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Antigonish Heritage Museum ties to Tillman

Antigonish Heritage Museum curator Jocelyn Gillis leafs through one of the pieces that came from a collection of unclaimed items disbursed a few years ago found in the home of John Mark Tillman. The infamous Nova Scotia-based art and artifact thief, who served several years for his crimes, died late last year. He was 57. Corey LeBlanc
Antigonish Heritage Museum curator Jocelyn Gillis leafs through one of the pieces that came from a collection of unclaimed items disbursed a few years ago found in the home of John Mark Tillman. The infamous Nova Scotia-based art and artifact thief, who served several years for his crimes, died late last year. He was 57. Corey LeBlanc - Corey LeBlanc

There are countless footnotes to the infamous story of John Mark Tillman, including a connection to the Highland Heart of Nova Scotia.    

A couple of pieces from the unclaimed portion of the convicted art thief’s collection found a home at the Antigonish Heritage Museum a couple years ago.    

“We never lost anything to him,” curator Jocelyn Gillis noted, as she leafed through a book of provincial statutes from the 1820s.    

That’s one of the items that came from the bounty uncovered at the home of Tillman – who returned to the headlines in recent weeks with news of his death – which now occupies a place on a shelf in the former railway station.    

“When they seized the booty, the RCMP put out a notice to all community museums,” Gillis said, recalling the request for assistance with identifying items at the time of his arrest.    

As for items that were unclaimed, they were later part of a giveaway at a Dartmouth storage facility, one that Gillis and a museum board decided to attend.    

“It sounded pretty intriguing so we decided to go have a look,” she remembered.    

Although they thought it was “perfect timing,” when they arrived just in time for the 10 a.m. event after what was a wintry drive, Gillis said things must have gotten underway early because  much had been cleared out.    

“They had armfuls,” she added of the many people they saw heading to their vehicles.    

The myriad items – both leaving the giveaway with their new owners or still on shelves, when they arrived – included everything from dishes to candlesticks.    

“There was a beautiful mortar and pestle – I just loved it – something you would, typically, see from that generation,” Gillis said, remembering one piece she would have loved to get for the local heritage museum.    

Along with the aforementioned statutes, they came back with a few other items.    

“We did get a few little items but it was more the adventure and seeing what other people were able to snap up,” she said.    

There is another book, which Gillis described as “more personal” for her, one that chronicles the Springhill mine disaster in 1891, which claimed the life of her grand uncle.    

“It is also a nice addition to the collection,” she said, while gesturing to one of the book shelves in the museum, noting the connection to the region for that industry.    

There is also a harness that made that trip back to Antigonish.    

“I thought it could make for something that you could put in a display,” Gillis noted.    

His passing, at the age of 57, was the latest chapter in the Tillman saga, which began with a random RCMP traffic stop in 2012.    

Police found a 1758 letter from General James Wolfe in the vehicle, which they discovered had disappeared from the Dalhousie University archives several years earlier.    

A subsequent search of his Fall River home – one that served as a museum-like setting – uncovered more than 1,300 items that Tillman had pilfered.    

After pleading guilty to 40 charges in 2013, he was sentenced to nine years in jail. He was paroled in 2016.          

“Bold and brazen,” Gillis said, when reflecting on the gall Tillman must have had in carrying out the heists.    

She noted “people will do it.”    

“We have had an item disappear,” Gillis added.    

Over the years, she explained, museums have become “far more security conscious,” noting measures – such as putting glass on cabinets – that have been taken at the Antigonish location.    

Gillis noted there is also a provincial network, where members keep each other informed about thefts.    

“It helps us know what to be on the lookout for. We try to keep one another informed as to what goes on in the community,” Gillis said.

   

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