Maybe the thieves thought they could sell their loot to the Picasso and Van Gogh lovers of the world. After all, the stuff looks like the work of the masters.

Or maybe whoever stole the eclectic assortment of oil paintings, drawings and sculptures from Bowie State University was too lazy or too short on cash to go out and buy his own artwork.

But what 67-year-old artist William Sorrentino, a retired federal employee, can't figure out is why anyone would want to steal the portrait he painted of himself.

"That's what I can't understand," said Sorrentino, a Laurel resident and volunteer teaching assistant in the college's art department.

"It's a painting of me. What are they going to do with it?"

Good question, say Bowie State police who are investigating the theft of Sorrentino's works, which occurred a day after he opened his one-man show at the college.

According to campus police, someone entered the 20- by 50-foot gallery on the main floor of the Martin Luther King Jr. classroom building late Nov. 3 or early Nov. 4. The thief or thieves then absconded with 12 of the 65 paintings and sculptures that Sorrentino displayed in his show.

Bowie State police officers, who carry guns and have the same powers as county police, are investigating because they have jurisdiction over criminal activities on the campus.

The police report is short on details but says there appeared to be no forced entry, raising the question of whether the theft may have been an inside job.

Sorrentino, who discovered the theft when he opened the gallery Nov. 4, estimates his loss at $4,500.

"We are definitely investigating this, especially since there appears to be a key-control issue," said Loretta Hardge, a university spokeswoman. "We are extremely concerned, and we do not take this lightly."

Sorrentino surmises that more than one thief hauled his artwork off in a pickup or utility vehicle, something large enough to accommodate the heavy pieces, including one that was 3 feet wide by 4 feet long.

"You just don't go walking around with a big canvas under your arm," Sorrentino said. "It's the damnedest thing. They must have had a truck and planned this thing out."

The fact that police are taking the theft seriously is heartening for Sorrentino, who never thought his works would be the target of art thieves.

"People tell me I undervalue my work, but I'm not in it for the money," said a visibly shaken Sorrentino. "I do it because it's my passion."

In addition to the self-portrait, nine other wall hangings were taken. Among them were a colorful still life oil on canvas painting of fruit in a bowl, a watercolor with flowers and an oil painting of a skeleton head. The three sculptures that were stolen were made of bronze, slate and plaster.

Sorrentino said the stolen pieces should be identifiable from the inscription of his name or initials on them. The works are insured by the university, but Sorrentino wants his works back.

While he waits for them to turn up, Sorrentino continues his show. The gallery still contains 53 of his pieces, including several sketches and paintings of nude women and a simple black-and-white sketch of a pelvis, done, said Sorrentino, because skeletal drawings are an important part of an artist's training.

An easygoing man, Sorrentino said he took up painting and sculpting 17 years ago as a way to express his creative side and escape the demands of his paying jobs.

Maybe the thief stole the art for the same reasons.

"If he's not an artist, he's certainly got a taste for good art," Sorrentino, his frown turning into a smile. "I can tell by what he took."

CAPTION: These two are among 12 pieces of art by William Sorrentino that were stolen from a show at Bowie State University, where Sorrentino is a volunteer.