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AUCKLAND (Reuters) - New Zealand police released images of two men sought in connection with the brazen theft of 130-year-old paintings of Maori tribal leaders from an Auckland gallery.

The two paintings by Czech artist Gottfried Lindauer were stolen early on Saturday when thieves drove a vehicle into the front window of the International Art Centre gallery and auction house. The artworks were to be auctioned this week.

The images from CCTV footage showed two males wearing dark clothes, black gloves and bandanas partially covering their faces. Police estimated they were 20-30 years old.

"If you recognise any of these men – even if you suspect it could be someone you know, please get in touch with us," Detective Inspector Scott Beard of the Auckland City Police said in a statement.

Auckland's international airport was on high alert for anybody trying to transport the paintings out of the country, police said. They also informed Interpol, the global police cooperation agency.

Lindauer, who emigrated to New Zealand in the 1870s, is best known for his detailed portraits of Maori chiefs. The stolen art, believed to have been painted in the 1880s, are portraits of Chief Ngatai-Raure and his wife, detailing the Maori practice of facial tattooing.

The New Zealand Herald reported that the paintings were valued at NZ$1 million ($700,000) as a pair.

"It is one of the most significant art thefts in New Zealand if we look at the value of the works," Ngarino Gabriel Ellis, a senior lecturer in Maori art history at the University of Auckland, told Reuters.

Ellis said it was likely the thieves thought they could sell or ransom the paintings, but warned that it would be difficult.

"You cannot sell them anywhere globally through an auction house because they are under pressure in terms of due diligence," she said. "Also, ransoming doesn't normally come off because almost always they are nabbed when the money is collected."

Nigel Borell, curator of Maori art at the Auckland Art Gallery, said Lindauer's work was very important to New Zealand's history.

"Lindauer was probably New Zealand's most prolific portrait painter," Borell said. "The saddest part is the fact that some irreplaceable damage may have occurred during the robbery."

($1 = 1.4284 New Zealand dollars)

(Reporting and writing by Benjamin Weir, Editing by Darren Schuettler)

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