The Curious Case of The Lost Gallery Owner

Dino Eli's Bizarre "Disappearance"

In the last week of 2011, I and a couple dozen other people wasted untold frantic hours assisting a with "search" for a gallery owner turned "missing person" --who it turns out wasn't ever really missing. Little did we know it was a trick perpetrated by the "missing person" himself. Along the way, the missing perpson, Dino Eli, badmouthed major players in the Art World like Jerry Saltz and Todd Levin and could have gotten innocent concerned people entangled with police procedures.

The drama played out mostly via social media and since internet-based material can be so easily deleted, screen-caps posted here document the story.

Disclosures:

I'm a fan, chum, and past collaborator with Jerry Saltz (who is the influential head art critic for "New York" magazine [ web ]). Does that bias me in favor of Jerry? Actually, yes. Quite a bit. I'm also a cyberfriend of power-curator Todd Levin whose professionalism has long wowed me. For around a month I guardedly-trusted the perpson Dino Eli, both because I smelled an opportunity to help improve a stumbling City gallery which was sympathetic to unknown artists (a rarity) and also because I tend to give people the benefit of the doubt. For the latter I was duped.

Some screencap images below were truncated to remove irrelevant material or were redacted to protect innocent parties.

Backstory:

In late 2011, gallery owner Dino Eli was operating --seemingly singlehandedly-- two galleries around 40 paces from each other on Orchard Street in New York City's Lower East Side. Eli kept a frenetic pace of crowded short-run (often weekly) exhibits at his Orchard Windows Gallery [ web ] at (37 Orchard Street) and at Dino Eli Gallery [ web ] (corner of Orchard and Hester / 81 Hester). A look at the dates of his past exhibits on his websites shows the hurried timetable. Some people could be expected to crack under such a workload.

Seemingly Eli did.

During a mid-December run of an exhibit called "Sexting", gallery visitors and artists (including those who had arranged for important collectors and critics to appear) kept finding the galleries closed during normal operating hours. There were no explanatory-signs posted, no little notes saying "by appointment only until". Just dark galleries with art locked-up inside. Phone calls went unanswered.

Jerry Saltz wondered aloud about the situation on his high-traffic FaceBook forum [ web-js-fb ] and accused (fairly, as it turned out) the gallery owner of irresponsible behavior. As often happens on Saltz' FaceBook, dozens of replies appeared each hour. People remembered past cases of gallery owners shutting down unannounced and splitting town. People speculated about drug use. Todd Levin found gallery owner Eli's FaceBook page [ web-fb ] and posted a link to it in the thread. Some people wondered if it was the same person associated with some past public complaints [ web-CBSny ][ web-nyPOST ] (which, incidentally, the gallery owner considered just good publicity).

Yep. It was.

But perhaps there were extenuating circumstances. Around five people said things along the lines of "well we haven't yet heard the gallery's side" and "let's wait and see" --and I (Mister Benefit-Of-The-Doubt) was among them. I even found the gallery phone number and called --and got Eli himself on the phone.

Eli said he was getting all sorts of angry phone calls and he didn't really understand why. And the gallery was certainly not closed. It'll be open on Monday. He had to be at the hospital, he told me. It was unclear if that meant he himself was hospitalized or he had to go to a hospital to assist a loved one. (Of course in the end the specifics hardly mattered since the hospital story turned out to be a lie.)

Then, the whole thread vanished. I slept through this part, but apparently there was some manner of apology and Saltz was left with the impression that Eli had been hospitalized and much of the acrimony was a huge misunderstanding.

My impression at the time was that this poor overworked gallery owner had been hospitalized and now was left with a bunch of bad publicity to overcome. I looked over the gallery's websites and developed lots of suggestions for ways to improve. These I sent to him electronically. By the way, among the suggestions (via FaceBook-message) on 16 December: "ha well lesson learned i guess : next time get someone to leave a note on the gallery door ('sorry closed at hospital') or some such." (The significance of that advice appears below.)

We ch@tted a lot and I assumed that the venue could improve. I mused about curating a show of strategic value to the gallery at the corner-location. For an unrepresented artist with only group shows in Manhattan under my belt, it seemed like a fine opportunity to boost my art-resume and also to help out other not-yet-noticed artists I'm aware of. I was waiting for Eli to reply to my request for floorspace measurements (on 23 December he said he'd send the info "tomorrow") when things went quiet.

Well, I figured, the holiday times are at hand; people get busy. He must be visiting family or traveling and forgot about the floorspace query. I'll check back in a few days.

On 23 December Eli wrote on his FaceBook page, "hi".

Then things got deeply weird.


