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Christopher Cooper, from Wernfigan in Trallong, Powys, admitted fraud, specimen theft charges, and ‘dealing in tainted cultural objects’.

The latter charge was used for the first time in a British legal case since it was introduced as an offence in 2003.

Cooper is thought to have netted £150,000 from selling items to two unsuspecting collectors, targeting parish churches across England and Wales from 2011-14. More than 60 items including medieval statuary, panel paintings, architectural brasses and oak misericords were taken.

Cooper’s downfall began when one of the two collectors (whom he never met face-to-face) became suspicious and called in the art and antiques squad after paying £18,000 for a copy of the 1535 Coverdale Bible that was not delivered.

West Mercia Police led the investigation into the theft as part of Operation Icarus.

Revealing Notebooks

Stephen Davies, district crown prosecutor and CPS lead for heritage crime, said: “When arrested, Cooper gave full and frank admissions. He had a notebook and police were able to work out with him where everything was from.”

He had no previous convictions and only turned to crime after buying two medieval stone fragments for £50 at a Sussex car boot sale, then later selling them for £250 on eBay.

Davies said: “The nation’s parish churches have traditionally been open and available for people to visit on a daily basis. These thefts compromised that ability, with volunteers who look after these churches fearful of keeping them open.”

Most of the stolen items have now been returned, although the two collectors concerned have lost their money as Cooper is penniless.