Precious-metals prices are surging, but investors pulled about $3 billion from the largest gold exchange traded fund (ETF) in the first quarter, research shows.

Overall, flows into ETFs were steady in the first quarter despite the ups and downs of market sentiment.

For the first quarter of 2011, inflows into U.S. ETFs were modestly positive, according to CovergEx, with $27.7 billion added to U.S.-listed ETFs. The iShares MSCI Japan (NYSEArca: EWJ) topped the asset-gathering charts, with $2.8 billion in new capital. [Japan ETFs Experience Record Inflows In Just A Week.]

Meanwhile, SPDR Gold Shares (NYSEArca: GLD) unexpectedly lost around $3 billion. [Tom Lydon Talks Gold ETFs On CNBC.]

Some observers believe the capital found its way into agriculture-based ETFs like PowerShares DB Agriculture Fund (NYSEArca: DBA) and Market Vectors Agribusiness ETF (NYSEArca: MOO). [Agriculture ETFs Harvest Gains.]