'Priceless' watches returned to Royal B.C. Museum after theft

A gold pocket watch — left behind after a legendary B.C. train robber broke out of jail — is among eight stolen watches back in the hands of Royal B.C. Museum curators Thursday after the artifacts were nabbed in plain view by alleged drug addicts.

The 1901 pocket watch belonged to Bill Miner, an American who served three prison terms before moving to B.C. In 1904 he is believed to have staged this province’s first stagecoach robbery, near Vancouver.

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After a foiled payroll train robbery with Shorty Dunn and Louis Colquhoun near Kamloops, Miner was sent to New Westminster’s B.C. penitentiary. Known as the “gentleman robber” and immortalized in the movie The Grey Fox, he escaped in 1907, leaving behind $155 and the pocket watch, which was recovered by police.

The watches are an important part of the story of British Columbia, said museum CEO Jack Lohman.

Thieves swiped eight gold pocket watches on Jan. 3 — a busy Friday when admission was by donation. The theft wasn’t discovered by staff until the next morning. Staff gave a description of two people acting suspiciously the day before.

Security personnel were secretive Thursday about how two thieves, whom police described as experienced but unsophisticated, were able to take eight watches from a locked glass case in the third-floor Old Town exhibit during operating hours.

The museum’s collection of pocket watches totals 106 and are among seven million artifacts held by the museum.

Bill Chimko, head of museum security services, would say only that “dramatic improvements” in security have been made since the heist. The watches will not be back on display for at least another month.

Thefts from the museum are rare, Lohman said. Twenty maps were taken from its archives in 1995 and a prop coat was removed from a diorama in 2009.

The watches, made between 1890 and 1910, are valued at more than $50,000.

But as historic artifacts, they are priceless, Lohman said.

“We are thrilled and delighted and excited to see them back.”

The glass face of Miner’s pocket watch, the most historic of the eight stolen, was broken.

Museum staff praised as “extraordinary” the work of the Victoria police crime reduction unit, led by Sgt. Colin Brown, who said they used “old-fashioned” police work to recover the watches.

The theft was a “crime of opportunity” and the pocket watches were likely sold the same day for drugs, Brown said.

“We believed that the watches were still in Victoria but had likely changed hands several times,” Brown said.

The watches ended up in the hands of two men who tried to pawn them at Old ’N Gold estate jewelry on Fort Street, Brown said. The store owners found the deal suspicious, rejected the offer, and gave police store surveillance video. Using the video and other information, police followed the trail of the watches to a downtown Victoria apartment.

Seven watches were recovered late Wednesday night, Brown said. “We recovered the last watch [Thursday] morning.”

Two suspects were arrested in the 4100 block of Kendall Avenue in Port Alberni by RCMP.

Brian Gerald Holt, 44, of Colwood, is charged with theft over $5,000. A 29-year-old Port Alberni woman, believed to be his accomplice, was released from jail on a promise to appear back in court. Police are recommending the same charge.

charnett@timescolonist.com

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