The Great Buffalo Caper
When two Boulder businessmen financed the creation of a one-of-a-kind piece of art—a buffalo skeleton with Native American myths carved over every inch of bone by an artist named "Big Jim"—they thought it was an opportunity to be a part of something important. And, just maybe, they might make some money. But what started as a high-minded project quickly devolved into a surreal mystery.
Armed with the Dalí Detective's appraisal, Lund obtained an insurance policy for the Sacred Buffalo, covering the piece for up to $1.25 million. In addition, each venue that hosted the Sacred Buffalo provided its own insurance coverage for the piece while it was on display in their care. And because the hit on Durham's creation occurred under the watch of the Fairbanks, it was that museum's policy alone that would be on the hook for the damage. The Fairbanks' insurance on the Buffalo was handled by a company called Acadia Insurance, which, in the weeks following the August 2000 hit, promptly put a claims adjuster on the case. The Acadia investigator was a seasoned professional with more than 15 years' experience, and was primarily responsible for handling cases in the million-dollar range. Although the investigator has since left Acadia for a new insurance firm, he remembers the case well. He remembers it so well that when we recently spoke about the Sacred Buffalo he asked that his name not be used because, he said, "I have a wife and kids, and you're talking about some serious bad guys involved here."
So this "Mr. Acadia" was on the case, finding that the only information the police department could provide at the time, according to Police Chief Richard Leighton, was that a skinny guy covered in tattoos was seen running out of the museum. After all, the Fairbanks ain't exactly the Louvre. And it turned out the intelligence Boomer had received from his evidently well-informed contact about the nonfunctional security cameras was dead-on. In the local press, Big Jim said his best guess as to who was responsible was zealous Christians who rejected American Indian spirituality. Durham didn't have any more answers for the insurance investigator, but Mr. Acadia did receive a copy of Ewell's appraisal report. In his talks with Mr. Acadia, Durham said that there was no point in discussing whether it was possible to repair the Sacred Buffalo because "its spirit had been broken."
Mr. Acadia was suspicious of the values the Dalí Detective had placed on the piece while he had "meditated before the Sacred Buffalo." Likewise, he didn't buy the Christian theory, or, for that matter that the random act of vandalism was random. Mr. Acadia hired his own expert to give an appraisal of the broken buffalo, and meanwhile contracted a private investigator to see what he could find. The PI was Ken Springer of New York-based Corporate Resolutions Inc., which specializes in high-value insurance fraud matters. Based on Corporate Resolutions' legwork, according to Mr. Acadia and Springer, they believed the Sacred Buffalo caper was a scam, and that if any of the Buffalo LLC players was involved in busting up the bison and hoping to collect on an insurance-policy payout, it was most likely Durham. In addition to the alleged back child-support payment situation Lund had described, Springer determined that Big Jim was in financial straits, the details of which the PI would not disclose to me. Nevertheless, Springer told Mr. Acadia, he didn't have proof of a connection.
On November 12, 2000, the expert Acadia hired to examine the damaged bison skeleton and estimate what it would cost to repair the buffalo submitted her findings. Lisa Kronthal was no Dalí Detective, but she was a conservator at the American Museum of Natural History. She examined the Buffalo on October 27, two months after the crime, near Columbus, Ohio, where Beemer and Durham had retreated with the damaged piece. She determined that the buffalo had suffered "significant damage," and that even if repaired it would "never be as strong as it was originally." Kronthal wrote, "It was found after speaking in depth with the artist that although he believes the buffalo has lost all spiritual value, he recognizes that it retains significant historical value. Mr. Durham feels the buffalo should be brought back to an exhibitable state." In the detailed report, which reads like a medical autopsy and breaks down the bone-by-bone cost for repairs, Kronthal came up with a cost of roughly $210,000.
Provided with Kronthal's findings, Mr. Acadia entered into a months-long series of settlement negotiations with the Buffalo LLC and with Durham personally, and, finally, sent the LLC a settlement check for $456,000. "As much as society likes to believe insurance companies like to get out of making payment," Mr. Acadia says, "it's actually a lot easier to make payments than it is to get out of them. That's a fact. Unless you've got [concrete evidence of fraud] or you're a really bad insurance company, you're going to pay the claim and move on. That's how it works. [Our investigator] was like, we know [Durham] did it, but we don't have enough to give you to sink your teeth into. As soon as things started to develop that way, it was obvious that we felt that way. We let [Durham's lawyer] know. Communications with Durham didn't exist after the check was sent. The check was another issue."
Indeed, the check was another issue. From that $456,000 settlement, Lund and Rippberger each took $193,000; they sent Durham the remaining $70,000 and told him he could keep the once Sacred and now broken Buffalo.