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Stolen first-edition Darwin classic returns home to MSVU

On the Origin of Species one of several valuable books taken from Mount Saint Vincent University’s library years ago.

On the Origin of Species is back in its rightful place at Mount Saint Vincent University. Photo: Ainsley Cummingham.
On the Origin of Species is back in its rightful place at Mount Saint Vincent University. Photo: Ainsley Cunningham.

Who better than a librarian to imagine a plot for a book that would feature a stolen first edition of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species as its protagonist? The thought crossed Tanja Harrison’s mind after she witnessed the surprising return, in October, of the prized 1859 book to the Mount Saint Vincent University library where she works. “Just imagine what it has seen,” says Ms. Harrison, who found herself caught up in the book’s adventures since it was swiped from the shelves by a former student and serial antique thief who reportedly flew under the radar for more than 20 years.

The latest escapade for the book began in the spring of 2009 when the librarians at MSVU first noticed it was missing from a locked glass cabinet when inventory was undertaken of its rare and special collection. They contacted the police but it wasn’t until 2013 that they learned of the arrest of John Tillmann, one of the most daring antique thieves in Canada’s history. He is currently serving a nine-year prison sentence. (University Affairs wrote about the arrest of Mr. Tillmann in 2013.)

Mr. Tillman had thousands of artifacts stashed in his home from all across the Maritimes, including some books from MSVU that had gone missing at the same time as the Darwin book. A search through Mr. Tillman’s records led police to discover that the book had been sold in the United States. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security tracked down the book after its sale at auction. The transfer process between the U.S. and Canada took another two years and concluded with an RCMP officer travelling to the Canadian Embassy in New York to pick up the book in 2015.

The treasured Darwin, valued between $30,000 and $50,000, was the last of the stolen books to be returned to the library, says Ms. Harrison. “We’re really happy to have it back.”

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