End of Backstory. Now--


The Spiral:

People began commenting on Eli's FaceBook page that they had reported to his Orchard Windows Gallery for the Monday 26 December opening reception of the exhibit "It's A Family Thing" and they found the place dark, locked-up, no gallery owner, no phone call answers.

Diane Dawson wrote:
"Dino, are u okay? i stopped by the gallery, you were closed, WTF?"

Hans Wolf said:
"For those of you that made it out to Orchard Window to see Massive Group Show, my sincerest apologies for finding yourself with the doors locked. As for Dino Eli, I hope that my friend is doing ok. Have not heard from him."

A screencap of some of the Dino Eli FaceBook page chatter about the season's second (!) unexplained gallery closure.

Maybe there was another hospitalization. Or a binge. Or some harm came to Eli. How worrisome.

One or two days later, I got a FaceBook cyberfriend request from a Jason Johnson. I didn't know the name. It seemed to be a new account with few friends. Yet the profile picture showed a young man. Odd: is this kid the only member of his generation not-yet on FaceBook and without 500 friends? But with the art-writing and such, I get many cyberfriend requests each month. Maybe it is yet-another artist or gallery-staffer or reader. Fine. Approved.

And then I saw a disturbing thing on Jason Johnson's page:
"I am new to facebook. I am here to help find my uncle Dino Eli who is missing. Please help us find Dino Eli. The last we heard from him he was very upset about something Jerry Salt has written about him. He has not come home for christmas or at his galleries."

Gasp!

The Jason Johnson page has since been deleted [ web-former ], but evidence-screencaps live on.

I got a FaceBook-message from Jason:
"The authorities have been alerted. Dino"s mom had asked me to go on facebook to see what i can do to help. He was very upset with recent activity on facebook."

Note: these screencaps were made after the Jason account was deleted; FaceBook changes profile pics of deleted users to the generic-person image.

In time another Jason message arrived.
Jason Johnson:
"the 23rd was the last anyone saw or heard from him. Thank you for the information Terry Ward. Please spread the word on Dino Eli disappearance. Someone must know something. Thank you."



And I (dupe!) dutifully spread the word and did some looking around. Soon 20-30 hours went into the case.

From the Jason Johnson FaceBook page: I and two fellow dupes acting in good faith start asking the world if they've seen the missing Dino while the Jason character restates the claims.

By 27 December, other concerned people left comments on the Dino Eli FaceBook page.

Vincent Zambrano:
"Yesterday I was invited to be part of "IT'S A FAMILY THING" show at Orchard Window and Dino Eli gallery. I went there with my video art work to be part of this show and went I got there the gallery is closed!! Along with other artists we hang out for a bit and finally I decided to go back home and phone the gallery later on and noone pick up the phone. Gallery still closed? I passed by in the evenning for the reception and lots of people outside the gallery were waiting for Dino Eli to show up the gallery was still closed! I don't know was going on Dino Eli? I hope you are alright?"

Ken Husband:
"i know were all worried about Dino... all i can say is last i spoke to him was the night of dec. 23 ... anyone else hear from him afterword? this isent like him and im a lil worried"

Kaliptus Multimedia:
"I'm starting to get worried about my art dealer, Dino Eli whom is currently MIA. If anyone know of or has seen him please keep me posted. He seems to be missing for almost a week now :("

Kaliptus Multimedia:
"Has anyone called the police and filed a missing person report?"

Ron Mwangaguhunga
OK, I'm a little worried now. Dino: we miss you! You okay?

Archive screencap of the above

Facebook user Iam Tmnk said:
"Wasnt Dino recently in the hospital? As I recall another show was cancelled, or something of that nature do to a medical emergency? Has anyone chat knows him closely checked the hospitals?? Or perhaps, but not likely...The Police to see if was perhaps arrested?"

Where is Dino Eli, the world wonders.

Still hoping no real harm had come to Eli, I slapped together a "Have You Seen Me?" milk image.

"Have You Seen Me?"

More clues and concerns about the "missing" man appeared on the Eli FaceBook page.

Kristin Gambell:
"This scares me...LAst SPOTTED: I saw Dino last Thursday night raging on the phone with someon, walking towards Grand Central. I could feel the ground shaking (thus the reason I did not interrupt him), he had his head down and was screaming on the phone very upset. Should we file a missing persons report? Dino - give us all shout out."

Ron Mwangaguhunga:
"I am worried because it just is not like Dino to drop responsibilities to his gallery. Dino is the most consistent gallerist in NY with his shows, doing them weekly rain or shine, sometimes twice a week. I am definitely worried and hoping that nothing bad has happened. if anyone has his number or could drop by his house and post an update that might help a lot of us sleep"

Archive screencap of the above

Presumably in response to the "last seen" comment from Ms Gambell above, the Jason Johnson character claimed to prepare to search the Grand Central area.

"Nephew" off to search Grand Central.

