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Two men guilty of conspiring to sell history-changing Anglo-Saxon coins

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A jury has found two men guilty of conspiring to illegally sell a cache of Anglo-Saxon coins that experts say helps transform our understanding of ninth-century English history and Alfred the Great.

Roger Pilling, 75, and Craig Best, 46, were caught in an undercover police operation trying to sell 44 coins which should have been declared as treasure and handed to the crown.

Craig Best (left) and Roger Pilling had denied the charges against them.
Craig Best (left) and Roger Pilling had denied the charges against them. Photograph: Will Walker/North News & Pictures

The monetary value of the coins has been estimated at £766,000, but their historical value is more difficult to quantify.

The judge, James Adkin, told Durham crown court they had “immense historical significance”. Gareth Williams, the curator of early medieval coins at the British Museum, said: “The coins literally enable us to rewrite history.”

The coins were part of a Viking hoard discovered in a farm field in Leominster, Herefordshire, in 2015. Two metal detectorists who discovered the hoard, valued at about £12m, were found guilty of theft after failing to legally declare the findings. They were jailed for 10 and eight years respectively.

Only 29 of around 300 coins in the hoard had been recovered until the emergence of the 44, the subject of the two-week criminal trial in Durham.

A jury heard that Pilling, from Rossendale, Lancashire, was in possession of the coins knowing they should have been declared. Pilling has never disclosed the full identity of the person he acquired them from.

Pilling recruited Best, of Bishop Auckland, County Durham, to try to sell the coins. The court heard how Best contacted a US radiology professor at the University of Michigan, Ronald Bude, who was also a collector and lecturer on coins.

Bude’s first assessment of the coins was that they were fake and he said he was consulting an expert at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

The prosecution said that displeased Best, who sent an email which read: “They are a hoard as you know they are this can cause me problems all you had to do was say you didn’t want them and that was the end of it.”

The court heard Best had also told Bude the coins were so good that he would need to fly over for them. In an email he had said: “These coins are big money I will send you a sim card with them all on if you want. I am looking at £200-250k for all of these that’s how good they are.”

His attempt to sell the coins led to an undercover police operation being set up. Best took three of the coins to a hotel in Durham for a meeting with people he thought were representing a mystery American buyer. Those people were undercover police officers. Best was arrested and a subsequent raid of Pilling’s home recovered a further 41 coins.

Durham constabulary was first alerted to the existence of the coins by the University of Cambridge. In 2019 it launched Operation Fantail to investigate the case, an operation Det Supt Lee Gosling said was unprecedented for the force.

“This is an extremely unusual case,” he said. “It is not very often we get the chance to shape British history. It is astonishing that the history books need rewriting because of this find.”

All 44 coins are now with the British Museum, which has had a chance to study them and concluded that they shine new light on our understanding of late ninth-century politics, Alfred the Great and the history of the formation of England.

Anglo-Saxon coin found in cache.
Photograph: Durham police

Specifically, the coins tell an untold story of the relationship between Alfred, king of Wessex, and Ceolwulf II, king of Mercia, in the late ninth century.

Ceolwulf is barely mentioned in history books, with accounts suggesting he was little more than a puppet for the Vikings. The coins tell a different story, showing how the two rulers stood shoulder to shoulder as allies.

They suggest a need to reappraise the narrative of Alfred the Great, a ruler celebrated as the hero who almost single-handedly saved England from Viking rule.

The crown accused neither Best nor Pilling, who are both keen metal detectorists, of being involved in the discovery of the coins.

During the trial Best claimed Pilling told him that he bought the coins before the Treasure Act 1996 was brought into law.

Pilling and Best had denied a charge of conspiring to sell criminal property. Each man also denied separate charges of possessing criminal property.

On Thursday, the jury found both men guilty of the conspiracy charge by a majority of 10-2. Each man was found guilty of the possession charges by all jurors.

The judge warned both men they faced jail sentences and remanded them in custody until a later date.

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( With inputs from : www.theguardian.com )

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