A gang targeting stately homes in Yorkshire for valuable antiques is thought to be behind yesterday's theft of a £500,000 Chippendale table.
The burglary at Newby Hall, Ripon, is the sixth of its kind in the region since February, with a total of £700,000 in precious items stolen to date.
Security experts believe thieves are using spotters to locate specific artefacts during public open days and passing this information on to criminal associates.
By targeting just one or two items the gang can escape within minutes, before security guards or police can respond.
Yesterday's theft at the 17th century mansion, the setting for recent ITV drama Mansfield Park, was from the drawing room. The culprits drilled into its thick wooden shutters and took them off their hinges.
They then cut through the sash windows, setting off the alarm. They snatched the Chippendale masterpiece - one of the finest tables made by the 18th century master craftsman - and escaped minutes before the in-house security guard arrived.
Estate owner Richard Compton, 50, his wife Lucinda, a furniture restorer, and son Orlando were asleep upstairs at the time.
Mr Compton said: "This is very distressing. The table was among the finest pieces of Chippendale in the collection. I just love it. It could not ever be sold, it is too well known. I don't care who stole it. I just want it back as soon as possible."
The twin-leaf Pembroke table is famed for its elegant lines, colour and exquisite inlaid mosaic of rosewood, satin and ebony pieces.
It was commissioned by Mr Compton's ancestor William Weddell in 1775. Experts say it would easily fetch £500,000 on the open market.
Most of the other five break-ins at Yorkshire estates have used similar techniques to drill into security shutters. There have also been two attempted burglaries.
The first theft was from Sir Tatton Sykes' home, Sledmere House, near Driffield, North Yorkshire, in February. Others targeted include Cusworth Hall, near Doncaster, and Burton Agnes Hall, near Driffield.
Charles Hill, former Met Police officer and adviser to the Historic Houses Association, said the crimes were almost certainly linked. "Although not stolen to order, the gang would know other criminals who will take any valuable art and antiques off their hands," he said.
A North Yorkshire police spokesman said it was too early to connect the burglaries.
Antique table stolen
By Mark Foster
A UNIQUE piece of antique furniture, worth more than £100,000, has been stolen in a daring early morning raid on a famous stately home.
The Chippendale table was taken after thieves broke their way into Newby Hall, near Ripon, through a shuttered and locked window.
Despite setting off the alarms they made straight for the table and were able to get away from house before startled staff arrived.
There have been a number of other high-value art thefts elsewhere in the country in recent months - but detectives insist it is too early to link the crimes.
The table was designed and made specifically for Newby in 1775 by Thomas Chippendale and is of worldwide significance.
It has featured in many papers and books on fine furniture - making it virtually unsaleable on the open market - and, as the table was the only item targeted by the thieves, police believe it may have been stolen to order.
Distraught house owner Richard Compton said "This is a devastating blow for all of us and a terrible loss. It has been in the house for over 230 years and was commissioned by one of my ancestors."
" It is one of the finest examples of Chippendale's work and has been internationally studied."
The raiders struck at about 2.20am yesterday, smashing their way in through the window of a ground-floor drawing room at the front of the hall.
Mr Compton added: "They obviously knew exactly what they wanted. They appear to have gone into the wrong room first and then found the correct one. They had gone within five minutes."
The George III rosewood and marquetry table was 41ins wide, 28ins high and 30ins deep.
The president of the Historic Houses Association, James Hervey-Bathurst said: "Last night's theft makes it all the more important that there is greater collaboration between British police forces and their counterparts overseas to try and stem the rising instances of thefts and the trafficking of stolen chattels.
"Last night's robbery is not just a tragedy for Newby, but cheats many thousands of visitors from seeing a pre-eminent work. This was a theft from Britain's cultural and artistic heritage and needs to be seen in that context."
Now, before you fall about laughing, Anyone who saw anything suspicious is asked to contact police on 01845-6060247 or Crimestoppers on 0800-555111 you will receive no reward or credit and your name will leak out if there are criminal charges.