By Tim Eberly
A valuable piece of art was stolen recently from the Clack Museum, and Havre police suspect it may have been taken by a current or former employee of the museum.
The untitled pen-and-ink drawing by Assiniboine Indian artist William Standing, which was appraised at a minimum of $6,800, was first reported missing on Sept. 7. According to police Sgt. George Tate, the museum's gift shop employee first noticed the drawing missing on Sept. 3, when she was taking 25 Standing paintings from a double-door vault with the intention of putting them up for display.
Tate said there are no definitive suspects but several leads have developed recently that are being investigated.
"It's a potential inside job," said Tate, the investigating officer. "Whoever stole it knew what they were looking for because they stole the most valuable piece of the collection."
Standing's missing drawing, which was last seen in the unlocked vault inside the museum, features a man and woman in a wagon near a creek with two horses and dogs in the foreground.
A Heritage Center employee said she thinks that particular piece of art was targeted by someone with connections to the art world.
"If you were going to come in and steal the collection, why would you just steal one?" said Debe VandenBoom, an administrative assistant with the Heritage Center who is in charge of the security system. "Our concern is that this isn't something you go to a pawn shop and dump. You have to have some pretty sophisticated contacts in the art world in order to dump it."
In July 1997, the museum installed a state-of-the-art motion detector security system called Focus 2000 Quantum. VandenBoom said the system is fully functional.
"The only way it would be faulty is if it wasn't set," VandenBoom said. "We don't even know when (the painting) was taken. There's a whole month in there when it could have been taken."
Standing's collection was on display in the museum for the entire month of July. But after taking the collection down in early August, gift shop employee Lou Ann Nault was asked to put it up again in early September.
"It wasn't like they took the biggest drawing there were other pieces of the same size. They took the most valuable," Tate said.
The 18 3/4-by-14 3/4-inch drawing was actually for sale by its owners, former residents of Poplar, where Standing was raised. The owners, who currently live in Washington state, have been notified. Part of the proceeds of the sale of the drawing were to go the museum.
Another obstacle during the investigation is the unquantified number of people who have access to the museum. But Elaine Morse, a member of the Clack Foundation Board, said keys will only get a person in the front door but a second key and various security codes allow access to the museum and the paintings within. The foundation board operates the Heritage Center, which houses the Clack Museum as well as number of business offices.
"There are quite a number of keys for the Heritage Center because quite a few people rent here," said Morse. "But the keys to the museum are very limited. And the codes to the security system are even more limited."
VandenBoom said there are five people who have the access codes to the museum.
"It's a difficult case to investigate because you can't really pinpoint a suspect, because there are so many people in and out of the museum all the time," Tate said.
Tate said Nault reported noticing misplaced artwork and other tampering when she would open the gift shop on various mornings.
"She indicated to me that she had been in the museum and noticed that some objects had been moved or that her computer had been used but there are a lot of people that have access to the museum that are legitimate users," Tate said.