IRISH COLLECTORS of rare artwork have been warned they may have been admiring worthless replicas for years - without even realising it.

Gardai are seeking to reunite owners with a series of valuable stolen paintings that they suspect were replaced by convincing fakes during clandestine heists dating back to the 1980s.

Detectives in Dublin yesterday (Thurs) revealed an impressive haul of dozens of recovered gems, worth over $180,000 in total, that were stolen from private collectors, stately homes and upmarket hotels.

They suspect a number of art owners have remained oblivious to the fact that their original paintings - some of which are over 200-years-old - may have been nabbed and discreetly replaced by replicas as thieves sought to cover their tracks.

The Irish Independent notes that the haul, which also includes books and antiques, were stolen in the 1980s and 1990s and were discovered by authorities last April at the Dublin home of a well-known art thief.

A total of 48 pieces of artwork were recovered from the property, but six of these have already been returned to their owners in Dublin, Carlow, Belfast and the UK.

And one of the stolen paintings has been identified as belonging to former RTE presenter Thelma Mansfield, who said she had been unaware of the alleged theft.

Yesterday Garda Superintendent Paul Moran put the originals on display at Dublin's Pearse Street garda station and appealed to the public to help reunite the pieces to their owners.

He said: "Our objective is to return these pieces of art to their owners. We have confirmed that six of these recovered items have been stolen and we suspect that the remaining items were also stolen."

No charges have been made yet in relation to the discovery of the art, but the investigation is understood to be at a very early stage.

Among the impressive items in the collection is a ruined castle landscape by William Ashford, worth over $13,000 and dating back to the 1800s.

Works by leading Irish artists Brian Ballard, Mark O'Neill and Graham Knuttel - worth over $13,000 each - have also been recovered.

All of the artwork is on display on the garda website -