On January 25, 2013 the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Halifax Region (RCMP) posted an article on their website seeking help from the public to identify a number of items that were seized from a residential home in Fall River, Nova Scotia.
Also in January, in an interview with Michael Moosberger, Manager at the Archives and Special Collections at Dalhousie University Library and accompanying article, CTV News reported that the items were seized after RCMP Officers had stopped John Mark Tillman, in order to ensure that he was “complying with court-imposed conditions” stemming from a previous unrelated incident. It was this stop that led to the discovery of a rare letter, dating back to 1758, written by the British General James Peter Wolfe (1727-1759). The letter, addressed to Wolfe’s uncle, is dated just days before the siege of Louisbourg and describes plans for this important military offensive.
After discovering the Wolfe letter, police then searched Tillman’s house in Fall River, where, as described by reporter Kayla Hounsell, they discovered over a thousand historically important and valuable items including “rare books, documents, paintings and antiques” which had been stolen from various institutions including “libraries, museums and personal collections.” The estimated value of the stolen items at that time was about $1 million.
In the interview, Moosberger confirmed that Tillman spent much of his time in the Archives of the University (as well as at other institutions), posing as a researcher. He was well known to many, including Moosberger himself.
In March 2013, CBC News reported that another individual had been arrested in the Tillman case. What led police to the second man was a stolen letter written by the first President of the United States, George Washington, dating prior to the American revolution. It was confirmed that this letter, like the one written by General Wolfe, also came from the Archives collection at Dalhousie University.
So far, pursuant to the Canadian Criminal Code RSC 1985, c C-46, Tillman has been charged with numerous counts including possession of stolen property, theft and trafficking in stolen property.
Theft is defined in section 322(1) of the Code and its punishment determined based on whether or not the amount stolen exceeds five thousand dollars pursuant to section 334. If the theft is over five thousand dollars, the penalty is a maximum of ten years imprisonment, while the penalty for theft under five thousand dollars is either a maximum of two years imprisonment based on subparagraph 334(b)(i) or (ii) a summary conviction. The same sanctions apply to those convicted for the section 354 offence, namely, possession of property obtained by a crime based on section 355 of the Code. In the case of trafficking property obtained by crime (sections 355.2 and 355.4), the maximum imprisonment for subject value exceeding five thousand dollars is fourteen years based on paragraph 355.5(a), and a maximum of five years or summary conviction based on subparagraphs 355.5(b)(i) and (ii) respectively, if the value is under five thousand dollars.
Unfortunately, Tillman’s case is not unique. Canada has become infamous for being a “dumping ground” for the international black market of stolen art and cultural heritage.
In 2011, Joshua Knelman, journalist and author of Hot Art: Chasing Thieves and Detectives through the Secret World of Stolen Art wrote an article for the Globe and Mail that highlighted the evolution of the only art theft investigation unit in Canada, located in Quebec. In the article, Knelman estimated that in Quebec alone, the “crimes related to the black market are worth about $20-million annually;” and interestingly, “statistics” were not available for the other provinces. Further, he reported that between the years of 2004-2007, the Quebec unit (comprising of three investigators at the time that the book was written) opened 300 new cases.
Art theft is not what most of us fantasize it to be, à la Thomas Crown Affair, as per an interview with Knelman. Rather, there is dense criminal activity related to art theft including organized crime groups – such as the Hells Angels biker gang – using art as a “criminal currency” and for the purpose of money laundering.
Knelman noted that the largest art theft in Canadian history remains the 1972 museum heist in Montreal at the La Musée Des Beaux Arts. That incident saw the disappearance of eighteen paintings, taken by three masked individuals. That taking resulted in a roughly $2 million loss; seventeen of the paintings remain missing. One of the stolen works entitled Landscape with Cottages, was painted by Rembrandt Harmensz Van Rijn (1606-1669), and valued at one million at the time of the theft. It estimated to be worth over twenty times that amount today.
In the past few years, there have been several high profile art thefts across the country including the taking of three works from an art gallery in Toronto’s Yorkville neighborhood in 2012, painted by the Group of Seven artists Frank Johnston (1888-1949) and Arthur Lismer (1885-1969) and Montreal artist Sylvia Lefkovitz (1924-1987). This incident follows a 2011 theft of eleven paintings from a Toronto area gallery (five of them painted by Group of Seven artists).
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In April 2013, CBC News confirmed that Tillman was denied bail and would have to remain in jail until his trial. Further, they reported that the total number of recovered artifacts had reached about 3,000 and that Tillman had already been charged with forty offences. The Crown Prosecutor in the case mentioned that it would be “likely that additional charges will be laid in the future” based on ongoing investigations.
Canadian Criminal Code RSC 1985, c C-46; Dan Phelan, “1972: Art heist at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts” CBC Digital Archives (4 September 1972), http://www.cbc.ca/archives/categories/arts-entertainment/visual-arts/visual-arts-general/art-heist-at-the-montreal-museum-of-fine-arts.html; Police Seek Public Help in Identifying Stolen Items, Halifax Regional Municipality, N.S. (25 January 2013) Royal Canadian Mounted Police, http://www.rcmp-grc.gc.ca/ns/news-nouvelles/releases-communiques/13-01-25-112503-eng.htm; Kayla Hounsell & Rick Grant “Police Recover Artifacts Stolen from N.S. archives, Province House” CTV News (22 January, 2013), http://atlantic.ctvnews.ca/police-recover-artifacts-stolen-from-n-s-archives-province-house-1.1125074; “Stolen George Washington Letter Leads to Halifax Arrest” CBC News (4 March 2013), http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/story/2013/03/04/ns-stolen-artifacts-second-arrest.html; Joshua Knelman, “Police Cracking Down on a Hotbed of Hot Art in Quebec” Globe and Mail (20 September 2011), http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/police-cracking-down-on-a-hotbed-of-hot-art-in-quebec/article594976/?page=all; Anna Maria Tremonti, “The World of Stolen Art” (23 September 2011) CBC The Current, http://www.cbc.ca/thecurrent/episode/2011/09/23/the-world-of-stolen-art/; Jacques Gallant, “Group of Seven Paintings Stolen from Yorkville Art Gallery” Toronto Star (31 August 2012) http://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2012/08/31/group_of_seven_paintings_stolen_from_yorkville_art_gallery.html; “Man Denied Bail in Stolen Artifacts Case” CBC News (11 April 2013) http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/story/2013/04/11/ns-tillman-denied-bail.html; Greg Quill, “Canada Dumping Ground for Stolen Art” Toronto Star (26 March 2010), http://www.thestar.com/entertainment/2010/03/26/canada_dumping_ground_for_stolen_art.html; McMichael Canadian Art Collection, The Collection – The Group of Seven http://www.mcmichael.com/collection/seven/; Galit Rodan, “Group of Seven Paintings Nabbed in Toronto Art Gallery Heist” Toronto Star (11 July 2011) http://www.thestar.com/news/crime/2011/07/11/group_of_seven_paintings_nabbed_in_toronto_art_gallery_heist.html; Douglas & McIntyre “Joshua Knelman” http://www.dmpibooks.com/author/joshua-knelman; Sylvia Lefkovitz http://sylvialefkovitz.com/index.php.