise?” Perhaps most fundamentally, in legal terms, art is of dubious worth in the first place. “Art holds no intrinsic value,” Wittman says. “A hammer holds more intrinsic value than a painting, even if it’s by Picasso, because its value isn’t based purely on perception.”

In this sense, art reflects free-market capitalism at its most pure — art is worth whatever anyone, even someone ill-informed, will pay. And Isen walks a terrific line. He has a buy-back policy, listed on his website, that allows customers to return “most anything” they bought from him for art of the same price. The policy works: He keeps the money and can take another run at selling the returned art. Who can complain?

He certainly has his fans. Karl Valentine, an avid art collector from Seattle, says Isen “introduced me to a world I love, and educated me, and I’ve heard stories about him, but I’ve had things I’ve bought from him checked out — items I spent $12,000, even $50,000 on — and it was all legit.”

Even Wittman seems to have developed a kind of appreciation for Isen. When it came time to look at Aloia’s purchases, Wittmanpulled out a jeweler’s loupe, peered at one of the prints Aloia won at auction, and laughed. “Oooh, Nicky!” he said, grinning.

He handed me the loupe and told me to look, too. “See,” he said, “you can see the dots. They might have printed it from a computer image, scanned. But it’s printed.”

With the loupe magnifying the image to 10 times its size, I felt like I was looking through a microscope, experiencing a reductionist, scientific view of art. What I saw, more clearly than ever, was paper.

With dots of color on it.

BY ALL EXPECTATIONS, perhaps by all rights, Nathan Isen should be contemplating retirement and enjoying his Main Line life without the encumbrance of a criminal charge. But sometime in the mid-2000s, he met Ron Belciano, a man in many ways his opposite.

While Isen hails from money, Belciano grew up in a constant state of want. He was just a toddler when his father died in mysterious circumstances, washed up on a beach in Wildwood. His mother, also now deceased, suffered from drug addiction. She watched over her son as best she could through a series of apartment evictions at the Shore and later in Havertown. Whatever Belciano accumulated — clothes, shoes, jackets, a football signed by every Philadelphia Eagle — he lost behind padlocks and eviction notices taped to doors.

Belciano scrambled for some sense of purpose, and an interest in glassblowing landed him squarely in American weed culture. He started small, moving a pound here or there while selling glass pipes and bongs. By the late 2000s he was a full-time pot wholesaler, growing his own high-end product on California farmland and selling it to dealers throughout the Northeast Corridor and locally, from the Main Line to Northern Liberties. He watched the 2005 Super Bowl between the Eagles and Patriots aware, via one of the guys he sold to, that players on both sides of the ball were smoking his weed.

Around that same time, Belciano met Isen through friends when the pot dealer was looking for a house. He bought a property in Villanova, at 1833 Montgomery Avenue, from Scott Shuster, Isen’s then-partner at I. Brewster. He also started buying pieces from Isen, which accomplished three goals: He learned about art. He got to hang beautiful pictures on his walls. And the money he couldn’t stick into a bank account was freshly laundered, converted into art he could sell legally. Of the three, Belciano says, money laundering was the least important, a side benefit he never discussed with Isen.

Belciano might have paid more than the art was worth — he says he spent $1 million on work the feds later pegged at $635,000. And he did get one “bad” Picasso from Isen. He paid $15,500 but didn’t like its looks when he got home. Belciano asked Isen for an authentication from the artist’s estate. Isen came back and declared the piece “no good,” a fake. Isen said he’d refund Belciano’s money after he pried repayment from the guy who originally sold it to him. Belciano claims he never did get that money back, or the fake Picasso.

Belciano has been sentenced to five years in jail for selling pot. He put himself in this predicament. But he could choose to feel bitter about a lot of things: For starters, the feds confiscated $5 million in assets from him, including $2.4 million discovered hidden in a fish tank in his Villanova home. It was one of the largest cash seizures in Philadelphia history — and as the country moves rapidly toward decriminalization, it might go down as the last big pot bust in the United States.

In direct contrast to Isen, he also told people exactly what he was selling them, and in easily understandable terms. (His sales pitch, as he put it to me: “Great. Fucking. Weed.”) But through all of this, he holds no ill will toward Isen. “I think Nicky screwed me on some things,” he told me in advance of Isen’s sentencing. “But I consider him a friend, and I hope he walks away from this without doing any time at all.”

They went gambling together in Atlantic City. They met for drinks. “We shared a lot of laughs,” says Belciano. “There’s no one like him. He had such incredible charisma.”

Belciano met with me twice before reporting to prison for his 63-month sentence, and the heaviness of what awaited him brought him down. But when he talked about Isen, he brightened. In Isen’s shop, he never knew what was going to happen. Isen had a way of presiding over chaos, juggling customers, phone calls and employees with funny, fast-talking ease. A couple of times, when a pretty woman walked in, Isen took one look at her and said: “Turn around for me. Turn around so I can see you.”

