Picking through the posh Potomac home like discerning collectors, thieves carted off the modern art and left the less valuable works behind.

That haul of painting worth nearly $25,000, and in the months that followed, thieves just as astute would lift two valuable Inca statutes in McLean, a 19th century crystal chandelier worth $15,000 in Arlington, and finally, this month, a roomful of solid oak antiques from a Barnesville farm.

For the Washington suburbs it is a different kind of crime, perpetuated by what one policeman called "better educated thieves," and suddenly a growing problem.

While the experts say the big-time art world is "under siege" by thieves, who recently have stolen masterpieces from the walls of museums in New York, Chicago and San Francisco, the Maryland and Virginia suburbs are suffering their own little revolution in art crime.

"No we're not talking about Rembrandts," says Montgomery County Detective James King, "but the art objects being stolen in this area are valuable."

In Montgomery, King says as many as 30 burglaries this year have involved art-everything from valuable collector plates to rare antiques to bronze African sculptures.

In Arlington and parts of Fairfax County, there also have been a number of thefts in recent months in which art objects-particularly pieces of delicately crafted Imari porcelain from Japan-were taken, according to police in those areas.

Statistics are difficult to come by because burglaries aren't classified by the items that are stolen, according to King, an antiques buff and one of the few art theft experts in the nation.

But art burglaries, he says, definitely are on the rise. A few years ago, the "class of criminals stealing wouldn't touch" art, but these days the thieves are becoming "more sophisticated," King says.

Take for instance the recent theft of what police describe as a 500-pound antique crystal chandelier, shipped from Italy for an Arlington townhouse. The thieves had "such respect for the home's other antiques" that they used cloths to protect an antique table they climbed on to get to the chandelier, according to Arlington Detective Jan Sickel.

In the Potomac modern art theft last Labor Day weekend, the thieves were just as aesthetically discriminating. Inclined to bright splashes of color on canvases worth as much as $5,000 apiece, they left behind the more traditional-and less valuable-works, according to King.

Sometimes, apparently by design, the thieves are interested in the less valuable objects. In one of the first Montgomery art thefts, King recalls, the burglars were after "midline antiques-items of high quality, but not so fine they would stand out," he explains. Among their choices from a Bethesda antique store were a walnut Queen Anne lowboy, worth $3,5000, and a Sheraton mahogany highchair, circa 1785, worth $1,500, according to police files.

To thwart such educated thieves, police are now getting a hand from the are world in the form of the new International Guide to Missing Treasures, which will publish photographs of arts works stolen throughout the world.The first issue isn't even out, but the guide already has on file pictures of hundreds of stolen objects, including two small Rodin sculptures from the Maryland suburban areas, according to one of the guide's founders, Lynn Epstein.

And why have thieves gone into art?

"Art as increased enormously in value in the past few years, and there's been lots of publicity about that," says Epstein, a gallery owner in New York City.

King says this was once a "big-city crime. But the ball gets rolling, and now it's starting to be a problem here in the suburbs." CAPTION: Picture, This Queen Anne lowboy, $3,500, disappeared from antique store.