We never did get answers about that search, but the Jason character carried on with the tale and piled on.

From the Jason page.

And the ripples spread.

It goes further and further. One can see: I was still duped at this point.

The invective against Jerry Saltz and Todd Levin flowed on the page of Jason Johnson --again presented to me and others as the nephew of Eli who was organizing the search for "missing" "poor Uncle Dino", but really run fraudulently by Dino Eli himself.

Jason Johnson character (actually Dino Eli) on the Jason Johnson page:
"Why don't we ask others how Dino Eli felt after Jerry Saltz SOUGHT TO DESTROY DINO ELI" (emphasis-caps in the original)
and
"Its become obvious to me that what ever has happened to Dino Eli; Jerry Saltz is to blame and his flunky Todd Levine is trying to cover up and soften up what ever happened. I wish Dino paid no attention to these people. They are shallow and have instilled fear in others."

At his point, there was fear going around, but Johnson/Eli was wrong about who was scaring whom. I was now worrying that Johnson (who I still thought was actually Eli's concerned nephew) was echoing words heard from Eli and his family; this plus the erratic behavior of Eli prompted me and possibly others to make contact with both Levin and Saltz with a caution to be on guard against this person considering all the blaming, flaming, and negativity seeming to come from the family.

Johnson (sic --actually Eli) flaming Saltz.

Another specimen.

In the course of earlier communications with Eli and the ones at this time with "Jason", I noticed that both men seemed to have trouble getting Saltz' and Levin's names right --using spellings like Levine, Salts, and Salt frequently. Maybe this was a family thing, but I was wondering if there could be something more strange brewing. I messaged to a friend watching the case: "it is all strange enough, that i'm actually beginning to hypothesize that maybe maybe jason johnson IS dino. there are odd similarities of speech and a resistance to disclose SOME stuff like whether a police missing persons report was made --but then detailed knowledge of some stuff.... i'm now giving it a 5% chance that jj is a fake." Should have followed my gut there.

Meanwhile more Jason Johnson (sic --actually Eli doing the writing) quotes appeared along the lines of, "Jerry Saltz SOUGHT TO DESTROY DINO ELI." At this point the "Jason" character had around 135 FaceBook friends.

A tower of lies can only rise so high before it wobbles and falls over. I and others were asking the (character we still thought was a) nephew whether a police Missing Persons report had been formally filed. Going to the NYPD while impersonating someone and knowingly filing a false police report could be a large problem for oneself. The Jason character dodged questions about Missing Persons reports, avoiding answering directly.

FaceBook messages --example of "Jason" ducking the Missing Persons report issue.

The Unravel

Of course had someone else spoken to police about the "missing person" (as others and eventually I almost did) there could have been awful difficulties for many innocent people: anyone "last seen" with the "missing" man would become a person-of-interest [ wiki-def ] with a cloud of police suspicion over their heads. (I'm aware of cases where it was already happening informally as certain amateurs launched investigations of their own, bringing much anxiety to the inquiry-subjects.)

Perhaps under pressure from so many people asking about Missing Persons papers, perhaps for other reasons, Dino Eli finally fired off on his FaceBook page a (limited) mea culpa--

Dino Eli:
hello everyone this is dino eli of the orchard windows and dino eli galleries I dont know where to begin except from the start This is not easy for me but it is long over due for the truth not only to all of you but to myself The last 14 mos of my life has been the closest experience ill probably ever get in my life that im so proud of the closest to all my dreams ever coming true maybe just maybe i still have a chance or maybe not or maybe im stalling my only excuse the pressure of running both galleries alone and the threat of losing the orchard windows im working everyday every single day the constant shows the expenses anyway i think you get it its too much for one man i knew i was headed for a nervous breakdown so i began to escape my problems by using drugs. i was never at the hospital ... i missed 3 days of elom bowmans show the last and worse incident i myself cannot believe ive been in a cloud of drugs and alcohol and denial there was no escape and when it cleared too late oh god all those artist what is today what i did it again and in my mind at the time there was only one way out you see ive been very depressed more then ever i lost hope the Jerry saltz thing destroyed me emotionally i binged i died i thought lets come up with a plan and maybe get some press out of it and i still can but i no longer want it i want to own up to the truth finally the truth no more lies no more trying to escape"
(Underline emphasis added)

Well well well. (Note: The Dino Eli FaceBook page's wall seemed to be set to public view --no compromise of privacy with such screencap-postings here).

After fearing that he might have been away from needed meds for too long and been hospitalized or that perhaps some dealings with seedy people left him floating in the Meadowlands, I was relieved that "missing" Dino was unharmed--

Terry Ward:
"you're alive! good." (I almost never capitalize on FaceBook.)

