In 2006 when John Mark Tillman stopped at the information desk in the Centre for Newfoundland Studies in the Queen Elizabeth II Library, he had a plan. He wore a blue all-weather jacket and he wore a knapsack. He looked like any other student or faculty member on Memorial’s campus. However, most users come to the information desk with a question or an inquiry of some kind. Mr. Tillman, the notorious art thief, came with a specific call number for a rare item that he wanted to see. Interestingly, the item was a musical composition by a composer with the same last name (but with a German spelling), dating back to 1853.
“We sat him at our rare book table which does have closed-circuit television (CCTV) surveillance. He looked at it. He was a very nice smiley person,” said Joan Ritcey, head of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies (CNS). “A few minutes later, he was gone and so was the document. We couldn’t believe it.”
The knapsack allowed him to hide the material. He slipped out of the archives and the library unnoticed. The CCTV footage wasn’t clear enough to provide a clear identification. CNS staff had his name and address which is required to view materials. Staff called Campus Enforcement Patrol who then called in the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary. But Mr. Tillman was an out-of-province resident and the value of the stolen goods was small. The investigation stopped there.
Police would later discover this charm and ability to blend in was part of a calculated persona that allowed Mr. Tillman to take advantage of his victims.
“[Tillman] said he would go into the Legislative Library, for example, dressed as a painter wearing coveralls and a paint brush in his pocket and steal a painting off the wall,” explained Royal Canadian Mounted Police constable and lead investigator on the case Darryl Morgan. “He was writing a book about schemes and stratagems on how to conduct thefts.”
Why steal a sheet of antique music worth $200?
An investigation into Mr. Tillman was launched in the summer of 2012 when a police officer pulled over Mr. Tillman’s vehicle for other reasons and discovered a letter on the seat in his car signed by British General James Wolfe from 1758. It was soon revealed that the letter was stolen from Dalhousie University’s archives.
Police eventually raided Mr. Tillman’s house and ended up finding close to a million dollars worth of paintings, letters, books, manuscripts, antiques and other rare pieces – 10,000 exhibits were taken from his house in Nova Scotia. He had also stolen a first-edition copy of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species stolen from his alma mater Mount Saint Vincent University, which he sold to Sotheby’s Auction House for about $46,000. He had been stealing since the age of two when his grandmother would bring him to local markets to steal. His mother was often his accomplice in robberies.
“This is all a sporting event for him really,” explained Constable Morgan.
So why was Mr. Tillman interested in a musical composition from the Centre for Newfoundland Studies valued at a mere $200?
It all comes down to Mr. Tillman’s narcissism and need for attention.
“The obvious appeal to him was that Tillman likes everything Tillman. So he actually went to the archives in Nova Scotia and PEI and stole everything related to the family history or anything related to the same surname,” explained Constable Morgan. “He had warrants on the walls of his house that were executed for the Tillman family in Halifax for drunk and disorderly conduct back in 1789.”
Mr. Tillman was sentenced in September 2013 to nearly eight years in prison for several crimes, including 34 counts of possession of stolen property. He was released on day parole in 2015.
“This is the last of the pieces we identified,” explained Constable Morgan.
Constable Morgan will be presenting more behind-the-scenes information on the Tillman investigation and officially returning the stolen sheets of music on Monday, April 25, 10-11 a.m. at the Queen Elizabeth II Library, Rm L5017 (LCR5), fifth floor.