For the third time Frans Hals’s painting Two Laughing Boys with a Mug of Beer was stolen from a small museum in the Dutch town of Leerdam.
Security was upgraded after the previous times, but this time thieves forced open the back door and made off with the painting.
One of the Old Masters of the Dutch Golden Age, Frans Hals painted the work in 1626.
Art detective Arthur Brand said he believed it was “stolen to order”.
Police said thieves broke into the museum in Leerdam, south of Utrecht, in the early hours of Wednesday. The alarm went off at 03:30 but by the time they had got to the museum the thieves had gone. They are now scouring CCTV footage and working with art theft experts and forensic teams.
Since the 2011 theft, the museum’s most valuable pieces have been kept in an area not open to the public that can only be visited with a member of staff, Dutch media report.
Two Laughing Boys was first stolen in 1988 along with a Jacob van Ruisdael work. Both paintings were recovered three years later.
The same paintings were taken again from the Hofje van Mevrouw van Aerden museum in 2011 and found six months on.
Frans Hals specialist Anna Tummers said at the time the painting was a “wonderful example of his loose painting style… it was very playful, daring and loose”.