A thief has been convicted of stealing a painting from Chester Cathedral and replacing it with a Christmas decoration.

Vasilijs Apilats, 61, swiped the 19th century religious icon worth £2,000 from a private chapel room in August 2014.

He had the audacity to claim he had bought the artefact from a member of staff for £135.

Apilats was found guilty of theft at the end of a week-long trial at Chester Crown Court on December 5.

Caroline Harris, prosecuting, said: “He did not leave something similar or something that might trick the observer into believing it was still there.

The icon depicting the Raising of Lazarus which is at the centre of a theft trial at Chester Crown Court

“In what might be deemed a joke, and laughing in the faces of those he had wronged, the defendant left a cheap Christmas decoration.”

Apilats, an orthodox Christian, recalled he travelled to Chester to visit antiques shops and went into the cathedral to look around and pray on August 14, 2014.

He swiped the painting, which depicts the Raising of Lazarus, from the cathedral’s Chapel of St Anselm, which had been opened to the public.

In its place he left the angel decoration.

The Christmas tree ornament left in the icon's place

A crime scene investigator found Apilats’s DNA on the display easel which led police to his home on Edleston Road in Crewe in September 2014.

There officers found the icon in a bin bag as well as a quantity of other religious artefacts and he was arrested.

In his evidence Apilats said he had left his home country of Latvia, where he was an artist and restorer, for the UK because of issues he had with the Russian mafia.

The 61-year-old, who required a Russian interpreter during the trial, claimed he wanted to restore the painting after buying it in good faith for £135 from two men he believed were members of staff.

He said: “I have been unlucky in life for a while; unlucky with my landlord and house problems, later it became more complicated as if I was in an unlucky zone.

“My family has fallen apart because of the court proceedings.”

Miss Harris branded his account ‘far-fetched’.

Apilats was made the subject of a restraining order after harassing Crewe and Nantwich MP Edward Timpson, but otherwise has no previous convictions.

He will be sentenced at Chester Crown Court on January 13.