Copper Corridor man involved in finding, returning stolen painting worth millions

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‘Woman-Ochre’ by de Kooning. This was one of two pictures taken at the New Mexico store before the owners found the article on line about the stolen painting. Photo by Maureen Craig

  You may have read or heard the story about a valuable stolen painting that was recently found and returned to the University of Arizona Museum of Art.

  What you may not have heard is that one of the finders is from the Copper Corridor and one of his partners has ties to the Copper Corridor.

  If you have not read the story, here is a quick overview.

  The story begins 31 years ago when a painting was stolen from the University of Arizona Museum of Art the day after Thanksgiving in 1985. The painting, Woman-Ochre, was painted by the famous Dutch-American abstract expressionist, Willem de Kooning. It was part of a series of paintings, painted between 1950 and 1955. Kooning died in 1997. 

Buck Burns, David Van Auker and Rick Johnson at their store, Manzanita Ridge, in Silver City, NM. Photo by Maureen Craig

  This summer, three partners who own Manzanita Ridge Furniture & Antiques in Silver City, New Mexico, Rick Johnson, David Auker and Buck Burns, purchased a household of items at an estate sale from a home in a small town outside of Silver City. Among the items was a painting which they brought back to their store. The entire estate including furniture, other artifacts and the painting was purchased for $2,000.

  The painting was displayed in their store and some of their regular customers upon viewing it asked them if it was an original de Kooning. David took it upon himself to research Willem de Kooning and came upon an article about the stolen painting from the University of Arizona Museum of Art. Once they believed they may have the stolen painting, there was no hesitation on their part – the partners decided they must do the right thing.

  “We knew within minutes of finding the article that we had the stolen painting and it needed to go back to the U of A Museum, where it was stolen from,” Buck said. “We ended up hiding the painting in the store bathroom, wrapped in a blanket because it was the only door that locked.”

  David contacted the University of Arizona Museum of Art and the FBI and told them he believed they had the stolen de Kooning. The University sent their experts to New Mexico and confirmed that the painting was in fact the stolen de Kooning. It was taken back to the University.

  At the time of the theft, the painting was valued at $400,000. The painting’s value has grown in the intervening years. It is now estimated at well over $100 million. A similar painting from the series was sold for $137.5 million 10 years ago. 

  Rick, David, and Buck were recently honored at the U of A Museum of Art and feted at a private dinner at the Tucson restaurant Café a la C’art. It was a black-tie event and “very cool,” said Buck. The three will be back in Tucson when the U of A Museum of Art displays the painting to the public.

  At no time were the three men interested in any money or a reward.

  “Because it was stolen, it had to go home,” said Buck.

  The men have been getting congratulated and receiving good wishes for their honesty from many who know them and from people on the internet that have read the story, which has been on the news worldwide. The story just appeared on the Sunday edition front page of the New York Times and the Inside Edition television program just called them.

  The three men have ties to Arizona and the Copper Corridor. They owned the Manzanita Ridge store and Pickle Barrel Antiques & Interiors in Globe for a number of years before selling them. David grew up in Mesa, Arizona. Buck was born in Globe and raised in Aravaipa. He is the son of Maria and the late Pete Burns. Maria, “Mary” as she is known, says she is “proud of him.”

  Buck is a graduate of Ray High School in Kearny. He is a proud Bearcat and says his Class of 1994 was “the best class of all.” He attended college at the Central Arizona College Aravaipa Campus.

  Besides owning a business, Buck is an artist, actor and a fireman for the Los Pinos Altos Volunteer Fire & Rescue Department. He is studying to be a Firefighter I & II as well as an EMT. He is active in the art community and has worked with kids in art education projects and volunteered at the Youth Mural Camp. He directed the painting of the Silver City Bottling Mural. He was heavily involved in several of the downtown murals.

  Buck is a leader in the theatrical community. He participates in a lot of local theater and has regularly participated in the annual . He helped found The Theatre Group New Mexico and manages The World is Our Stage theater group. Working with his theatrical group and the Virus Theater, he and others are raising funds to remodel and restore the El Sol Theater in downtown Silver City. He is trying to “jumpstart the drama program at a local school and bring back arts to our school”. 

  Buck has choreographed, set up, produced and directed Miss Teen New Mexico, Miss Grant County and Miss Silver City pageants. He has been involved in a number of motion pictures. He has acted in a local web series River filmed in El Paso, Texas; and has acting credits in the short films, Not Tonight Dear in which he starred and The Backroom; he has a part in the Sci-fi thriller The X Species; and has acted in a new film to be released this year, Rose, which stars Cybil Sheperd, James Brolin and Pam Grier.

  Buck, David, Rick and Manzanita Ridge Furniture & Antiques believe in giving back to the community.

  “I am all about doing right by our town so that it does right by us and we also love to make strangers smile,” Buck said.

  These men from Silver City have made a lot of people happy and their honesty, integrity and kindness will come back to them in ways yet to be discovered. Thank you, gentlemen for returning the painting to Arizona. Let’s hope the remaining mystery is solved.

  If you would like to send them a thank you, good wishes or just say hi, visit and like Manzanita Ridge on Facebook.

John Hernandez (632 Posts)

John Hernandez lives in Oracle. He is retired and enjoys writing and traveling. He is active in the Oracle Historical Society. He covers numerous public events, researches historical features and writes business/artist profiles.

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