Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Perverting the historical record

Archives and museum security experts frequently emphasize that the motivations of thieves are varied. Some seek revenge against institutions that, in their view, have done them wrong. Some are convinced that they're rescuing records or artifacts from repositories that aren't providing proper care. Some have a covetous love of history. Some view theft as an easy way to make money. Some do it for the sheer thrill of it. And, of course, some are driven by multiple compulsions.

Case in point: John Mark Tillman, a Nova Scotian who devoted at least fifteen years of his life to stealing manuscripts, paintings, and objects from cultural heritage institutions and antique dealers in Atlantic Canada and, briefly, Russia. His criminal career came to a halt in July 2012, when a police officer who pulled over Tillman's car discovered that Tillman had a 1758 letter written by General James Wolfe and a check for $1500 in his possession. At roughly the same time the authorities determined that the letter had been stolen from Dalhousie University's Killam Library, Tillman's girlfriend accused him of assaulting her and holding her against her will and told the police that, by his own admission, his house was full of stolen materials. A search of Tillman's Halifax-area home yielded 7,000 items that had likely been purloined.

In September 2013, Tillman was sentenced to nine years in prison. He received leniency because he promised that he would help the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) return the items he stole to their rightful owners, and he has been talking. A lot. He's talked about his desire to be connected to historically significant people and events, about the thrill of thievery, about using his now-deceased mother and former girlfriends as knowing decoys, about his aversion to anything resembling a regular job, and about the luxurious lifestyle made possible by his thefts.

He's also told the RMCP officers assigned to his case about how he stole the Wolfe letter. Tillman befriended the former chief archivist of Dalhousie University (which tightened its security procedures in advance of Tillman's capture) and in 1998 surreptitiously obtained and then duplicated the key that secured the archives vault. Tillman and his then-girlfriend, a Russian woman known only as Katya, entered the library, hid out in a restroom until after the nighttime security guard left the building, and then accessed the vault. They found the Wolfe letter and a letter penned by George Washington, and, in Tillman's words, they "became so exuberant" that they, um, celebrated "right in the middle of all these papers and stuff strewn around."

Two thoughts:
  • Dalhousie University colleagues, you have my deepest sympathies. Discovering that a thief has raided one's collections is always painful, and discovering that the thief has violated all kinds of other boundaries must be horrifying and infuriating.
  • If you're ever tempted to make a special accommodation for a friendly and frequent researcher, leave your desk without taking your keys with you, or rush out without checking the restrooms and storage closets before locking up for the night, just remember that there are other John Mark Tillmans out there.

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