Portrait of Paul Watkins by Carl Bohnen 1920.jpg

Portrait of Paul Watkins

WINONA — The mystery of the missing portrait in Winona has been solved just in time for the holidays.

Winona Police Chief Paul Bostrack said a 23-year-old man contacted authorities on Tuesday to admit stealing the 200-pound painting of Winona businessman Paul Watkins from Winona Health's Watkins Manor. Authorities recovered the 4-feet by 5-feet portrait less than a block from where it had been reported missing on Sept. 12.

Authorities still are trying to piece together the sequence of events that led to the late-night heist of the $6,500 portrait. Bostrack might it appears to have been a "spur-of-the-moment thing" that may or may not lead to criminal charges, since it was returned undamaged.

The painting is the work of Minnesota artist Carl Bohnen in 1920 and was paired with a matching portrait of Watkins' wife. The portrait was displayed in the mansion's great hall, which is open to the public and functions like a museum. A side door to the facility that's typically locked was found ajar on the morning the portrait was reported missing.

Paul Watkins' granddaughter, Ruth Watkins Fell of Rochester, heard of the portrait's return on Wednesday afternoon. She grew up playing in the room where the portrait was featured.

"It's my grandfather's picture, but it really belongs to the community," Watkins Fell said. "This is really good news, especially because tomorrow is Thanksgiving. It's the perfect time."

Watkins was president of the J.R. Watkins Co., which rose to prominence more than a century ago and remains a provider of vanilla extract, other baking products and health remedies. After enjoying great personal success, he became one of Winona's greatest philanthropists, donating artwork to local schools, churches and government buildings. Winona State University has even named its main art gallery in his honor.

Winona Health, which operates the Watkins mansion as an assisted living facility, said in September that no charges would be filed if the portrait was returned undamaged. Last month, anonymous donors offered a reward of $3,000 for tips that led to its return.

Watkins Fell said she was on the verge of writing a letter to the editor asking for the portrait's return. The appeal would have echoed a plea her mother made 35 years ago.

In 1979, one of three Tiffany lamps Watkins donated to a Winona church was stolen out of the parlor. Watkins' daughter — and Watkins Fell's mother — wrote a letter to the editor asking for its safe return, offering a $1,000 reward for the lamp, which was valued at about $30,000.

Shortly after making that offer, Watkins Fell said her mother received a phone call claiming the lamp was at the Prairie Island Campground near the Mississippi River in Winona. Authorities were alerted, and the ensuing search found the lamp buried in the sand but otherwise undamaged. The reward money was never claimed.

Watkins Fell said she expects the painting to be returned to its customary place next to her grandmother's portrait just in time for the holidays — and reinforced with extra nails this time.

"I'm shocked, first of all, but extremely pleased that they somehow got it back," Watkins Fell said. "Gosh, I'm kind of at a loss of what to tell you. It just makes tomorrow even better.

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