Country house owners on alert as art thieves strike again

COUNTRY HOUSE owners began stepping up security yesterday after a gang of art thieves specialising in robbing historic houses struck for the fifth time in a month.

Raiders broke into Scone Palace near Perth early on Wednesday and stole rare antiques from two public display rooms. Police described the haul from the ancestral home of the Earl and Countess of Mansfield as priceless.

Detectives are investigating links between the raid and similar thefts at Abbotsford House, Sir Walter Scott's home in the Scottish borders; Floors Castle near Kelso; Hopetoun House near Edinburgh; and Luton Hoo in Bedfordshire. Paintings and antiques worth more than pounds 1m have been stolen in the past month. Officers fear a gang of professional art thieves is stealing works to order for private collectors.

Det Ch Insp Ian Watson, who is leading the Scone Palace investigation, said: 'It is early days yet but obviously we will be investigating links.' The burglaries were the work of 'organised, sophisticated gangs', who may have visited properties to pick items of interest before returning to steal them.

Tayside detectives investigating the Scone Place raid are to meet officers from Bedfordshire and the borders next week. The professional style of recent raids, in which thieves have disabled electronic security systems and used boats and stolen cars to make their escape, has alarmed owners. Sir Thomas Ingilby, co-ordinator of the Stately Homes Hotline, an anti-crime network covering 500 homes, castles and museums across Britain, said: 'These attacks have been quick, efficient and, sadly, successful. Many of us are very concerned who might be next.' Sir Thomas, owner of Ripley Castle near Harrogate, set up the hotline after the thirteenth-century castle was burgled in 1988. He said owners were reviewing security. 'Managers are checking physical and electronic security systems and seeking advice local police on extra measures.

'We are urging guides and security staff to pay close attention to any suspicious-looking visitors. If people are seen making sketches, or studying windows and doors, rather than art treasures, descriptions should be given to us so that we can circulate them.' Attacks on Britain's 2,000 country houses have risen steadily in recent years. About 50 raids were recorded last year. Detectives at the Metropolitan Police Arts and Antiques Squad, which has records of 500,000 stolen items, say fine art and antiques are often used to fund drugs operations.

The National Trust has invested heavily in new security measures at its 300 country houses. But security consultants say many private owners have been slow to act.