The cold ‘Frost’ case: Wichita State’s missing bronze bust comes home 25 years after being stolen

08/30/2012 5:00 AM

08/31/2012 6:46 AM

In 1987, a bronze bust of American poet Robert Frost was reported stolen from its perch in front of Wilner Auditorium on Wichita State University’s campus.

Campus police searched, appealing for its return. Then the case went cold.

But a phone tip to WSU police in June finally led Missouri law enforcement Wednesday to a garage in Lamar, Mo. The bust – long forgotten by most – sat inside.

WSU officials on Thursday welcomed home Massachusetts sculptor Walker Hancock’s “Bust of Robert Frost,” 25 years after it disappeared. The bust remains an important piece of the campus’ extensive outdoor sculpture collection, Jim Rhatigan said Thursday.

“It represents the only piece of sculpture stolen in the history of the campus,” said Rhatigan, who was WSU’s vice president of student affairs when the theft occurred. “… Some foolish person took it, and it’s been 25 years.”

The bust, acquired in 1983 with a grant from George and Virginia Ablah, is one of two sculptures of Frost by Hancock. The second is in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

On Wednesday, Missouri authorities arrested 44-year-old Mitchel R. Potter at his Lamar home on suspicion of receiving stolen property, according to a news release from the Missouri State Highway Patrol. Police think Potter, who is not thought to have any association with WSU, stole the bust 25 years ago while passing through Wichita, WSU police Detective Jeff Rider said.

“We’re pretty confident that it’s been in the same person’s possession” since its disappearance, he said.

The sculpture was one of three stolen during a three-month period in 1987. The Frost bust was the last recovered.

Rider said campus police received a phone tip in June that a piece of artwork stolen years ago was in Missouri. But the case posed challenges because few recalled the theft or the Frost bust.

“Because of the technology, I just couldn’t get on a computer and find the particular case or the offense” in the police records, Rider said. “Verifying that we even had it took a little effort.”

Determined, Rider asked around and finally contacted Missouri authorities when Rhatigan remembered the bust.

“There aren’t too many people who remembered we had the Robert Frost sculpture,” said Rhatigan, who worked at WSU from 1965 until his retirement in 2002. “But I always loved it.”

On Wednesday, Rider said a Missouri trooper called and told him: “I’m in a garage, and I’m looking at your statue.”

The WSU detective immediately drove to Missouri.

Shortly after 11 a.m. Thursday, Rider pulled up in front of the Ulrich Museum of Art on WSU’s campus in a dark SUV. The bust sat in the back seat. He heaved it into his arms and delivered it to the museum.

Ulrich Museum of Art public relations manager Teresa Veazey closely inspected the sculpture for scrapes and scratches. She traced an etching on the back of the bust – “Robert Frost, 1950” – with her finger as she searched for damage.

“The sculpture looks like it’s in good condition,” she said later. “They didn’t use it as a doorstop or a hat rack or a plaything, so that’s a good sign.”

The Frost bust was worth about $5,000 when taken, according to an Eagle news story from April 3, 1987. Missouri State Highway Patrol officials valued it at $25,000.

Veazey said the sculpture will be appraised and cleaned in the coming months. It will be displayed outside again, although where on campus is still undetermined.

“This is where it belongs,” she said. “So, the Ulrich is thrilled that we have this back.”

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