Two men were found guilty of an illegal scheme to sell £766,000 worth of Anglo-Saxon coins which, as it turns out, have huge significance for our understanding of the history of the 9th century. Craig Best and Roger Piling were found guilty of possession of criminal property and conspiracy to convert criminal property by Durham Crown Court.
The coins they were in possession of were part of the Herefordshire Hoard, a collection of about 300 coins and jewellery dating to the Viking period, which had been unearthed by metal detectorists George Powell and Layton Davies in 2015 and was worth in excess of £3 million. Powell and Davies had not, as is demanded by the UK’s 1996 Treasure Act (which was recently reformed), declared the treasure, and had instead sold them on the black market. In 2019, Powell and Davies were sentenced to prison time, but only 29 of the coins from the hoard were discovered.
Best and Piling came into possession of some of the items from this hoard. Best, in an attempt to sell them, contacted Professor Ronald Bude, a collector and lecturer at the University of Michigan. Bude was sceptical about the authenticity and provenance of the coins, and contacted the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge for their opinion. This move annoyed Best, who told Bude via email that, “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.” Bude reported the incident to the police, who launched an undercover investigation into Best and Piling, which led to their arrest in 2019.
The coins are now at the British Museum, where new research has revealed their significance in our understanding of the 9th century. Two coins show the head of Alfred the Great, ruler of Wessex, on one side, and Ceolwulf II of Mercia on the other. The traditional narrative has been that Ceolwulf was a puppet ruler for the Vikings, a minor nobleman with limited interest historically. The combination of the two heads on the same coin, however, points to greater collaboration between the two. Gareth Williams, curator of early medieval coins and Viking collections at the British Museum, has stated that, “the coins show beyond any possible doubt that there was a political and economic alliance between Alfred and Ceolwulf II,” and further that, “the coins in this case have already begun to transform our knowledge and understanding of the political situation of the late 9th century.”
Leo Gosling, from the Durham Police, said that, “this is an extremely unusual case. 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.”
Sentencing for the two men will be on 4th May, and they may well face long prison sentences for this crime.
Read our article on treasure finds and the key considerations and tax consequences here.