The trial is under way of a 61-year-old man alleged to have stolen a 19th century religious icon from Chester Cathedral – leaving a cheap, novelty Christmas decoration in its place as a 'joke'.
Vasilijs Apilats is accused of stealing the painting, which depicts the Raising of Lazarus, from the cathedral's Chapel of St Anselm in August 2014.
But he insists that he bought the icon in good faith for £135 from two men he believed were members of staff and who told him it was up for sale.
Prosecuting barrister Caroline Harris explained that the painting's home was in a private chapel area open to the public for private prayer, but less well-visited, on the first day of the trial at Chester Crown Court today (November 30).
She told members of the jury: "He accepts that he took the painting but that the circumstances in which he took it were honest and legitimate and not theft at all.
"His case is that he bought it in good faith from two men inside the cathedral whom he believed had the ability to sell it."
The court heard that the a crime scene investigator visited the cathedral and found traces of Apilats' DNA, which prompted a search of his home on Edleston Road in Crewe the following month.
Among a large quantity of religious artifacts discovered by officers was the icon – which has been valued at around £2,000 by an expert – inside a bin bag.
In what Miss Harris branded a 'far-fetched' account, Apilats told police following his arrest that he had travelled to Chester by bus on August 14, 2014, to buy antiques and visited the cathedral to pray.
He claims he was approached by a man he took for cathedral staff, who led him to view the icon and asked him if he was interested in purchasing it.
According to the defendant, the man asked for £250 but he made a counter-offer of £135.
The man fetched his superior, another man, who accepted Apilats' offer and wrote him a receipt for £200 which the pair explained was pre-written in anticipation of a sale.
Miss Harris said one of the 'more unusual features' of the case is the 'laughable' appearance of the angel Christmas tree decoration.
"He did not leave something similar or something that might trick the observer into believing it was still there," she said.
"In what might be deemed a joke, and laughing in the faces of those he had wronged, the defendant left a cheap Christmas decoration."
But Apilats contends that this had nothing to do with him.
The trial continues.