Two paintings worth around $1 million have been stolen in an early-morning art heist at a top Auckland gallery.

Police confirmed thieves struck in a ram-raid attack on Parnell's International Art Centre between 3:30am-4am.

Both paintings were done by Gottfried Lindauer in 1884, known as "Chieftainess Ngatai - Raure" and "Chief Ngatai - Raure" and were soon to be auctioned.

A New Zealand Customs spokeswoman said border patrol had not been advised by police to take any added ​action to prevent the possibility of the stolen art from leaving the country.

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The International Art Centre in Parnell was robbed in a ram raid at about 4am. Photo / Jason Oxenham
The International Art Centre in Parnell was robbed in a ram raid at about 4am. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Police say they do not know the exact value of the work. The website for the gallery includes a catalogue - estimating the works to be worth around $350,000-$450,000 each.

Building co-owner Henry Hall said when he got the news he instantly feared for the gallery's Lindaeurs.

"There were some beautiful Lindaeurs hanging in the window when I looked in yesterday, so it's quite upsetting," he said.

"I think from what I know it's a pretty rare thing to happen in New Zealand and given that it appears to be some very well known paintings that have been taken, it seems crazy that anyone would take those because they'd be so hard to sell on the market. So you'd expect they'd have to go offshore to get any buyers."

Czech-born Lindauer trained at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna and migrated to New Zealand in 1874. He became one of the most prolific and best-known painters of Maori subjects along with Charles Frederick Goldie.

The artworks were due to be auctioned.
The artworks were due to be auctioned.

Art and Object managing director Hamish Coney said he recently went to the International Art Centre to view the Lindauer works and said the loss was a "minor tragedy".

"Each Lindauer​ is unique in its own right," Coney said.

He added the paintings will be "impossible to on-sell" and in a small country like New Zealand no art collector will dare touch stolen works.

"It can't be a random attack, you don't bust into an art gallery without knowing what you're looking for. If they have been stolen to order that's what really puts a shiver down my spine.

"It an unusual type of person to want these paintings to sit in their little room where only they can see and appreciate them."

He said the thefts will force the New Zealand Art industry to think "long and hard about security", but added art galleries already have extensive security to meet insurance standards.

It would not be unusual, he said, if one of the paintings was displayed in the front window for people to see.

He said it would be a "black day for the New Zealand art world" if the works were never seen by the public again.

Coney said he had a "beautiful" Lindauer going to auction on Thursday and was currently having discussions around adding extra security.

"What we will probably do overnight now is take it down from the wall and place it somewhere, lock it away, where only we know ... you can't ram raid our building," he said.

He said "theoretically" the stolen Lindauer​ works could be moved overseas, but it would be incredibly difficult.

The International Art Centre had only been operating at the site for about nine months.

The building had CCTV cameras that were well positioned to have captured the ram raid from the street. He was not sure if there were cameras inside the gallery.

On Parnell Rd this morning, people out jogging or getting their morning coffee stopped amazed at what was clearly a brazen and well organised art heist.

A large window, about 2m by 2m, was completely smashed, with shards of the thick glass strewn across the pavement.

A large beam supporting the window was bent and buckled while the plaster board on the wall behind was badly dented.

A large landscape painting was leaning on the broken window frame - perhaps it was too big to fit in the gap between the broken window and the display wall behind.

Police have recovered the stolen vehicle used in the ram-raid and are now looking for a further vehicle that was seen leaving the scene.

Inspector Mark Greaves said police were currently conducting a forensic scene examination at the gallery and on the vehicle used in the ram-raid. Police did not say where the vehicle was found.

Gow Langsford gallery co-founder John Gow and former owner of the two stolen Lindauer works told the Herald the paintings were "incredibly important" to the New Zealand art industry.

"A good Lindauer is a very, very good painting," he said.

He said Lindauer was ranked alongside Goldie in terms of importance to New Zealand's art history, and feared the paintings may have been damaged during the heist.

Gow sold the paintings to a buyer 18 months ago, who had them displayed at the International Art Centre.

He did not believe the paintings were stolen to order and may have been the work of an opportunistic thief with a well thought out plan.

"Yes they are valuable, but they won't be able to sell them ... I just hope, we all hope, that once they realise they can't sell them they leave them somewhere for people to find, rather than destroy them."

He said all major galleries would now be looking at added security measures, however, he said his gallery already included cameras, bars on the windows and motions sensors to protect his prized art.

Police are also asking for any information relating to the theft of these two paintings to be reported on 09 3026832, or Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.

The theft is one of the biggest in New Zealand history.

Arguably the nation's most infamous art theft was in 1998 when Ricardo Sannd, also known as Ricardo Romanov, went into Auckland Art Gallery armed with a gun.

After cutting a $2m Tissot paining from its frame, he sped away with the piece on a motorbike, but was arrested a week later - with the art discovered underneath his bed.

He was sentenced to almost 14 years in prison for the crime.

Twenty years ago a $2 million Colin McCahon mural, Urewera, was stolen from the Aniwaniwa centre by Tuhoe activists.

Dame Jenny Gibbs negotiated with Tame Iti and Te Kaha for its return and said it was a lesson in how it felt to have taonga stolen.

Te Kaha received a 15-month suspended prison sentence and was ordered to do community work after admitting to the burglary.