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Watkins portraits restored, a year after mysterious disappearance

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Almost a year to the day after it was stolen, the iconic oil portrait of Paul Watkins is back in its rightful place at Watkins Manor in Winona.

He was unveiled alongside his wife Florence in a small ceremony Tuesday night, and greeted with oohs and aahs and spontaneous applause.

Newly restored to gleaming elegance, the painted Watkins appeared unruffled by the late-night shenanigans surrounding his disappearance from the family estate, now a senior living facility owned by Winona Health.

The Paul Watkins portrait disappeared on September 12, 2014, and was missing for more than two months as law enforcement and Winona Health staff puzzled over how the 5-by-4 foot painting, heavy in its solid wood and plate glass frame, was taken from the wall and maneuvered out the back door of the great hall without anyone noticing.

The morning the painting’s absence was discovered, a seldom-used back door was found ajar and paper presumed to be from the back of the painting was found in an adjacent parking lot — but no further clues as to its whereabouts or its abductor were found.

“This has been a very interesting project from the day we got the call that Paul Watkins Sr. was taken off the wall,” said Betsy Midthun, Winona Health vice president for community engagement.

In addition to wondering how a thief pulled off the heist, the community also wondered why anyone would go to all the trouble.

The twin portraits were painted in 1920 by Carl Bohnen, a well-known Minnesota painter and printmaker. While the Watkins portrait was appraised at $6,500 a decade ago, its primary value is historical and sentimental—and liquidating such a recognizable work would have been a challenge.

Meanwhile, the painting was a hot topic of discussion among residents at the assisted living facility.

“We couldn’t believe it,” said Mary Suhr, who has lived at Watkins Manor for two years. “We were checking to see how they got it out of that door.”

After Winona Health leaders publicly offered not to press charges against the painting pincher, a young man came forward and confessed that, inebriated one night, he had taken the painting to his house less than a block away, stashing it in his closet.

But while the heist was successful, the man’s conscience got to him.

“Every time he opened his closet, he would see Paul staring at him,” Midthun said.

The 23-year-old thief paid restitution for his actions, and wasn’t charged with any crime. On the occasion of the painting’s return, Winona Health decided to have both portraits—Paul and Florence—professionally restored.

That, too, was a process, and local restoration artist John Durfey said he took the paintings from their frames, cleaned the canvas, tightened parts that were sagging, removed layers of dust and grime, and added layers of varnish to the frames.

“We did the best we could to put them back into a good environment,” Durfey said. “They’re in such beautiful shape, beautiful condition.”

“They belong here; they don’t belong in somebody’s closet,” Midthun added.

Two members of the Watkins family were also present Tuesday evening, and shared stories of visiting their grandparents’ estate as children.

Grandson Paul Watkins said he remembered his grandmother Florence wearing the brooch that sparkles on her dress in the portrait.

And granddaughter Ruth Watkins Fell remembered playing hide and seek in the Tudor-style mansion’s many rooms.

“We had a lot of really good times here in this house,” said Fell.

As for the paintings, they look better than ever, and now, Winona Health board president Ken Mogren pointed out, they’re all the more interesting because of the story of Paul’s disappearance and return.

And just one mystery remains: nobody can say how the intoxicated art thief actually did the deed.

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