FaceBook user Iam Tmnk responded:
"WOW, I expected as much. really. And if I were one of the artists in one of those shows I'd still be beyond pissed with you. But for YOU to admit to YOURSELF and to THE WORLD EVERYBODY the TRUTH, that you have a drug/alcohol problem, and that your DRUG USE was the reason for your not keeping your professional commitments takes a lot of COURAGE. I'm in admiration of the integrity you found within yourself, in the midst of your depression, in the midst of your self destruction. Too reach deep within and to find and share the truth about YOU during perhaps your lowest moment professionally, is an act of inner strength. The kind of strength you are going to need. We all stumble, we all fall, and there are men who have sunk/fallen lower, what matters now is how you get back up. I AM NOT one of the artists you disappointed, so i know its easier for me to be forgiving. But people who really care about YOU will. Artists, naturally are concerned only with their missed/mismanaged opportunity to show, after all its business."

Various early responses to Dino Eli's partial confession.

Around this time I began to hear rumors that Jason Johnson was a fake character created by Dino Eli.

A comment appeared under Eli's big quote, but it didn't last long before being deleted. It said--

Cheryl Fallon:
"This is Jody Fallon....I'm glad you're not dead. I sicerely hope that you take a long hard look at yourself and what your carelessness has done to people through this. This is NOT what Art is supposed to be. You'll still get artists desperate to show in your galleries, but none that really care about what they do. This was a stunt and you should be ashamed of yourself. Making up a fake profile? Making an ass out of all of your Artists? Imagine if Cheryl and I had made arrangements to come into New York rented a room and went through all of that and spent all of that money, just to have it be wasted on your media stunt. If I were Hans Wolf, John C Kuchera or Maksim Noy I would never ever show in either of your galleries again. If I were Jerry Saltz Id give you all the publicity that you deserve. Your stunt back fired terribly and the only artists that you're going to get now are the ones that are too desperate to care. Happy new Year to you Dino Eli....Here's to hoping that you reap what you sow. Delete this quick so no one else can see what a phony you are."

Fallon's deleted response (above).

A Dino Eli FaceBook status update followed.
Dino Eli:
"z todd levin all artist in the group show its a family thing or the massive group show and facebook my most sincere apologies ive lost my best friends and my p.r over this but maybe i can find myself now. the gallery will reopen."

An exchange that appeared on the Dino Eli FaceBook page got pruned heavily in a short time: the incriminating comments by Destry Sparks (bold below) vanished.

Dino Eli:
"a special thanks to terry ward and all of facebook"

Terry Ward:
"it's good that you're alive. many people worried for your safety. your nephew jason johnson was helpful with activating facebook people to look for you. where'd his page go? http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003337652224 "

Destry Sparks:
"People are telling me that there was no Jason Johnson. They say the whole thing was a publicity stunt."


Terry Ward:
"wow."

Destry Sparks:
"See my post at the top of Dino's page."


Terry Ward:
"well i'm a sap for believing the 'hospital' story and then the 'missing' person claptrap. i gave the benefit of the doubt and then was worried over your safety. this whole episode has hurt a lot of people and wasted lots of hours."

Archive of deleted Sparks items above.

The "post at the top of Dino's page" didn't last long before deletion. But it did linger long enough to be archived.

Destry Sparks:
"People are telling me there was no nephew Jason Johnson really trying to help find Dino. It was just Dino trying to drum up publicity and attention against Jerry Saltz! If so, that's a world class scum bag move in an attempt to bring interest to Dino's galleries. Well, congratulations! You got a lot of people interested alright! I have heard many stories from artists who showed with you that are not flattering. They are not surprised. I don't regret spending time trying to help find a missing person in good faith. It's also good that you are starting to admit you have ethical & drug abuse issues. But don't think business will go on as usual. You have removed all doubt that working with you is akin to asking to be ripped off. I pass on that! Good luck Dino with putting your life back together. You have brought these problems on yourself. Get the help you need. I would recommend you start by getting on your knees and asking for forgiveness."


The deleted Sparks page-top comment to Dino Eli.

Such a bombshell accusation. Identity faking? Stringing so many people along with a charade?

Can that be true?

Yep.

Because systematically-lying to someone voids any further expectation of "trust" from the victim of the lie/s, and also there was no talk of making this particular element private, and also to show the apparent truthfulness of Sparks et al, I don't feel bad mentioning an exchange I had with Eli:

Terry Ward:
"ha. so the jason johnson account was really you, eh?"


Dino Eli
"yes
i cannot believe myself either"


Terry Ward:
"that was really not cool. really got people worried about your safety. mustn't toy with people so. sheesh, what if someone had...."


It's not libel if it's true.

And it's true.

I assure you I've got the screencaps.


Scrapbook's Other / Misc sub-page.



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