LONDON -- Fast-moving thieves broke into the Dulwich Picture Gallery Saturday morning and stole a portrait by Rembrandt worth up to $4.5 million for the fourth time in 16 years.
The burglar alarm at the south London gallery went off shortly after 1 a.m. Police arrived within three minutes, but the painting of fellow-artist Jacob de Gheyn by the 17th Dutch master was gone along with its frame.
The raiders scaled ladders to break in through a skylight in the roof of the building and a second set of ladders to get into the gallery itself, police said. Both ladders were left behind.
Art experts said the portrait is valued up to $4.5 million, but they believed the masterpiece would not be saleable because it is so well known.
It was the fourth time the portrait, measuring 18 by 12 inches, has been stolen from the gallery where it has been on display for 170 years.
The painting and 13 others were taken in 1967, but they were recovered within a week. In 1973, a thief took the portrait and tried to escape on a bicE:le but was apprehended.
Three men were jailed last year for involvement in its theft in August 1981. Police recovered the painting from one of the men as he was riding in a taxi carrying it wrapped in a pillow case.
The gallery spent some $15,000 on extra security precautions after the 1981 theft.
'It may be a local theft; it may, of course, be an international theft. We haven't really decided which is our most definite line at this stage,' Chief Inspector Paul Barnes said.
The painting was an easy target, he said, because 'it's a very valuable painting, a very neat, small painting which can be easily transported. That makes it valuable to the thief because he can get away with it that easily.'
The Dulwich Picture Gallery was the first public art gallery to be opened in London in 1814. It houses a notable collecton of Dutch masters, 17th and 18th century British portraits and Italian works by Rapahel Veronese and Canaletto.
The nucleus of the collection was a bequest from Edward Alleyn, a famous 17th century actor, and the art collection of Noel Desenfans, a 19th century French dealer.