UPDATED Hundreds of stolen artifacts returned to Dalhousie University, includes paintings, letters

Published on May 2, 2014

HRP Constable Kristen Bradley, left, and RCMP Constable Darryl Morgan unload valuable documents at the Dalhousie Killiam Library on Thursday.

©Jeff Harper - Metro Halifax


RCMP investigators have returned several hundred stolen historical artifacts recovered from the home of a Fall River man to Dalhousie University.

The letters, paintings and other historical bric-a-brac were among 7,000 antiquities that police seized from John Mark Tillman after a traffic stop in July 2012.

“There’s quite a bit of history here, it’s been kind of neat for us,” said RCMP Street Crimes Enforcement Unit Const. Darryl Morgan. “It’s given us an opportunity to catch up on our local history.”

Morgan and Halifax Regional Police Const. Kristen Bradley were on hand for an event at Dalhousie’s Killam Library Thursday when boxes packed with recovered documents more than 100 years old were returned to the Special Collections.

Among them were letters written by George Washington and Gen. James Wolfe, each valued at several thousands of dollars.

It was the Wolfe letter, sitting on the passenger seat of Tillman’s car, that originally caught Bradley’s attention and led to the discovery of the massive, ill-begotten treasure trove.

“Just because it was written in calligraphy on this type of paper and dated 1758, to me it said there’s something not right here,” he said.

Tillman pleaded guilty to several charges in September 2013 and was sentenced to nine years in prison. He’s helped police since then to reunite the artifacts with museums, archives and antique dealers across Atlantic Canada.

He’s also shared some of the tactics he used to pilfer everything from books to suits of armour and heavy paintings, like the Audobon Society print returned to Dalhousie’s biology department on Thursday.

Read about an antique dealer in Port Williams, Kings County, who had items taken by Tillman.

“He dressed up in a pair of painter’s coveralls with a paintbrush hanging out of his pocket, walked in, picked this off a wall, and walked out of the building,” said Morgan.

Tillman defaced many of the documents and books he stole in order to remove identifying stamps and conceal their origin from buyers.

Dalhousie spokesperson Brian Leadbetter said security protocols have been changed to bar public access to the Special Collections – but the Wolfe and Washington letters will be digitized and made available online.

“It’s certainly valuable for us to have those items recovered and returned through law enforcement so we can share and make them available to broader audiences both in the near future and for future generations,” he said.

RCMP still hoping more theft victims come forward

Police say media coverage of the John Tillman case in the last few days has prompted more potential victims to come forward.

“This has been spanning a year and a half now and we still get calls from people saying I’ve been meaning to call, or I wanted to call – now they’re calling,” said RCMP Const. Darryl Morgan.

Morgan said in some cases, verification of claims is easy because of an existing report of a stolen item.

Others may take a little more time.

“We have to investigate that what they’re claiming to have lost is a valid claim and not somebody looking to pick up something from this case,” he said.

Some of the pieces Tillman sold may never be recovered. Morgan said he’s claimed to have sold pieces to collectors as far away as Russia and as long ago as the early 1980s.

But so far, Morgan said Tillman has been truthful and accurate about the origins of the antiquities he held on to.

“He admired this stuff, wandered around his house and looked at it, and probably cherished it – more so than most people would,” he said.