Infamous Nova Scotia art thief dies, shrouded in mystery
One of Canada’s most infamous art and antiquities thieves has died, and his death -- much like his life -- remains shrouded in mystery.
In a quiet churchyard in a rural area of the Halifax Regional Municipality lies a peaceful cemetery. Near the back, not far from the surrounding orchards and pasture, lies a relatively new grave, laid down just before the new year.
The stone, while not overly elaborate, speaks volumes about the man who now lies there -- a man most of Canada came to know about six years ago.
John Mark Tillmann made headlines around the world when a routine traffic stop in July 2012 led police to a treasure trove of stolen artifacts tucked away in his Fall River, N.S., home.
It turned out Tillmann had made a career of stealing, wheeling, and dealing thousands of items lifted from museums, galleries, universities and private homes.
Nothing was off limits. He took paintings, pictures, and even letters written by George Washington and Gen. James Wolfe.
In 2013, Tillmann pleaded guilty to possession of stolen property, along with numerous other charges, and was sentenced to nine years in prison.
“I have great support and friends that have been with me since the beginning,” Tillmann said in an interview with CTV News in 2016, just after he had been granted full parole.
Tillmann said he was addicted to the rush of stealing and the benefits that came with it.
“When someone buys something, it's much like a drug in that type of business, because they get hooked on it, and they want new things constantly,” said Tillmann.
“I was hooked, too. Yeah, to be honest, I was hooked, too. I loved the stuff, and I loved the lifestyle that the stuff brought me as well.”
But Tillmann remained a mysterious figure who was deeply suspicious of others.
In a rambling, seven-page letter to his son in 2007, filed as evidence in Nova Scotia Supreme Court, Tillmann urged the young man to keep strangers out of the house.
“After my death, nobody at all, other than yourself, should have access to, or be alone in my former residence,” he wrote. “This is how things go missing after the death of someone.”
Tillmann also left specific instructions on his funeral, insisting it be private.
“At my burial, it is my wish to have again, only immediate family members, including a spouse if applicable,” he wrote.
Rumours of his demise have circulated for weeks. Family and close associates would only confirm they had heard the stories, too.
Tillmann's death certificate, registered now with the Vital Statistics Division of Service Nova Scotia, says he died in Musquodoboit Harbour, N.S., just two days before Christmas.
His cause of death is not revealed.
None of this surprises Const. Hector Lloyd, who was the RCMP’s lead investigator who helped put Tillmann behind bars.
“He’s probably the most interesting person that I’ve had the occasion to investigate in my career so far,” said Lloyd, who works for the Edmonton Police Service. “As far as my impression of Tillmann, he was fairly secretive and kept to himself … whatever the narrative behind his passing, that’s for him and his family.”
While he was in prison, Tillmann had an idea.
“I have a book that I took the time while I was in prison to write, and I think that's going to be a pretty good expose, from my perspective of what transpired,” he said in 2016.
And so it might have been.
Originally slated for release next month, Nimbus Publishing pulled the plug.
“The Tillmann book was cancelled last fall. There was no dispute over proceeds; they were always to go to charity. We weren't the right publisher for Tillmann and that is why we cancelled the book,” Nimbus Publishing general manager Terrilee Bulger wrote in an e-mail.
That may have had something to do with Tillmann’s political views, described by some as anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi, and white-supremacist. He made no apologies for any of it. In fact, his headstone proudly declares “his ancestors came from Nordic Europe.”
When asked in 2016 if he would do it again, Tillmann said “no.”
“It's not worth it in the end,” he said. “I've had a great experience, I've had some great memories that I'll take to my grave. I've lived well. I've been in beautiful spots. I've held history in my hands -- priceless objects. I have great memories, and I can live in those now. I don't need to go back out and do anything like that again.”
And so, the final chapter in the saga of John Mark Tillmann played out much like the rest of his life -- shrouded in mystery -- and the man, whose infamous legacy was riddled with secrets, is now laid to rest in a quiet churchyard.
With files from CTV Atlantic’s Bruce Frisko.