Police in Suining, Sichuan province, captured nine suspects and recovered seven Buddha heads that were stolen from a temple over the summer, according to information released on Wednesday.
The heads, which date to the Song Dynasty (960-1279), were discovered missing by Shifo Temple visitors on July 6.
Security cameras recorded the truck used in the theft, and police caught up to the suspects in Sichuan and the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region in August, the Suining government said.
The suspects were connected to 14 cases of theft, including cultural relics such as Buddha heads and bodies, incense burner bases and Buddha statue bases, according to Zhou Yao, an officer in charge of the case at Suining's Anju district public security bureau.
Police say the suspects admitted entering the temple when it was unguarded. They injected chemicals into cracks in the necks of the Buddha statues, causing the cracks to widen. They then used chisels to detach the heads.
Covering the heads with quilts, five of the suspects managed to get the heavy objects off the bodies. Then they rolled them onto a nearby pickup truck. The largest head weighs around 500 kilograms.
Police said the suspects sold the seven heads - all cultural relics under State protection - for only 30,000 yuan (,530).
The suspects have been transferred to prosecutors.
Buddha statues abound in Sichuan, said Zhu Zhangyi, an archaeologist in Chengdu.
In July 2016, two suspects in Anyue county stole a Buddha head dating to the Tang Dynasty (618-907) from a cliff. As they tried to leave, they were spotted by an elderly guard and his wife.
The wife - who stood in the way of the minivan - was beaten and injured by the suspects before they fled. One surrendered to police several days later and the other was captured, Zhu said.