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.
Apparently unconcerned about Boomer and Kinney, in 2002 Big Jim filed suit against Lund and Rippberger, arguing that he should have received a third of the insurance settlement. He claimed that, according to the LLC agreement, any profit from the Sacred Buffalo was to be equally divided three ways. Lund and Ripp- berger countered successfully by claiming their agreement established that all profits would be split three ways, provided the two financiers first recouped their investment plus a 100 percent return on their investment, which was equal to the $193,000 each took out of the Acadia payment. In memos to a Buffalo LLC lawyer on the matter, Lund instructed the attorney to fight Big Jim's suit because it was "ridiculous." On principle, as Lund put it, he told his attorney not to settle. The case dragged on into March 2004, when Lund's attorney deposed Durham. Well into the hours-long deposition, Durham took it upon himself to solicit a settlement.
"I want two cows, 40 blankets," he said. In the flow of the transcript, the opposing counsel is clearly stunned and attempting to collect his thoughts when he says, "Let me write this down." Durham's own lawyer then asks his client, "Are you serious about this?" To which Durham replies: "You're damn right I'm serious.... Two cows, breeding cows. That means breeding stock, male, female. Two cows, 40 Pendleton blankets. Good ones.... Two chain saws for Sun Dance to cut our arbor down so we can dance, and half the money they took over what they had coming. Forty blankets, 65,000 bucks, two chain saws, and two cows. Any thief would take that. I ain't paying your attorney's fees. I will go to hell first.... I'll walk away. You can make fun of us forever." Lund and Rippberger's attorney rejected the offer, and shortly thereafter the case withered away.
Rick Rippberger no longer has anything to do with the Art Mart in Boulder. He's divorced from his wife and thereby divorced from the business. After he got his piece of the Acadia payment, he deferred to Lund on the business of the lawsuit Durham had filed against them; nor did Rippberger closely follow the news of Boomer and Kinney. Until we spoke in a Denver coffee shop last fall, he says, he'd never even heard the name Johnny Decker. "I didn't even know who he was," Rippberger said. He had on aviator-style glasses with lenses tinted a rose color, which seemed uniquely suited for his worldview. Visibly frustrated, he took off the glasses. "You know what this did for me? I mean, I'm that type of guy that trusts everybody, all right? And with this whole thing, and as far as Native Americans, I have the worst taste of Native Americans in my mouth."
In the Buffalo book, Durham wrote "There's another old saying. 'It's not for sale.' I wish that were true of religion. People without any real spiritual knowledge try to run a sweat lodge—or a vision quest—for a fee. They learn to sing a couple of songs and to go through the motions and then they offer to run sweats for people who will pay the price. The people who pay have no idea how much preparation and prayer goes into running a real sweat lodge ceremony, or that the adviser for a vision quest must be spiritually responsible for them. At best, the people who pay to go to a sweat lodge just waste their time and money; at worst, they can be hurt bad. Unlike religion, true spirituality isn't for sale." But as far as Durham was concerned, the Sacred Buffalo was for sale.
Big Jim restored the Sacred Buffalo, or, hell, who knows, maybe he had the Sacred Buffalo restored. In any case, the buffalo was put into exhibitable form. And in January 2002, while Boggs and Kinney were coming as clean as they could to authorities, and Rippberger and Lund were fending off Durham's suit, Big Jim sold the Sacred Buffalo. An acquisitions director for an international museum chain, Edward Meyer, bought the piece. When I spoke with Meyer on the phone this fall, he wouldn't disclose how much he'd paid for it, but he said it was the third most expensive purchase he'd ever made in the 30 years he's been in the business. He would say that the priciest piece he's ever bought, which was a matter of public record, was a makeup case once owned by Marilyn Monroe, which Meyer purchased for $265,000.
Before we hung up, Meyer mentioned that the buffalo wasn't the only thing he bought from Durham. He also purchased a human skeleton nailed to a crucifix. What makes the human skeleton piece even more interesting, and controversial, and therefore attractive to Meyer, is that on the bones, every inch of the bones, Durham had scrimshawed scenes from the Bible. "To this day," Meyer says, "I would say it's the most controversial piece in our collection. And we have some 25,000 items. His work is spectacular. The crucifix is beautifully woodworked, and the scrimshaw is incredible. He has told the New Testament and Acts of the Apostles, but from an Indian viewpoint based on his religious upbringing, I guess, in missionary schools. Visually, it is disturbing. People don't see skeletons hanging on crosses. It's a one-of-a-kind." Meyer says the human skeleton exhibit is on display at his venue in London, England, and that as of just last year the Sacred Buffalo could be seen at his museum in San Antonio, Texas. Oh, of course, the name of the international exhibition and museum operation Meyer oversees: It is Ripley's Believe It or Not!
Maximillian Potter is executive editor of 5280. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.