Police in Kompong Thom province on Monday arrested three men in a sting targeting sellers of looted, ancient statues, only to find that seven statues seized in the operation were in fact worthless copies of Buddhist artifacts, officials said.
After nearly two weeks of undercover work, officers from the province’s heritage police bureau met the dealers at the home of one of the suspects in Sandan district, where they apprehended all three, according to Say Nora, a deputy prosecutor at the Kompong Thom Provincial Court.
“I led the operation to make the arrests,” Mr. Nora said.
“We caught the three suspects red-handed and confiscated the seven ancient statues in Kleng commune, Sandan district, after they agreed to sell them to our forces for $10,000,” he said, adding that the statues turned out to be replicas made of lead and copper.
Rom Sovichea, chief of the heritage bureau, identified the suspects as Mao Narith, 36; Nhien Nel, 47; and Chor Hiet, 46, at whose home the deal was struck. He said they were all known traffickers of ancient artifacts in the area.
The seven statues—each of which appears to be less than 30 cm tall in photographs posted to the National Police website—were sent to be analyzed by specialists at the Culture Ministry and quickly revealed to be fakes, according to the bureau chief.
“According to a report today from the ancient statues analyst from the Ministry of Culture in Phnom Penh, they have found that these statues are copies; they are not real ancient statues,” Mr. Sovichea said.
“But to help us in the fight against the looting of our ancient statues, we have confiscated them to study how they make these fake statues,” he added.
Provincial police chief Chou Sam An confirmed receipt of the Culture Ministry’s report and said he had forwarded it to the provincial court. He said the three dealers would be sent to the court today.