Top News

Atlantic Canada's connection to the world of high-value art theft

The giant, gold coin stolen from a Berlin museum this week is one of five copies of a coin produced by the Royal Canadian Mint in 2007.
The giant, gold coin stolen from a Berlin museum this week is one of five copies of a coin produced by the Royal Canadian Mint in 2007.

When a manhole cover-size gold coin was swiped from Berlin’s Bode Museum this week, it was nowhere near the largest or most dramatic theft from a museum.

Paul Tillman.

The 100-kilograms of gold the coin is made of is worth about $4.5 million U.S., according to the Canadian Press.
(Don’t worry – the Canadian Mint still has the original; the coin on display is one of five copies of its “Big Maple Leaf” coin made in 2007.)
Massive 'Big Maple Leaf' gold coin worth millions stolen from German museum
Who steals from museums?

Some Nova Scotia residents discovered the answer is the guy next door after one of the largest recoveries of stolen art and antiquities took place right here in Atlantic Canada.
It was a 2012 traffic stop near Halifax that put an end to decades of thievery by John Mark Tillmann when a cop spotted something odd in the man's car: a 1758 letter from British general James Wolfe, of Battle of Quebec fame.
After a tip from Tillman’s ex-girlfriend, an RCMP investigation led to the discovery of oodles of antiquities - from a first edition of Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species to a suit of armour to a little saw lifted from a community museum in Murray Harbour, P.E.I.. In the end more than 10,000 items were seized from the man’s Fall River-area home.
“He had everything on display so he could walk through and say, ‘Wow, I remember stealing that’,” Truro resident Const. Darryl Morgan, one of the RCMP officers who worked on the case, told TC Media in 2015. Tillman was released from prison later that year, but he was ordered to stay away from museums and antique shops, as well as his old neighbourhood.
Criminal education: Police officer shares story of Atlantic Canada’s largest antiques bust

Paul Whiting.

Tillman lived among many of his prizes. A smaller scale thief who was nabbed last fall for stealing art and books from a number of U.K. locations, including an auction house., stowed his under the sink.  According to the Metropolitan Police, 71-year-old Paul Whiting is currently serving jail time and officers in the force’s arts and antiques unit are trying to track down the owners of three pieces of stolen art, including a bronze bust.
Man jailed for art thefts
What was the biggest art heist?
Twenty-seven years ago this month, the infamous Gardner collection heist took place in Boston, MA. At the time, the Boston Globe described the $200 million US theft as “the biggest art theft since the 1911 robbery of the ‘Mona Lisa.’” In 2015, the FBI said the artworks’ value is upwards of $500 million.
“In the early morning hours of March 18, 1990, a pair of thieves disguised as Boston police officers entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and roamed the Museum’s galleries, stealing thirteen works of art,” the museum’s website explains. The entire operation took just 81 minutes and took a selection of works including paintings by Rembrandt and Degas and the finial from a Napoleonic silk flag.

This finial was stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston 27 years ago.

Explore the story in a multimedia feature on the museum’s website  here.
If you happen to solve the mystery of the Gardner theft, the museum is offering a $5 million US reward for information leading to the items’ recovery in good condition.
For information leading to recovery of just the Napoleonic finial, the museum is offering $100,000 reward.

The FBI is still investigating. In 2015 it released video footage from the night before the crime. Who’s that speaking to the guard? If you know, contact the FBI.
Want to learn more about the 1990 theft at the Gardner Museum?

Six theories behind stolen Gardner Museum paintings 

Just one of the stolen pieces of art listed in the FBI database.

What gets stolen?
Tillman’s cache contained a diverse collection of lifted items.
What else is a desirable target for thieves?  Anything from a famous oil painting to Tibetan exorcism kit, to a caricature of Barbra Streisand to an 18th Century canon, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s  The National Stolen Art File (NSAF)  
(Did you know the FBI has a rapid deployment Art Crime Team? It was founded after the looting of the National Museum of Iraq in 2003 when more than 15,000 items were taken from the Baghdad institution. The museum reopened in 2015.)

Books, too?
Books, too. One of the largest thefts of rare books took place just this winter. According to the Daily Mail,  $3.2 million worth of antique books were taken in one go when thieves broke through a skylight and rappelled into a warehouse near the Heathrow Airport.
A rare copy of Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium and more than 160 other titles were swiped, the Mail reports, including works by Galileo, Newton, da Vinci and Dante.
“Quite honestly I have never heard of a heist like this involving books – it is extraordinary,” Brian Lake, of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association, told the Daily Mail.  ‘Nothing like this has hit the rare books trade before.”  The thieves were selective, according to media reports, suggesting they had a list of titles in mind before browsing.
‘Mission Impossible’ raiders’ £2million heist in the Great Book Robbery

Thieves who targetted a shipment of rare books in the U.K. this winter seemed to know what they wanted, including a rare Copernicus.


How are items recovered?
If police don’t stumble across a hoard like in the Tillman case, stolen treasures are most likely to be recovered when someone tries to sell a hot item.  For example, two documents lifted sometime between 1965 and 2006 from Girard College in Philadelphia came into the possession of a rare book dealer in Maine, when the FBI art team got involved.
The college’s namesake, Stephen Girard,  “was once the wealthiest man in America,” CBS Philadelphia reported last month. Papers written by Girard’s assistant in the early 1800s were reunited with the collection in February.
“When institutions suffer a theft like this the theft of the object usually becomes part of the life story of that object,” FBI Special Agent Tim Carpenter told the station’s Eyewitness News program.
FBI Recovers Rare, Local History Stolen From Girard College

Want to learn more about the world of art crime?
Canadian journalist Simon Houpt documented the phenomena in the 2006 book Museum of the Missing: A History of Art Theft.

Recent Stories