Perhaps the most distinctive of the three works by Arthur Delaney that were stolen from Peter Wilson of Nantwich, Mill Town was estimated at £4000-4500.

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THIEVES are thought to have used something like fishing rods to hook six paintings and reel them in via the barred windows of an auctioneer's viewing gallery.

Police are investigating what is thought to be a theft to order from Peter Wilson Fine Art Auctioneers of Nantwich, Cheshire on the night before their February 20-21 sale.

The thieves got round the auctioneer's sophisticated alarm system by smashing two windows before "fishing" the paintings from the walls of the viewing gallery and out through the bars.

"Nobody has arms that long!" said managing director Robert Stones.

The "fishing" technique is becoming an increasing problem in domestic crime, where thieves hook door and car keys left on hall tables through front door letter boxes.

Staff at Peter Wilson only realised there was something wrong when they arrived on the morning of the sale to discover blank spaces on the wall and glass covering the carpet. Mr Stones said they were very security-conscious and had not had a burglary in recent times.

Included in the haul were three signed paintings by Arthur Delaney (1927-1987) valued between £3500 and £4500 each: the 11 1/2in x 10 1/2in (29.5 x 27cm) Stockport Street Scene & Viaduct; A Manchester Street scene, 13 x 12 1/2in (33 x 32cm); and Mill Town, a 12 1/2in x 15 1/2in (31.5 x 39cm) oil on board.

Peter Wilson have gained a considerable reputation in the past decade for selling good quality Northern Art, especially from the 20th century, and this is partly why Mr Stones is convinced this was a "theft-to-order", with specific Delaney works targeted.

"It was not done as an opportunist job. It had been thought out very carefully," said Mr Stones. Cheshire police said they are keeping an open mind on the matter and enquiries arre ongoing.

Mr Stones is worried that since many of Delaney's paintings are very similar, the thieves will be able to enter them undetected into another sale. A lot of his works featured trams, including two here, but the auctioneers are more hopeful about recovering the third, more unusual and distinctive painting featuring a mill town.

The other three works stolen were: Eve - Beach Study, a 9 1/2in x 7 1/2in (24 x 19cm) titled, signed oil on board by Arthur K. Maderson (b.1942) estimated at £500-700; Figures In A Landscape, a 6in x 10in (15.5 x 25.5cm) signed, oil on panel by Bohuslav Barlow (b.1947) estimated at £100-200; and Smoke by Trevor Grimshaw (1947-2001), a 31/2 x 5in (9 x 13cm) work in pencil, signed and dated '71, the label inscribed on verso, estimated at £100-150.

"They probably thought, 'they'll look nice on my landing' and took them as an afterthought," said Mr Stones.

Nantwich Neighborhood Policing Unit can be contacted on 0845 4580000.