A criminal gang smashed a 3ft hole in the wall of a university museum and stole rare Chinese artefacts worth £1.8m in a well-planned operation, a court heard.
The raid on Durham University’s Oriental Museum last April was carried out by experienced burglars, Durham Crown Court was told.
The thieves smashed through the wall and grabbed items from cabinets. They escaped with an 18th- century jade bowl and a Dehua porcelain figurine dating from the Qing Dynasty.
Lee Wildman 35, and Adrian Stanton, 32, claim they were recruited by unnamed criminals who carried out the break-in. They have admitted conspiracy to burgle but deny they took part in the raid.
But the plea from the Walsall-based pair has been rejected and their “trial of issue” seeks to determine exactly what role they played.
Wildman told Judge Christopher Prince that he and Stanton had been recruited in the West Midlands by figures in the North-east after a conversation at a garage in Walsall.
He said they had travelled to Durham without knowing what they would be asked to do and were motivated by the need to “earn some money”.
Giving evidence, Wildman said people in a silver Mercedes in a car park had told them to go into the museum building and “get any Chinese pieces for us you can”.
The prosecution said the pair’s first attempts to steal the museum pieces had been foiled when security staff made Wildman check in his rucksack.
Prosecutors said CCTV footage played to the court showed the men testing the locks on cabinets in preparation for the later raid. But both men deny returning to the museum and stealing the items.
Stanton claimed a gang of “smart, wealthy-looking” men inside the Mercedes had become angry when the pair failed to emerge with artefacts after the first aborted attempt. The pair refused to name any of the people they met at the garage in Walsall or in Durham.
But prosecutor Peter Makepeace told him he was telling a “pack of lies”. He said: “You are a man who has considerable experience of burgling.”
Wildman replied: “A long time ago, I have never been involved in stuff like this before.”
When Wildman and Stanton were arrested at a Midlands hotel on 1 May, they each had around £5,000 in cash, the court heard.
The case continues. The pair are due to be sentenced tomorrow, along with four others.