AT least £250,000 worth of rare religious artefacts and antiquities are to be re-united with rightful owners in one of the biggest police investigations ever undertaken in the county.

Herefordshire detectives are leading a nationwide operation against thieves that prey on churches across the country to serve a highly-specialised black market trade.

So far, Operation Icarus has seized centuries-old stonework, friezes, statues, paintings, brasses, misericords, stained glass and bibles worth an estimated £250,000 – but which are priceless to the churches that have lost them.

This week, St Cuthbert’s, Holme Lacy, church had its misericords back.

Church volunteer Mary Szuster said she thought she would never see the 16th Century items again.

“It devastates me when people pinch things for money and greed,” she added.

St David’s, Much Dewchurch, was another church to see items – in their case Saxon stonework – returned.

Other county churches linked to Icarus are Foy, Dore Abbey, Grosmont, and Castle Frome.

But the on-going repatriation work is taking county detectives across the country – and sometimes to churches unaware that treasures have gone until told.

Icarus had its start with a raid by specialist detectives from the Metropolitan Police art and antiques unit at a South London address in January where suspected stolen itemswere seized.

Further work established a link strong enough for Herefordshire detectives to take a lead co-ordinating on the investigation and subsequent seizures.

Now, the emphasis of Icarus has shifted to tracing artefacts seized back to the churches they were stolen from.

Detective Sergeant Andy Bennett, of Herefordshire CID, said that, at present, the spate of thefts can be dated back to 2011.

But he believes there may be many other cases where churches simply don’t know treasures have been stolen – a belief backed up by anecdotal evidence from the investigation so far.

“We’re dealing with artefacts that may be one or two of a kind. You can put a price on them, but to individual churches they are priceless,” he said.

A Icarus progresses, more of a nationwide black market, highly specialised on both sides, is being revealed.

For all the sophistication of that market, the thefts themselves are relatively simple with items, in many cases, simply being prised from their mountings having been identified for a buyer.

“As churches tend to stay open, we’re not dealing with burglary, this is theft and on a highly-specialised scale,” said DS Bennett.