Two metal detector enthusiasts were today (Thursday April 27) found guilty of attempting to sell on the ‘black market’ rare Anglo-Saxon coins which are considered highly valuable national antiquities.

Following the verdicts in the trial at Durham Crown Court defendants Craig Best, from Bishop Auckland, and co-accused Roger Pilling, from Lancashire, were remanded in custody and were told by Judge James Adkin they should expect to receive prison sentences measuring in, "a matter of years".

The Northern Echo: The three coins defendant Craig Best took to be validated by what he believed to be an expert at

Both had previously been on bail during proceedings in the protracted case and the three-week course of the trial.

They will both be sentenced by Judge Adkin next week, following the respective lawyers’ consideration of the little past sentencing history in such cases.

Read more: No verdict yet in case of alleged would-be rare coin sellers in Durham

Thanking the jury for its efforts in the case, Judge Adkin told them: “There are complications in sentencing.

“There are very few of these cases that have been before the courts before.

“The Worcester case (previous crown court coins conviction) went to the Court of Appeal.

“All the lawyers will have to consider what the correct sentence should be.”

The Northern Echo: Extremely rare 'Two Emperor' coin, recovered in Operation Fantail, which was said to have

Having refused applications by defence counsel to allow the defendants’ continued bail until next week’s sentencing, Judge Adkin told Best and Pilling: “You have both been convicted in what I consider compelling evidence of very serious criminality over these artefacts.

“You are both aware of what the likely sentence will be, imprisonment, and imprisonment in a matter of years.”

Both were charged with conspiracy to convert (sell) criminal property (the coins) and each also faced separate counts of possessing criminal property.

The prosecution said that under the Treasury Act of 1996 both, being familiar with previous coin finds, would have known the 44 9th Century Anglo-Saxon-minted monetary pieces in Pilling’s possession, which Best was trying to arrange a sale for, should be reported to the authorities, as ‘treasure’.

The Northern Echo: Two metal detectorists jailed and coins recovered from Hereford Hoard

But both 46-year-old Best, of South View, Bishop Auckland, and his 75-year-old co-accused, of Rossendale, in Lancashire, claimed they were unaware they constituted ‘treasure’ and claimed they were not trying to sell them, but only to have them authenticated.

Following a trial, lasting three weeks and a day, the jury returned verdicts today after almost five-and-a-half hours’ deliberation.

Both were found guilty of the joint conspiracy on 10-2 majority verdicts, but each was convicted on unanimous 12-0 verdicts of possessing criminal property.

The case arose from a ‘sting’-type operation led by Durham Police and the North East Regional Organised Crime Unit (NEROCU).

It followed from a similar case heard at Worcester Crown Court in 2019, which led to two metal detectorists who unearthed and tried to sell 29 coins from a 9th Century Viking hoard, found in Herefordshire, in 2015, being jailed for a total of more than 18 years.

The Northern Echo: Craig Best, from Bishop Auckland, was arrested at meeting with 'coin expert' at Durham's Royal

Read more: Criminals who stole Herefordshire hoard to pay £1.2 million

Following an appeal, their prison terms were reduced to six and five years, respectively, but both were also recently made subject of a total of £1.2m crime proceeds orders, over other unrecovered and undeclared coins which were believed to have made up the hoard estimated to feature as many as 300 coins.

The coins featuring in the Durham case are believed to have come from the same hoard and were said to have been bought by Pilling, from a man he said was called ‘John’ from ‘down south’, who he met on a rally of metal detectorists, in either 2015 or 2016.

He claimed to have paid for them by exchanging them for about £10,000-woth of antiquities and other valuables.

The 44 in his possession, estimated to be worth £766,000, were recovered after a meeting was arranged with Best and a so-called ‘expert’, acting on behalf of a prospective American buyer, at the Royal County Hotel, in Durham, on May 9, 2019.

The Northern Echo: Coin enthusiast Roger Pilling, who had 44 rare Anglo-Saxon coins in his possession

Unbeknown to Best, those present at the meeting were undercover police officers.

Best took a sample of three of Pilling’s coins to that meeting, including a very rare ‘Two Emperor’ coin, featuring the Anglo-Saxon English kings Alfred the Great, of Wessex, and Ceowulf II, of Mercia.

The two kings were briefly in alliance to defeat the Viking invaders and so experts can pin the coins’ creation down to a few years in the late 870s AD.

An hour into the meeting, it was interrupted by police officers who arrested Best and recovered the three coins he had taken with him to be autheticated.

A virtual simultaneous police raid on the home of Pilling, in Loveclough, Rossendale, led to his arrest and the recovery of the remaining 41 coins.

All 44 are now in the safe keeping of the British Museum.

Speaking after the case, Dr Gareth Williams, curator of Early Medieval Coins and Viking Collections at the British Museum, said: “The coins in this case have already begun to transform our knowledge and understanding of the political situation of the late 9th Century.

“The coins show beyond any possible doubt that there was a political and economic alliance between Alfred and Ceolwulf II.

“Together the two kings carried out a major reform of the coinage, introducing high-quality silver coins, with the Two Emperors design symbolising this alliance, followed by a second joint coinage.

“As more coins emerge, it is clear that this monetary alliance lasted for some years, while an individual coin from the Durham hoard proves that the more symbolic Two Emperors type was the earlier of the two.”

Detective Superintendent Lee Gosling, Senior Investigating Officer for Operation Fantail, as the now successful investigation was known, said: “This is an extremely unusual case, as it’s not very often we get the chance to shape British history.

“It is astonishing that the history books need re-writing because of this find.

“These coins come from a hoard of an immense historical significance relating to the Vikings and we are delighted that they are now with the British Museum.

“This has been a lengthy and complex investigation and I would like to thank the Durham Major Crime Team, specialist officers, historical experts, Crown Prosecution Service and prosecuting counsel in this case for all their help.

“Hopefully this verdict sends out a message that the actions of Best and Pilling were denying the country of crucial historical knowledge and that organised acquisitive crime will not be tolerated.

“As this case shows, even if criminals travel across police force boundaries, they are still very much within reach.”

Gary Fothergill, a Specialist Prosecutor for Crown Prosecution Service, North East, said: “This has been an incredibly unusual case taking prosecutors and investigators back to the time of ancient Britain and Viking hoards. 

“The discovery of these coins has forever shaped the history of Britain.

"Roger Pilling and Craig Best knew the significance of this hoard and rather than report the coins so they can be studied and provide us with more insights into this country’s history, both plotted to sell them for their own selfish gain.

“Today’s conviction was the result of the extensive work by the investigators and the prosecution team to build a strong case which proved Pilling and Best’s criminal activity.

"I extend my thanks to Durham Police and the expert witnesses who helped us see both convicted.”       

Read next:

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

Rare coin 'seller' unaware would-be buyer was undercover cop

Trial of Bishop Auckland man and co-accused in ancient coins case

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Detective Chief Inspector Phil Cleugh, of NEROCU, said: “Not only does the recovery of these coins hold a great significance for our history but it is yet another example of how, with partnership working, we can bring organised criminals before the courts and continue protecting those they’re looking to exploit.

“This outcome demonstrates the resources at our disposal and our ability to take swift action – and our work won’t stop here.”

Both Pilling and Best will now be sentenced at a hearing for which up to two hours has been set aside, next Thursday (May 4).