A SERIAL thief who concocted a nationwide plan to steal ancient church relics after visiting a Brighton car boot sale is behind bars.

Amateur antiques dealer Christopher Cooper has been sent to prison for three years and eight months after stealing more than 30 artefacts from churches in more than ten counties over three years.

He made £150,000 out of the scam, which he concocted after buying two statues from Brighton car boot sale at the racecourse off Freshfield Road in 2011. He paid £50 but quickly realised the items, billed as Victorian, could date as far back as the 14th century.

He sold them on eBay for £250 while living in the city and then decided to cut out the middle man - stealing the items for himself and selling them to unsuspecting collectors.

One of his first thefts was of a tiny metal 13th century corpus from Coombes Church in Lancing. The three-and-a-half inch body of Jesus Christ was fixed to a crucifix 12 feet above the ground when it was taken. A crime spree across the country spanning three years followed.

The scam was only discovered after one of his innocent customers became suspicious and another recipient of his items was arrested by police over a separate purchase of a gorilla's head through the post. West Midlands Crown Prosecution Service took the case to court after an investigation by West Mercia Police.

Cooper, 48, admitted seven charges of theft, dealing in tainted antiquities and two counts of fraud. All but three of the items stolen have been returned to their rightful owners.

When Cooper, now of Wernfigan in Trallong, Powys, was arrested he drew a sketch of the Lancing corpus, pinpointing where he stole it on a road map.

Five years after it was taken detective constable Tony Lewis drove the corpus back to church warden Robin Reeve when he travelled to Brighton for a conference.

Mr Reeve said: "It is a miracle to have it back.

"We didn't see it was stolen immediately because it is so small and up so high - mainly for security.

"We think he stole it within a month of when we reported it to Shoreham police. Both I and the officer agreed it is very unlikely it would ever be recovered - so this is extraordinary.

"West Mercia Police were superb. They kept in touch with us at every stage."

Church treasurer Jenny Passmore, whose family has been linked to the church for generations, said it was "fantastic news".

Stephen Davies, West Midlands district crown prosecutor and head of heritage crime, said: “This was an unusual case. "Cooper spotted a gap in the market and accepted that greed got the better of him. He exploited the vulnerability of these churches and sold the items to totally innocent amateur dealers.

"The visitors and wardens of these churches are also victims."


IT WAS at a car boot sale in 2011 that Christopher Cooper stumbled across a gap in the market.

He met two men at the Brighton racecourse event in Freshfield Road and they showed him two "Victorian" statues.

The amateur antiques dealer realised that in fact the artefacts were much older, dating back to between the 14th and 16th century.

He paid £50 and went home to Albourne Close in Brighton where he successfully sold them on eBay at a profit at £250.

His brainwave was to cut out the middle man by stealing valuable items straight from churches.

Initially, he visited under the guise of researching his family history, carrying out a reconnaissance of rural churches in Sussex where he knew few people would be around and there was little in the way of security measures.

One of the first places of worship he looted was Coombes Church in Lancing.

He would have known the church was open to visitors and held a service on the second Sunday of every month and no doubt researched the history of the tiny ancient corpus before climbing up 12ft to take it from its crucifix.

According to 1888 Sussex archaeological Collections records, it was rediscovered in the church yard in 1877.

Experts say it is a remarkable medieval object which holds a vital key to explaining the export of metal in the trade from Limoges, France, to this country.

About a month later church warden Robin Reeve discovered it was missing and reported the theft to Shoreham police, though he never expected to see it again.

The successful trip boosted Cooper’s confidence and he branched out. Between September 2011 and 2014 he targeted churches in Kent, Essex, Wales, Suffolk, Warwickshire, Gloucestershire, Devon, Herefordshire and Oxfordshire.

If no one was around, he would stash the items in his reinforced backpack. If they were too big he would plan to return with tools.

The hoard of relics he amassed dated back to the ninth century. He took 15th century painted panels from Holy Trinity Church, in Torbryan, Devon, and went back twice to get both the lid and base of a stone coffin from St Mary’s Church in Foy, Herefordshire. He replaced first edition King James Bibles with modern copies from churches across Wales, researching their provenance on the internet to entice buyers before putting them up for sale.

He defaced some and made other items to pass off as antiques.

The idea worked and two unsuspecting collectors became regular victims of his scam, spending £150,000 though never meeting him face to face as Cooper always sent an innocent party to make the delivery.

He was finally reported to police when a rare Bible one of the collectors bought for £18,000 never materialised. This coincided with the arrest of another man in 2013 after a gorilla’s head was ordered through the post, which unearthed artefacts linked to Cooper and the country-wide investigation Operation Icarus began.

Cooper was arrested in January last year and a book containing lists of churches was found.

He told officers he became greedy and out of control. He confessed to looking for “exceptionally rare and once-in-a-lifetime collector pieces" so he could give the “V&A medieval wing a run for its money”.

Officers appealed for help to track down the rightful owners of the items on BBC’s The One Show in June. Cooper even sketched out the Lancing relic and pinpointed the area on a road map. Only then could it be returned - some five years later.

His conviction on May 6 included the first of its kind in the country for dealing in tainted cultural items – the equivalent of handling stolen goods in the heritage crime world. He asked for 30 other offences to be considered.

A Proceeds of Crime Act Order means he must repay the money, but he is penniless. This means one of his victims – a collector, painter and decorator – who hoped to retire at 65 faces working until he is aged 70. He lost £34,000 in the scam which he was relying on as a nest egg.

There are now just three unclaimed artefacts in Hereford waiting to be identified. As for the Lancing corpus, there are special plans for a display to mark its return.