A "heartbroken" artist suffered a mental breakdown after discovering her private collection of paintings were stolen in a case that's attracted international attention.

Sirpa Alalaakkola was storing the 150-200 special paintings, potentially worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, in her art studio at Ngakuta Bay near Picton.

She went on a trip early last week and returned home Wednesday to find they had all been taken.

I've always kept what I call a private collection. I always save not always the best ones, but I save things that are meaningful for me.

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Alalaakkola, the owner of Sirpa Art, is devastated at the theft, saying she had set the paintings aside over the past 24 years because they were meaningful to her or because she wanted to save them for her children.

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"They mean everything to me. I am heartbroken. That's my life's work, I have nothing else, nowhere else.

"I had a breakdown on Friday. I had to go to the doctor. I had to call the helpline and get all the proper help. I've never had any mental health issues before and I can cope with a lot of things but this is something that I have never experienced before, and I was so heartbroken."

Alalaakkola has had to go on medication to help her manage the loss of the beloved paintings, which she kept rolled up in a separate section of her studio to those on display.

"I've always kept what I call a private collection. I always save not always the best ones, but I save things that are meaningful for me."

If her children ever liked a particular painting, Alalaakkola would set it aside for them to have when they were adults. They are now 16 and 18 years old.

Alalaakkola could not put a price on the stolen artwork, but her pieces sell for about $2500 each.

A painting had no value until it was sold, she said.

A post on her Sirpa Art Facebook page about the theft has been shared thousands of times, as far afield as the USA, England, and Canada.

The post has more than 500 comments of support and condolences, and has been shared more than 6000 times.

Alalaakkola said she the support had been "amazing".

"It really helped me through this, just looking at the comments that I've seen," she said.

Alalaakkola couldn't put a name to her style of art, but said she always painted from her experiences. She has spent much of her time camping, tramping, swimming, mountain-biking, skiing and kayaking, and liked to paint such scenes.

Whoever's got the paintings, they have stolen them from my children.

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The Finland-born woman also painted in India, Tonga, and Australia. She has lived in New Zealand for 24 years.

She runs an Airbnb out of her home, which is in front of her studio, but does not believe any of her guests would be the culprit.

Alalaakkola had a message for the thief: "Whoever's got the paintings, they have stolen them from my children.

"I'm worried about the paintings and that they're safe, because I cannot bear the thought to lose them or not get them back. I really, really want them back."

The paintings are mainly 1m x 1.5m on canvas and were taken between September 17 and 19 from the unlocked studio. Some of the stolen paintings were also pieces for sale.

Anyone who knows something about the theft or sees the paintings for sale should contact police.