View Full Version : Tiny Buddhas, big flap

03-05-2006, 06:31 AM
Discovery in American River creates hubbub in Colfax

By Blair Anthony Robertson -- Bee Staff Writer

It started with a discovery. The discovery became a mystery. The mystery turned into a hullabaloo. The hullabaloo unraveled into farce.

And the farce? It is fast becoming part of Colfax lore.

At the center of it all are two men who have never met - an art professor who deposited 500 Buddha-style figurines in the American River last summer, and a journeyman janitor who found them soon after.

The art professor thought he would spread art to campers and tourists who found the small treasures in the Colfax stretch of the river. The janitor thought he might finally have found the fortune that had eluded him for so many years.

But the Buddhas have brought anything but good karma to Colfax, a Placer County town 50 miles northeast of Sacramento off Interstate 80.

Before the mystery was finally solved with a couple of phone calls, all this happened:

The janitor went for advice to a T-shirt shop; the guy at the shop started doing his own rudimentary research; word got out; people got excited; some folks paid $100 for a single coin-sized figure; federal authorities showed up and seized the pieces under threat of arrest; the janitor went to jail on outstanding warrants.

And the whole town of 1,500 was in a tizzy.

"Somewhere along the way," said Steve D'Arcy, the undersheriff of Placer County, "this became a federal case."

Then the professor, Casey O'Connor of Sierra College in Rocklin, fessed up by contacting D'Arcy. And it was all over faster than you could say "naiveté."

In a written statement, O'Connor, 43, said his intentions were solely about art, not mischief.

"I felt that anyone who found these clay heads (kids, adults, worldly travelers) would be intrigued and motivated to learn more about the history of the area as well as have a keepsake of that recreation time," O'Connor stated.

He said he made the pieces by pouring liquid clay into plaster molds he created. He fired them at 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit. Then he went to his favorite swimming hole and put hundreds of pieces into the river.

Sierra College art professor Casey O'Connor made the 500 figurines he put in the American River.

There were a couple of problems with O'Connor's thinking. That part of the river is rich with history and it was reasonable to think that anyone who found the pieces might be overcome with speculation.

The speculation did run rampant after the janitor, Herman Henry, approached Colfax graphic artist and T-shirt shop operator Jim Bowers with the newfound treasures. Bowers was so impressed he bought 23 for himself, paying $300 in cash and $2,700 worth of gold and quartz.

"At that point, Herman already had been selling them for $100 for the small pieces and $300 to $500 for the larger ones," said Bowers, who helps run Better Than Naked T-shirts and Gifts. "Even the pessimists were buying them. In the beginning, he was trading them for a beer. He sold some to the local market for food."

Bowers quickly designed a new T-shirt with a picture of one of the Buddha heads and started selling them for $14.95.

Then - and the order of this is important - Bowers set out to learn what the pieces were and if they were worth anything. He contacted area historians via a popular Web site discussion group. He called local colleges. He visited people in the know. He Googled until he could Google no more.

"I was optimistic that they may have indeed come out of the old Chinese camps," said Bowers, who speculated that the pieces were found atop the riverbed because they may have broken out of a recently unsealed container.

Scores of people were baffled and intrigued. Bowers seemed to have a new theory every day. One day, there was a chance the figures dated to the 12th century. Another time, he put out word that an East Coast collector suggested they were worth $2,000 per piece.

Soon, word got out to the law enforcement arm of the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM, which dispatched an investigator to seize the figurines. The federal Antiquities Act protects artifacts and other items of historical importance from being removed from public lands.

"We take this very seriously," said John Scull of the BLM's Folsom field office. "A lot has been lost over the years to private collectors."

Two BLM archaeologists, he added, "spent quite a bit of time scratching their heads over it because they had never seen anything like this before."

"I didn't really find any humor in it," said O'Connor, "but at the same time it's like, 'Wow.' "

Not everyone is amused with the professor.

"I have no respect for him whatsoever," said Helen Wayland, who oversees the archives at the Colfax Area Historical Society. "I think he set out to make a splash. He knew they would be found. He's not dumb. He should be ashamed of himself."

Wayland added, "He was playing with history and the stories of that area. It's an insult to the Chinese who were there."

D'Arcy, the undersheriff, said, "Art professors are creative, but they don't have the most common sense in the world."

O'Connor admits he never thought the endeavor all the way through, that he wasn't trying to spread good karma, because he wasn't thinking that deep.

"It was just a pretty object to spark intrigue. It never crossed my mind to fool somebody," he said.

Even after O'Connor's admission, Bowers was not closing the book on the baffling Buddhas.

"I'm still not convinced," Bowers said. "If (O'Connor) can't describe eight distinct artifacts, he's lying. If he's telling the truth, I definitely think it was irresponsible."

As for Henry, who is free on $9,500 bail on weapons possession and driving without a license warrants, he says someone owes him an apology.

And those seized figurines that started this whole hullabaloo? He wants them back, bad karma and all.