Undercover officers carried out a sting operation to stop a historically important Viking hoard of coins worth £766,000 being sold to an American buyer, a court heard.

Collectors Craig 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.


It was believed the coins were made between 874 and 879 and were buried by a Viking during this particularly violent period of English history.

They included two extremely rare examples of two-headed coins, showing Alfred of Wessex and Ceolwulf, a figure who was discredited by Saxon writers as a Viking puppet ruler.

Best, 46, from South View, Bishop Auckland, County Durham, and Pilling, 74, from Loveclough, Lancashire, also deny individual charges of possessing criminal property – the same coins.

Best had taken three coins to a meeting at a hotel – including one of the exceptionally rare Alfred and Ceolwulf examples which itself was worth £70,000 – with undercover officers he thought were part of a team brokering a deal with a US-based buyer.

Uniformed officers then swooped in to arrest him and handcuff him in the Royal County Hotel, Durham, Matthew Donkin, prosecuting, said.


Police then raided Pilling’s home in Lancashire and recovered a further 41 coins from the hoard, bringing the total to 44.

Jurors were told police recovered an image from Pilling’s home showing 46 coins in total, meaning two remain missing.

The prosecution allege Best and Pilling were in a conspiracy to sell the coins, despite knowing they came from a hoard and should have been declared as treasure and handed over to the Crown.

In 2018, Best had made contact with a US-based Professor Ronald Bude who had an interest in ancient coins, and tried to interest him in buying some, including an “Alfred penny”.

Prof Bude was not sure they were real and contacted another UK-based expert and, as word got around about the availability of extremely rare coins, the authorities were contacted and the undercover operation was mounted, the court heard.

Best also told the professor that the coins were “big money” and that he should fly over to the UK to see them him for himself.

When Prof Bude asked Best where they came from, in an email Best replied, “near Worcester”.

Mr Donkin told the court that the Herefordshire Hoard was found in Leominster, some 30 miles from Worcester. It has since gone on display in the city.

After he failed to sell the coins to Professor Bude, Best moved on to try to sell the collection to the fictitious US-based buyers – who were really undercover police officers, the court heard.

The trial continues on Wednesday.