And magically, says Belciano, she’d do it. “They’d turn around,” he says, “so he could see their ass. I mean, who can just ask women to do that?”

ISEN’S WIFE ARRIVES close to 10 a.m., the scheduled start time for her husband’s sentencing. She’s dressed in black, her hair dark as soot, and dabs at her eyes with a handkerchief. By Nicky’s account, she should be in bed three more hours yet, but she doesn’t look like she dragged herself here. Isen himself, when he finally settles into his seat, pumps his leg nervously under the table. In minutes, he could be sentenced to prison.

His case isn’t tied, technically, to Belciano’s. The feds didn’t charge Isen with laundering money for him, and while they declined to comment on the subject, there could be numerous reasons for this: The statute of limitations for money laundering runs for five years. Belciano told me most of the artwork seized, 59 pieces in all, came from Isen. But he also told me he talked to Isen about art for art’s sake. In this respect, Belciano bought art only partly to launder money, and in regards to Isen, there was no money-laundering case to make at all.

So the feds created a case of their own. They sent an undercover Homeland Security agent to Isen’s gallery with cash she identified as coming from her weed-dealing boyfriend from California. She apologized that the bills reeked of weed because he stashed money and product in the same place.

Medical marijuana is legal in California. Isen might well have argued entrapment, or that he simply figured her boyfriend must be legit. He pleaded guilty, though, and in transcripts from the undercover buy, read in court, Isen agreed not to give her any receipts or invoices. He also advised her to say she bought the art at a thrift sale or received it from a relative.

They got him for laundering $20,000, the relatively small amount of money their agent spent. But something about the setup still smells funny — of bitterness, like the sort of operation cops launch when they get a hard-on for somebody.

Previous investigators had tried to find an art-related crime to stick on Isen a decade earlier. They tried again, according to Isen’s wife Leslie, during the Belciano investigation — and failed. The immense effort itself raises questions: With weed decriminalized in 19 states and the District of Columbia, and in 23 states for medical purposes, do we really want law enforcement spending this kind of time and money trying to take down everyone involved, however tangentially, with reefer?

Isen, it seems, was targeted and prosecuted less for any real crime and more for his shtick — for his history of dancing to the edge, all the way up to the time he did business with Belciano, a weed dealer who happened to have an interest in art.

In the end, though, for all their evident concern, Isen and his family needn’t have worried. In court, Yaffe and Isdaner speak up for Isen’s character. The judge has received 15 letters of support from people like Center City attorney Bob Mongeluzzi, and a Florida hedge fund manager who typifies Isen as odd, inappropriate, and a great Philadelphia “character” deserving of leniency.

Isen’s attorney submits data analysis demonstrating that half of all first-time money-laundering offenders receive probationary sentences. He also has notes from Isen’s doctors — a gastroenterologist, a neurologist, an oncologist, a pulmonologist, a cardiologist, an orthopedist and more — along with a study from an expert who warns that the health care in a federal prison could turn even a short stay for a man in Isen’s condition into a death sentence. Isen avails himself of his opportunity to speak to the court: “Now I know what’s important is doing the right thing.”

The judge issues a soft sentence — three years’ probation and a fine of $25,000. Isen’s sons, all four of them, let out the breath they’ve been holding. His wife cries in relief. Isen wanders over to the gallery, where supporters shake his hand and offer congratulations. “There’s no congratulations,” he responds. “This is embarrassing.”

I wait a few days, then contact him. We talk a few times over the phone, but he keeps putting off a meeting till June 8th, for reasons he never makes clear. After that date comes and goes, he stops responding. Finally, I drive to his house, a 9,000-square-foot mansion in Villanova.

The grounds are impressive, decorated in lovely, funny art — a metal dog captured mid-bark; sculpted heads with flowers growing out of them. I pass a vintage Mercedes, a Hummer, a Lexus, a Ford Expedition and a Jag to reach Isen’s door. When I ring the buzzer, the whole house erupts in woofs and shrill squawks. I catch a glimpse, through a fence, of a pair of Great Danes with gleaming polka-dotted coats. Perhaps, given how sick Isen and his wife are supposed to be, I might be greeted by a nurse.

It’s close to 10 a.m., three hours before Leslie Isen is supposed to get out of bed, but after a few minutes, she opens the door. She wears a housecoat; her hair is tousled as if she did indeed just get up, but she looks fit. By this time, we’ve spoken on the phone and seen each other in court, and she quickly recognizes me, even smiles. I’m no doctor, but she strikes me as the most vital-looking dying person I’ve ever seen.

“I’ve been trying to reach Nicky,” I tell her. “He said he’d talk to me after June 8th.”

She nods, retreats, and after a few minutes comes back alone.

“He’s hysterical,” she says. “He’s not coming to the door.”

I linger.

“There’s not going to be any interview,” she says.

By now, the money-laundering case seems needless. But Isen’s sentence, three years’ probation and embarrassment, suddenly seems right: a stain on a gallery owner and a Main Line man for whom appearance is everything.

Originally published in the August 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.