Monthly Archives: July 2022

a thief, not a donor

[This post is reprinted from a now-defunct blog in May of 2013.]

It’s not often that library work involves crime of any kind, but this week we had a research question with a crime-related answer. I’ve changed the name of the perpetrator to protect his privacy.

First, the back story: from approximately 1903-1977, Colorado College had a small museum in Palmer Hall (now our social sciences building). Its collections included fossils, pottery, stuffed animals, and more. When the museum closed, the materials were dispersed to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and elsewhere. (The blue whale skeleton from the CC Museum, pictured below ca. 1920, now hangs in the Denver Museum.)

Recently, a Denver Museum staff member contacted me with some questions about a name she’d found associated with a box of items from the CC Museum. There were a number of named collections in the CC Museum, including the Lang-Bixby Collection, the Corwin Collection, and others. But this name — let’s say it was Dontrustim — was one I hadn’t heard before.

We checked through our files on the history of the museum and discovered that Dontrustim was indeed associated with certain materials from the CC Museum. Why? Because he stole them, creating the short-lived “Dontrustim Collection.” 

James M. Dontrustim majored in art history and graduated from Colorado College in 1970. He was an honors student and won a prestigious fellowship as a senior. He worked with rare books and manuscripts at the CC library and also as a part-time guard at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, the local art museum.

In 1972, he was charged with stealing more than $10,000 worth of art objects from the Fine Arts Center and the CC library. Most of the Fine Arts Center items were there on long-term loan from CC. Dontrustim pleaded guilty, saying he had no intention of selling the objects: according to an article in the Colorado Springs Sun on May 16, 1972, he intended to study the objects, catalog them, and use them “to beautify his apartment.”

It took us a while to figure out this mystery, because our file on the CC Museum is thick and the top sheet of stapled pages on Dontrustim misspelled his name slightly as — let’s say — Dontressim. But our excellent student assistant spotted the similarity and found a list of about 100 items Dontrustim stole. Some were small, easy to hide under a sweater: a Babylonian clay tablet, a carved stone scarab. Others would have been more difficult to smuggle out of the museum: a prehistoric Anasazi ladle, a pair of Plains Indians leggings, a double-headed steel spear.

How did he do it? How did he get caught? Did he feel bad about it later? These are mysteries we’ll never solve. But we can tell our Denver Museum researcher not to call Dontrustim a “donor.” The items in the Dontrustim Collection may have been in James M. Dontrustim’s possession for a brief while, but he didn’t donate them; rather, the police recovered them from Dontrustim’s apartment after his arrest and returned them to the museum.