Two inept thieves who stole Chinese artefacts worth £2 million from a museum but then could not find where they had stashed them were handed lengthy jail sentences and told the real value of their haul was "immeasurable".

Lee Wildman, 36, was jailed for nine years and Adrian Stanton, 33, was handed an eight-year term for planning and carrying out a raid at Durham University's Oriental Museum last Easter.

They had planned the break-in well, choosing the night before Good Friday when the campus was quiet, using cloned number plates and chiselling a hole through a brick wall to get in and out quickly.

art thieves

Lee Wildman was jailed for nine years and Adrian Stanton was handed an eight-year term

From the display cabinets, they picked out just two items - a 1769 jade bowl and a porcelain figurine - worth up to £2 million, Judge Christopher Prince told them.

But their plan was flawed because after hiding the items on wasteland, Wildman could not find them when he returned two days later.

He was seen by a witness searching the plot, speaking in an agitated manner on his mobile, as the light faded.

Judge Prince told the defendants they had shown "crass ineptitude" in being unable to find their haul.

"Thank heavens you could not, because they may have been lost," he said.

Just weeks before the pair from Walsall had received suspended sentences for a night-time break-in at an amusement arcade in Rhyl, where they cut a hole in a roof and broke into slot machines.

On that occasion police stopped their car on the way back to the Midlands, and found them to have over £10,000 in coins.

That was in their minds when they decided to hide the Chinese artefacts and collect them later, the judge said.

Both men had shown no remorse and had told "transparent" lies during a two-day hearing at Durham Crown Court in which they tried to play down their roles in the burglary, the judge said.

It was hard to put a price on the items, the judge said.

"The financial value of artefacts such as these is perhaps the very least important factor," he said.

"These items have got a historical, cultural and artistic value that is quite simply immeasurable.

"Their loss has had the most enormous detrimental effect on the university, both in expenditure they have had to make in improving their security and in the loss of potential confidence from benefactors."

The items were found following a finger-tip search of the waste area after a witness who read some of the widespread publicity about the case recognised she had seen Wildman in the area.

Four others who helped the offenders while they tried to lie low from police will be sentenced this afternoon.

A week before the break-in, Wildman and Stanton were caught on the museum's CCTV, testing security during a visit within opening hours.

When he was shown the footage later, Wildman told detectives: "It's not a crime to visit a museum."

Both men were to be paid a "fixed reward" for stealing the items, which was nothing like their real market value, Ben Williams, defending both men, said.

They both have lengthy criminal records stretching back to when they were juveniles, the court heard.

When they were arrested with their girlfriends and an accomplice at a Walsall hotel, Wildman was found to have £5,746 in cash and Stanton £4,930.

Peter Makepeace, prosecuting, praised the media for publicising the theft which led to vital information from the public.

art thieves

Stolen: a 1769 jade bowl and a porcelain figurine - worth up to £2 million

"It is right to say that local press coverage in particular was very useful because witnesses were able to make identifications from photographs that had been published," he said.

The raiders were probably not acting alone, and were carrying out the thefts "to order", he said.

Justin Clarke, 31, of Tamar Close, Walsall, was jailed for 20 months for assisting an offender.

The day after the theft, he drove an Audi S3, which had been used in the raid from Durham, to the Midlands.

The judge said an attempt to thwart police was a "very serious offence".

Fallon Arrowsmith, 20, of Walker Road, Walsall, who was dating Stanton, was handed a six-month jail sentence, suspended for 12 months, and must carry out 200 hours' unpaid work. She admitted assisting an offender.

She was arrested at the hotel with the thieves.

The judge said: "You have a 17-month-old child, it is about time you took responsibility as a mother."

Wildman's girlfriend, Charmaine Wilkes, of Cornwall Close, Walsall, received the same sentence as Arrowsmith for assisting an offender.

She was arrested at the same hotel.

The judge said: "You are staggeringly immature for a 27-year-old."

Both women helped their partners lie low as police searched for them, in full knowledge of what they had done.
Natasha Partridge, 21, of Remmington Place, Walsall, received a four-month jail sentence, suspended for a year, and ordered to carry out 100 hours' unpaid work for assisting an offender.

art robbery

The men chiselled a hole at Durham University's Oriental Museum

The some-time girlfriend of Clarke, allowed her bank card to be used to book hotels.

Each of the women must pay £250 prosecution costs.

Around 120 officers worked on the case in Durham, Detective Superintendent Adrian Green said.

Outside court, he said: "There were times when we thought we wouldn't get the items back.

"When something is stolen to order, you think they will be spirited away, probably abroad, so we were over the moon to get them back.

"It was a fantastic call we made to the museum to say we had got the items back."

Craig Barclay, curator of Durham University's Oriental Museum, praised the police who were also commended by the judge.

Dr Barclay said: "We are delighted that these important Qing dynasty artefacts were recovered quickly through the sterling efforts of Durham Police.

"Both objects were undamaged, but require some conservation cleaning work as a result of the theft.

"We look forward to having them back on display once the work is completed."

The large jade bowl dating from 1769 was from the collection of Sir Charles Hardinge, a British collector of jades and hardstones.

The other item, a Dehua porcelain sculpture of seven fairies in a boat, has a cream white glaze and is 30cm in
height and length.