Two metal detector enthusiasts who tried to arrange the clandestine sale of rare Anglo-Saxon coins, considered of national significance, were today jailed for 62 months each.

The judge sentencing both said Craig Best, from Bishop Auckland, and co-accused Roger Pilling, from Lancashire, were convicted on the basis of, "abundant evidence against them".

Judge James Adkin told them had they succeeded in the black market sale: "Then, the effect would have been to significantly dilute the nation's historical heritage."

Best and Pilling hoped to make hundreds of thousands of pounds from the sale of up to 44 9th Century-minted coins, which should have been declared to the authorities as national “treasure”.

Read more: Bishop Auckland man and co-accused facing lengthy prison sentences

They were caught after “front man” Best attended a pre-arranged meeting at Durham’s Royal County Hotel, with what he believed to be an expert, acting on behalf of a potential American buyer, to have a sample of three of the coins authenticated, in May 2019.

It was, in reality, an undercover operation staged by officers from Durham Police, supported by the North East Regional Organised Crime Unit (NEROCU).

Midway through the “meeting” police, other than the undercover officers, attended, seized the coins and arrested Best.

Almost simultaneously, police in Lancashire attended at Pilling’s home in the Rossendale area and recovered the other 41 coins.

Pilling, described by Judge Adkin as, "the brains" behind the sale bid, was later arrested on his return home.

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 other finds in the recent past, would have known the coins in Pilling’s possession should have been reported to the authorities, as “treasure”.

But both 46-year-old Best, of South View, Bishop Auckland, and his 75-year-old co-accused, of Loveclough, Rossendale, claimed they were unaware they constituted “treasure” and stated they were not trying to sell them, but only seeking to have them authenticated.

Following the jury’s guilty verdicts, returned last Thursday (April 27), on a majority 10 - 2 to the conspiracy, and unanimous 12 - 0 to the separate possession counts, both were remanded in custody.

They were told by Judge James Adkin they should expect to receive prison sentences measuring, “in a matter of years.”

Matthew Donkin, prosecuting, told today’s (Thursday May 4) sentencing hearing that the aggravating features of the case were that the coins were from a hoard, and should have been reported, the attempted sale of them was, “off the books” or “on the black market”, and that would have led to them being removed from the UK, and becoming “untraceable”.

Read more: Men facing jail for trying to sell undeclared Anglo-Saxon coins abroad

Both defence counsel, Stephen Garbett, for Best, and Sharon Watson, for Pilling, questioned the level of sophistication of the attempted sale and even the amount of planning, which was said to be littered with gaps when there was no activity.

Each of the defendants were described as hard-working men, with their own businesses, and from loving families, who have been left “devastated” by events in the case.

Imposing the same five-years-and-two-months sentence on each, Judge Adkin said he did not believe Pilling's claim that two further coins from the hoard, including the most valuable, worth an extimated £85,000, were either "lost or damaged".

"It would be an odd co-incidence if that was accidentally lost or damaged."

He said both told lies about the acquisition and their subsequent attempts to arrange a sale.

Judge Adkin said the coins had both "historical and cultural" significance to the nation.

"Had they left this country they would likely have been lost to the nation forever."

Proceeds of crime inquiries will now take place to see what money/assets can be confiscted from the defendants, with a hearing to take place at the court, on December 8.

The judge said he was sure the recovered coins were part of a previous larger hoard which was the subject of a similar case, heard at Worcester Crown Court in 2019.

It resulted in two metal detectorists who unearthed and tried to sell 29 coins from the hoard, found near Leominster, in Herefordshire, in 2015, being jailed for a total of more than 18 years.

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 were said to have been bought by Pilling from a man he told the jury 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-worth of antiquities and other valuables.

The 44 coins, estimated to be worth £766,000, were said to be missing two, including the most valuable, carrying an £85,000 price tag.

Those that were recovered included a 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 between 874 and 879 AD.

All 44 coins recovered 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.

Read next:

Rare coin trial of Bishop Auckland metal detectorist and co-accused

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

Detectorists guilty of stealing £3 million coin hoard

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

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.”