THIEVES have stolen a £15,000 haul of art from an exhibition at a stately home.

Overnight raiders took a number of paintings and sculptures off the walls and stands ahead of the Southern Nature Art Exhibition being held at Rookesbury Park estate, in Wickham.

Twelve paintings and nine sculptures have been taken, belonging to nine artists. One artist had four pieces taken.

The annual exhibition had a preview last night and is due to continue for a further four days.

Despite the losses, organisers vowed the exhibition would go on and artists had even volunteered to bring in more pieces.

Forensics investigators have today been working at the scene, off Southwick Road. The thieves are thought to have got in through french style doors to the side of the building.

Works stolen ranged from sculptures worth £95 to one ballpoint pen drawing by a French artist, worth £3,000.

"It's really strange," said exhibition joint organiser Caroline Pinnells.

"They have cherry picked but there doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to what they have picked.

"Some of the artists are more professional and there's some expensive stuff - they have taken a bit here and a bit there."

She said they had even taken the plaques describing works and artists.

"It's like they're going to set up their own exhibition," she added.

It was Caroline who had the difficult job of telling the artists that their work was gone.

In tears, she said: "It's shock really, they don't believe it - they say 'are you joking?'.

"You don't think these things will happen until they do.

"I'm gutted, absolutely gutted.

"It's disbelief, absolute disbelief - these artists have put their faith in us."

Caroline told how she had even been sleeping outside the venue in a campervan at the entrance, but had not become aware there was a problem until she was told by someone that artwork was gone.

The exhibition is an annual event, which has been running for 12 years under a different name.

It is showcasing work by 93 artists.

Police confirmed they had received a report of a burglary overnight between 7pm yesterday and 7.50am today.

Anyone with information is asked to call police on 101.