AN art thief who stole a valuable religious icon from Chester Cathedral and replaced it with a Christmas decoration has been jailed.

Vasily Apilats, 61, of Edleston Road, Crewe, was found guilty at Chester Crown Court last month of stealing ‘The Raising of Lazarus’ icon.

Apilats, who is originally from Latvia, was sentenced to nine months in prison for the theft today.

Chester Crown Court heard that Apilats stole it at some point between August 14 and 18, 2014.

The icon was displayed in the Chapel of Saint Anselm in the Cathedral, which is open to the public for private prayer.

The icon is an 18th Century picture, larger than A4 and is painted on a wooden board.

Historically, the white colours in the picture would normally have been black and brown so the item is unique and valuable.

The Cathedral Constable reported it missing when he noticed an angel Christmas tree-style decoration in its place in the chapel.

Swabs were taken from the scene and a DNA profile of Apilats emerged.

Police went to his home in Crewe where they found the icon, wrapped in a black bin bag, and a ‘treasure trove’ of other religious, artistic and historical items.

He was arrested and later during the police interview he told officers he’d gone to Chester Cathedral on August 14, 2014 to pray.

He described himself as a religious man – Russian Orthodox – and that he knew a lot about the restoration of icons.

He said he’d been looking at various religious items in the Cathedral when he noticed a man watching him intently. Apilats thought the man was a member of staff.

He said the man approached him as he was about to leave and said that the Cathedral had some items that were being sold off.

He said he was then shown the icon, along with some other items and was offered the chance to buy it. He said he then did – for £135.

The jury at his trial rejected Apilats version of events and found him guilty of theft.

Fiona McKervey, from Mersey-Cheshire Crown Prosecution Service, said: “Vasily Apilats explanation for why the ‘Raising of Lazarus’ icon was found at his home is incredible in all respects.

“The idea that he would walk into the Cathedral, be shown into the chapel by a man he’d never met before and offered the chance to buy a precious religious artefact for £135 is just not believable.

“The theft itself is not the only dishonourable aspect of this case. It was an abuse of the trust placed in the public at places such as cathedrals and churches.

“Many people value the opportunity to pray in sacred places where there are visual reminders of their faith.

“A theft such as this threatens those opportunities. We may never know why Apilats stole the artefact – whether it was greed or curiosity.

"Either way, it was theft and he’s now behind bars.”

Sgt Neil Doleman, of Cheshire Police, praised investigators for bringing Apilats to justice.

He said: “Apilats is a man who appears to be obsessed with religious artefacts.

"He selfishly took an icon, which was not only of significant value but was also of huge importance to Chester Cathedral and the public who used it as an aid to pray.

“Throughout the investigation, Apilats continued to deny any wrongdoing but a thorough examination recovered his full DNA profile and we were able to make a swift arrest.

“We are pleased we were able to find the stolen icon and return it to the Cathedral.”

Chester Cathedral Constable, Chris Jones, said thanked everyone who helped see the icon return to its rightful home

He said: “We are delighted to be able to re-instate the stolen eighteenth century icon here at the cathedral.

"It has now been returned to its rightful place in St Anselm’s Chapel, a place used for prayer and refection.

“The icon was gifted to the cathedral by a former Dean of Chester, Ingram Cleasby, so it is a very meaningful part of the history of the building."