Stolen Painting Was Part of Winona State History

The blank space in Somsen Hall where the stolen piece used to hang.
The blank space in Somsen Hall where the stolen piece used to hang. (photo by Tom Wick)

On January 21 a painting was reported stolen from the Winona State University campus. It had been missing for at least a few weeks or as long as two months, according to the report filed by WSU with the Winona police.

That painting, by Robert Pearson, had hung in the stairwell of Somsen Hall since 1986. The stolen painting is one of nine original oil paintings in a collection of artwork donated by the Watkins family in the 1920s and ‘30s known colloquially as the Watkins collection. Of those nine original oil paintings, all were accounted for until January 21.

The painting was appraised for $15,000 in 1986 (adjusted for inflation, about $31,000 in today’s dollars), but at the time of the theft the university was seeking funds to have the painting and other parts of the collection restored.

To Winona State officials like Ralph Townsend, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and one of the collections unofficial curators, the painting is worth far more and tells an interesting story as part of WSU’s Watkins Art collection.

“The collection is more than the sum of its parts,” said Townsend, “it’s an important part of WSU’s history and example of philanthropy in the 1920s.”

The roughly 600-piece collection was donated over a 10-year period during the 1920s and ’30s by Paul Watkins, the second CEO of Watkins Incorporated. Though the collection was never officially inventoried upon receipt, most accounts agree on the relative number of donated items.

Of the original 600 pieces, Winona State can now only account for about 300. According to Townsend and historical records, most of the pieces are what Townsend refers to as “paper pieces” which include prints, engravings, lithographs and photos, many of which Paul Watkins collected while traveling the world.

Most of these remaining “paper pieces” have been removed from their frames and stored in a filing cabinet based on the recommendations of conservators until they can be properly re-framed. There are plans to display some of them in 2016 if funding is available. While Townsend considers the Watkins collection to be important, spending thousands of dollars per-painting for restorations or even a few hundred to have a piece properly re-framed is difficult politically and monetarily.

Townsend said WSU has also gained a source of advice from the staff at the Minnesota Marine Art Museum in Winona, particularly MMAM Executive Director Andrew Maus. Maus has been advising the university on how to maintain the collection in a fiscally responsible way.

Maus’ first piece of advice was to create a dedicated art storage facility, so the pieces not on display were moved from the library basement where they were kept for decades to what used to be the map storage room for WSU’s geography department.

“It’s good to see Winona State taking a very proactive role in the collection,” said Maus.

Anyone with information about the stolen painting should contact the Winona police at 507-457-6368 or Winona State Security at 507-457-5555 .

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