The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Crime & Courts

August 30, 2012

Lamar man ‘busted’ with missing sculpture

A bronze bust of the poet Robert Frost that was stolen 25 years ago from the Wichita (Kan.) State University campus turned up Wednesday in the garage of a Lamar man.

With the discovery, the Missouri State Highway Patrol and Lamar police arrested Mitchel R. Potter, 44, on suspicion of receiving stolen property.

Patrol Sgt. Mike Watson said WSU campus police received information in June that the artwork stolen in March 1987 off a pedestal outside Wilner Auditorium in Wichita might be in Missouri. The tip regarding the bust’s whereabouts eventually was passed along to the state patrol, and investigators went to Potter’s home on Wednesday to look into the matter.

“He wasn’t there, but they did see the artwork in his garage,” Watson said.

He said investigators contacted Potter by phone where he was at work in Joplin, and he returned home and was arrested. Watson declined to discuss in what manner the bust was being kept by the employee of a local plumbing company, except to say that it was visible to investigators from outside the garage.

The artwork was returned Thursday morning to the Ulrich Museum of Art on the WSU campus.

The likeness of the poet sculpted by Walker Hancock was a gift to the university from the artist, and George and Virginia Ablah, according to Teresa Veazey, public relations manager for the museum.

“We’re thrilled,” Veazey said. “We’re absolutely elated the sculpture is back at the museum.”

The bust is one of 76 works of art on campus that have earned the university recognition for possessing one of the top collections of outdoor sculptures in the nation, she said. The theft preceded her tenure at the museum, so what she knows about it she has heard from others, she said.

“All that was left was the two bolts that held it in place,” she said.

Two other sculptures were stolen about the same time, and they were both recovered, she said.

Veazey said the museum will seek a condition report on the bust before deciding how it is to be reintegrated with the campus. She said the piece appeared to be in decent condition.

“I guess I’m grateful whoever had it took reasonably good care of it,” she said.

The state patrol said current estimates put the value of the sculpture at $25,000. Veazey said that probably is not an unreasonable figure, but the museum will be getting it appraised again in the coming weeks.

Potter was taken to the Barton County Jail but eventually was released without bond because the prosecutor was temporarily unavailable to file a charge. But the charge remains pending, according to the state patrol.

A connection of Potter to Wichita State University is not known to authorities. The Globe’s efforts to reach Potter for comment Thursday were unsuccessful.

The bust not taken

A BRONZE BUST of Robert Frost recovered from a garage in Lamar is one of two likenesses of the poet sculpted by Walker Hancock. The other is located at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

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