Mysterious top hat stolen from national museum turns up in Alberta

A Victorian top hat, stolen from a national museum, has been returned to its rightful place after a series of peculiar events brought the old topper to an antique store in Alberta.

The hat was stolen from a national exhibit in 1975

Clinton Beck, the owner of Beck Antiques & Jewellery in Edmonton, poses with the historic top hat. (CBC)

A Victorian top hat, stolen from a national museum, has been returned to its rightful place after a series of peculiar events brought the old topper to an antique store in Edmonton.

For Clinton Beck, it all started with a tall tale.

The owner of Beck Antiques & Jewellery on Edmonton's 124th Street shopping district was sold the hat more than 13 years ago.

The seller had an unbelievable sales pitch about its origin story. The stranger claimed the hat may have graced the head of Canada's first prime minister.

'People tell us wild tales'

"When the hat came in, it was said to be the hat that belonged to Sir John A. Macdonald," Beck said in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

"And as the person was leaving, the guy said, 'Oh yeah, and it might have been taken from a museum somewhere.' "

Beck wasn't really buying the story. But he did buy the hat.

"People tell us wild tales all the time," said Beck, vice-president of the Wildrose Antique Collectors Society, an organization dedicated to researching antiques and returning artifacts to their rightful owners.

"When people are selling objects in the antiquities business, there are stories put on the objects to embellish the value.

"We hear a million stories about all the antiques that we buy."

Beck tried to find a museum tracking number inscribed on the hat, but found no trace of anything that would link it to any museum.

Nevertheless it was a fine hat. Fashioned of beaver pelt in classic 1850s style, it was certainly a rare collector's item.

It was placed upon a top shelf in his showroom, and there it sat for years, gathering dust.

"It was a beautiful-looking hat but unfortunately old hats are not the hottest sellers in the world." But that tall tale always stuck with Beck. He was at a cocktail party last month when he had heard of a man in Vancouver who had found a hat belonging to the famed prime minister.

It got Beck thinking again about that old topper on his top shelf.

"I thought to myself, that sounds like that the same story that I heard," Beck said.

"And of course, when you hear it from two different sources 10 years apart you think, wait a minute, maybe there is some validity to this story."

The next day, one of his appraisers peeled back the inner ribbon of the hat to find an inscription hidden inside — a museum tracking number.

"We were like, 'Oh my God, this is phenomenal,' " Beck said. "That was the first amazing thing."

'You're not going to believe this'

It was the first proof that the hat did indeed belong in a museum. Beck contacted museums across the country to ask if anyone recognized the tracking number.

Ten days later, Beck got an email from the Canadian Museum of History in Ottawa. The hat is part of the museum's national collection.

"They're like, 'You're not going to believe this. This is our hat, it was stolen in 1975,' " Beck recalled.

"This hat has been on the road for four decades, literally."

An archivist at the museum confirmed the hat was a Victorian-era collector's item, but said there was no evidence that it ever belonged to the famed prime minister.

The hat will be returned to the museum, and its original box, next week.

'A semi national treasure'

Even if the old topper never crowned the head of any famous heads of government, returning a little piece of history to its rightful place is reward enough for Beck.

"It was disappointing, but at least we found a semi national treasure," said Beck with a chuckle.  

"It is being returned next week to the national gallery ... They were quite thrilled to get the hat back."

Though it's unclear how the hat was stolen from its exhibit in the Victoria Building in Ottawa, Beck is guessing it wasn't a mastermind criminal operation.

"Realistically, it was probably a high school student who grabbed it and stuck it in a duffel bag," Beck said.

"No one would have broken in to steal an old hat. It wasn't really a heist."