Back to its origin: First edition ‘On the Origin of Species’ book returned to MSVU library

HALIFAX – It was a milestone moment for RCMP Const. Darryl Morgan as he opened his hard-shell case in the library at Mount Saint Vincent University (MSVU) on Thursday, because inside that case was a very prized possession – a first edition copy of Charles Darwin’s book “On the Origin of Species.”

“This is one of the last pieces that we have left from the Tillman investigation that started almost three years ago,” Const. Morgan said as he unveiled the precious book.

The book was discovered missing from the MSVU library in 2009.

Notorious for stealing valuable collectibles, John Tillman is believed to have stolen it while he attended classes at the university.

“The (library) collection is about 12-thousand volumes,” said Peter Glenister, a former librarian who discovered the book was missing. “And it would certainly be in the top ten of those in terms of rarity and value.”

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Tillman, 51, was arrested on Jan. 18, 2013 after a search of his home in Fall River uncovered more than 1,000 antiques, paintings historical documents, and other artifacts police believe were stolen from universities, libraries and museums.

Tillman stole about 10,000 artifacts, accumulating his own personal museum, before police performing a routine traffic stop noticed a 1750’s letter written by British General James Wolfe, on the seat of Tillman’s car.


Const. Darryl Morgan flips through the pages of a fist edition copy of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” at the MSVU library in Halifax on October 29, 2015. Ross Lord/Global News


Tillman was a skilled manipulator. At times he wore disguises, even using his mother to distract shop owners while sneaking away with valuable goods.

Const. Morgan calls him a “Kleptomaniac with taste.”

Tillman is now serving a 9-year prison sentence. But while pilfering throughout Atlantic Canada for 35 years, he’s instilled a sense of paranoia in the normally-quaint antique industry.

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READ MORE: Halifax court sentences Tillman to 9 years for artifact thefts


His misdeeds forced MSVU and other university libraries, legislatures, and, antique shops to install security cameras.

Const. Morgan has returned most items to their rightful owners, with the belated assistance of Tillman.

One family from P.E.I., whose shop had been victimized by Tillman, became emotional when Const. Morgan called to tell them he had tracked down their beloved antiques.

“When we made contact with them to tell them we had recovered these pieces, they actually broke down crying,” he said.

In what he jokingly calls “The RCMP Antique’s Road Show,” Const. Morgan received the Darwin book two weeks ago from Homeland Security in New York.

Tillman had sold it to a Halifax collector who in turn brought it to Sotheby’s – a fine art broker.

“We made contact with Sotheby’s. We ended up having Homeland Security go and seize the book for us. It had been sold, so Sotheby’s retrieved it from the purchaser,” Const. Morgan said.

“Two weeks ago today, we attended a ceremony in New York City, at the Canadian Consulate, at which time we signed for possession of the book and we brought it back to Canada.”

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The first edition book is worth up to a quarter-million dollars, although this one fetched less on the auction market because Tillman cut out the page that had the identifying stamp.

Those who want to view the “On the Origin of Species” book can do so within library confines and under close supervision.

Otherwise, it will be tucked away with other, lesser known works, under lock and key.


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