UNDERCOVER police officers arrested a County Durham man planning to sell highly valuable coins from a historically important Viking hoard to an American collector, a court heard.

Collectors Craig Anthony Best and Roger Pilling deny conspiracy to sell criminal property, namely 9th century Anglo-Saxon minted coins which had not been declared as “treasure” and therefore had not been handed to the Crown, jurors were told.

Durham Crown Court was told an expert believed that the silver coins were part of the Herefordshire Hoard, only some of which were recovered, and that they were “extremely significant for our understanding of the history of the unification of England”.

The Crown does not allege that either of the defendants, who were both interested in metal detecting, made the find themselves.

Jurors heard that Bishop Auckland man Best went by prior arrangement to the Royal County Hotel, in Durham, with a sample of three from a larger collection of the coins, on May 9, 2019.

He was to meet a man called ‘Max’, who claimed to have the expertise to prove the coins were genuine, so the sale could be completed to a buyer in the United States.

The prosecution claims the coins were from a larger collection held by Mr Best’s co-accused in the trial, Roger Pilling, from Rossendale, in Lancashire.

Read more: Experts in old coins will give views over provenance of Viking hoard at Durham trial next April

Matthew Donkin, prosecuting, said Pilling was not in Durham that day, but the Crown claims the defendants were, “acting together and trying to sell the coins for profit,” potentially for a sum of between £200,000 and £250,000.

The arrangements for the meeting were said to have been made between Best and a person named ‘Hugh’, who was supposedly acting as a broker for the sales.

Best was said to be acting on behalf of both himself and his co-accused, Pilling.

Both defendants believed that ‘Hugh’, the broker, and ‘Max’, the expert, were acting on the behalf of a third person, an American named ‘George’, who was said to be the buyer.

But Mr Donkin told the trial jury that all three were, in reality, trained undercover police officers.

During the hotel rendezvous in Durham police officers arrived, interrupted the meeting and Best was arrested, before being led away in handcuffs.

The three coins brought by him, and in the process of “being examined”, were seized by the officers.

Later that day Pilling was arrested at his home in Lancashire and addresses linked to both defendants were searched, with a number of items recovered.

Mr Donkin told the jury: “There can be no question at all that Craig Best attended that meeting as part of the process of arranging a sale to the fictitious American ‘George’, arranged by the fictitious broker ‘Hugh’, and the meeting was for the fictitious expert, ‘Max’, to confirm the legitimacy of the items.

“What Craig Best was offering for sale, however, was more than just the three items that he had with him, and the remainder were largely in the possession of Roger Pilling."

The prosecution alleges there was a “criminal offence” in conspiring, or entering into an agreement, to commit a crime with the intention that the crime would be carried out.

Mr Donkin said: “In this case, it is an allegation that the property being sold was itself criminal property, and therefore any agreement to sell it for cash would amount to conspiring to convert criminal property.

“One important issue for the jury to decide in this case is whether the property, the coins, were, in fact, criminal property or not.”

He said the undeclared coins, with a high silver content, possibly from a find known as, The Watlington Hoard, are ancient and, “extremely valuable”.

They were minted in the 9th Century, during the reign of King Alfred the Great of Wessex.

The coins bear the name of King Alfred and of the ruler of neighbouring Mercia, bearing the name of the “moneyer”, the producer of the coins, along with other markings that allow them to be dated, in some instances with precision down to about a five-year period.

Read more: Some of the recovered coins were seized from a County Durham 'seller'

Mr Donkin said the monetary value of just one of the rarest of the coins is estimated to be in the region of £70,000, and the total value of all of the coins that they were looking to sell is, considered to be hundreds of thousands of pounds.

But he said the historical and cultural value of the items, “cannot be understated.”

He said the defendants each had a long-standing interest in coins and ancient artefacts, having researched them.

“They knew that the coins were valuable and that is why they were lining up a buyer, ‘George’, the fictitious American

“It is the prosecution case that they also knew that what they were doing, in trying to sell the coins, was a crime.

“Best’s correspondence and arrangements made with ‘Hugh’, the fictional broker, demonstrate his understanding that this was a sale to be kept, ‘off the books’.

Mr Donkin said the sale of the coins was a crime because they were, “criminal property”, as they were “treasure” and, so, belonged to the country and should not be kept from the Crown.

He said it was, “an important feature of this case that these valuable and historically significant coins have never been declared or reported by either of these two defendants or by anyone else.”

Mr Donkin said Pilling had been in possession of more than 40 such coins and was content for them to be sold, while Best was making arrangements to sell them.

He said the defendants have a history of searching for and acquiring ancient items, although it will be no part of the prosecution case against them that they discovered the coins themselves.

“But, someone discovered them. They are extremely rare, ancient coins and they have been dug up or unearthed by someone who chose not to declare them and allow for them to be vested in the Crown.”

Both Pilling, 74, of Goodshore Avenue, Loveclough, in Rossendale, and 46-year-old Best, of South View, Bishop Auckland, deny a joint allegation of conspiracy to convert criminal property, in agreeing to sell a quantity of Anglo-Saxon coins, for money.

Both also deny separate counts of possessing criminal property, the coins in their possession when they were arrested.

Pilling accepts possessing the 46 coins attributed to him, 41 on the day of arrest, but he denies knowing that he, “knew, suspected or ought to have known” the coins were criminal property.

Best denies knowing or suspecting the coins were treasure and/or criminal property.

Read next:

County Durham man to stand trial over recovered coin hoard

Durham Police: Two charged after discovery of Viking coins

Pair in court after Durham Police find £1m Viking coins

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But he does accept there was an agreement between him and Pilling that the coins would be sold.

The jury was told they would be hearing from experts in ancient coins, one by live link from Michigan, USA, and another from the British Museum, during the course of the trial, which is expected to last up to four weeks.