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Halifax's case of the missing letters, steam engine and suit of armour

The RCMP display some of the hundreds of historical artifacts discovered at a suburban home, in Halifax on Friday, Jan. 25, 2013.


Until three years ago, Ken Bezanson's two Annapolis Valley antique shops were among John Mark Tillmann's favourite haunts.

Whenever Mr. Tillmann visited, he stood out for his sharp clothing and his interest in history, the antique dealer says. "He was cordial … he was sophisticated."

Several years ago, a suit of armour displayed on the second floor of Mr. Bezanson's Upper Canard shop disappeared. It was a beautifully handcrafted replica made for a Canadian/German film about a papal election, The Conclave, which he was selling on consignment for $1,500. All that remained was "one plumage feather."

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That armour reappeared in January, when police made a remarkable discovery inside an otherwise typical suburban Halifax home. For more than 20 years, police allege, Mr. Tillmann has decorated the walls and bookcases of his house with rare books, antiques and historic pieces from all over Atlantic Canada, including a metal steam engine, an old hockey jersey, an antique telephone, a sextant, lantern and even two antique "ship's officers" doors.

Mr. Tillmann, 51, now faces multiple charges connected to the seizure of artifacts and is in jail awaiting a bail hearing on April 5. His son, Kyle Tillmann, 23, also faces charges in connection with the investigation.

Mr. Tillmann's home "looked kind of like a museum inside," RCMP Sergeant Colin MacLean, the lead investigator, told The Globe and Mail.

Mr. Tillmann's lawyer, Brian Smith, said his client makes his living as an "antique picker," going to antique shops trying to make a deal by buying, selling or trading merchandise. He's been at it for nearly 25 years, Mr. Smith said. He does well, he said, noting that his client has a lovely home and drives a BMW and a Mercedes truck.

As for the charges against his client, he said that much is still to be proven. "There's a long road between now and actual guilt. The Crown has quite a burden," the Halifax lawyer said.

The magnitude of the case emerged after a police officer spotted an unusual letter, protected by plastic, during a traffic stop last July. It was written in 1758 by General James Wolfe, the victor at the Plains of Abraham. That sparked the investigation that led to Mr. Tillmann.

It took police six months to obtain a warrant to search Mr. Tillmann's house after they determined the letter was part of the William Inglis Morse Collection from Dalhousie University's archives. Mr. Morse, an author, historian and philanthropist from the Annapolis Valley, donated part of his collection – including the Wolfe letter, and one from George Washington, also recovered by RCMP – to Dalhousie. He died in 1952.

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Dalhousie archivist Michael Moosberger can't pinpoint when the letters went missing. About 2,000 people use Dalhousie's archives every year – and its previously lax procedures were not tightened until 2006. In fact, it wasn't until 2009 that the archives did an inventory and discovered that items were missing – including the letters, worth between $18,000 and $20,000.

Mr. Tillmann had been a familiar face, researching the history of the shipping industry and the Nova Scotia fishery with the archivist's predecessor, Charles Armour, who established the archives and, as such, was "afforded extraordinary access to the collection after his retirement," Mr. Moosberger said.

Mr. Tillmann regularly went to the archives with Mr. Armour, who died in 2010.

Mr. Moosberger explained only someone familiar with the stacks would know where to locate, for example, the Wolfe letter, stuffed away in a box on a shelf.

The RCMP also asked him to look at several folders of documents they had seized. The archivist identified the papers – related to the original Bluenose, the iconic Nova Scotia schooner – as belonging to the university.

A caper such as this, involving vast numbers of artifacts, is not rare.

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"I call them archive hoarders," said Robert Wittman, a 20-year veteran of the FBI, who specialized in art theft and fraud, and now runs his own security company.

These hoarders join historical societies and libraries or become museum members and, over time, figure out what they want, he said. In the United States, he said, 88 per cent of the book, library and museum thefts are inside jobs.

"When we say an inside job, we also mean people who have access to the collections, who are supposed to be there," Mr. Wittman said. "Whether it be a maintenance man, a curator, a librarian, an archivist or even a library member or historical society member, they are insiders and they secret stuff out."

Much of what they take can't be sold because its value is diminished as a result of being stolen. Provenance is as important as the item for collectors.

Five officers continue to work on tracing the items seized from the suburban Halifax home, looking as far as Ontario and the United States.

Just after Mr. Tillmann's arrest, Mr. Moosberger received a call from a Haligonian who had a soldier's 1917 diary, which he bought from a middle-aged man for $100 after he saw it advertised in a community newspaper. He wondered if the archives, which has a collection of First World War diaries, was missing one. It was – and the man returned it.

As for Mr. Bezanson, he said Mr. Tillmann would occasionally offer to sell him files of old documents for about $2. He believes the Conclave suit of armour was taken down a flight of stairs, piece by piece, while his assistant was distracted.

"A suit of armour," he said, "only makes noise if somebody is wearing it."

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said a letter written by General James Wolfe was dated 1798. It was written in 1758. This version has been corrected.

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About the Author
Ontario politics reporter

Jane Taber is a reporter at Queen’s Park. After spending three years reporting from the Atlantic, she has returned to Ontario and back to writing about her passion, politics. She spent 25 years covering Parliament Hill for the Ottawa Citizen, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. More

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