THINKING of putting together a small team to steal the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in Paris?

A word before you do - it probably isn't worth it.

It’s not just that fact that when it was stolen in 1911 by an Italian who worked at the Louvre, he was caught a couple of years later and the painting was returned to the French capital.

Even if you manage to overcome the fantastic, high-tech security that protects Leonardo da Vinci's masterwork, your problems aren't quite over. Good luck in trying to find a buyer and escaping detection while the eyes of the world are upon you.

The murky world of art theft and the trafficking in antiquities is now to be the focus of an imaginative online course that starts next Monday.

The course, which is open to everyone, has been put together by the Trafficking Culture project and the University of Glasgow.

Antiquities Trafficking and Art Crime stems from the expert work of the project which, for the past four years, has explored the criminal networks that loot, smuggle and sell antiquities from across the globe. Trafficking Culture is the world’s only academic team devoted to multidisciplinary research into the theft, trafficking, and illicit sale of stolen cultural property.

Its detailed study of statue-smuggling networks in Cambodia and the looting of Maya tombs in Guatemala and Belize has been turned into case studies, videos and activities, which form the basis of the new course.

The course is already proving so popular that more than 7,000 people have signed up and their numbers are being added to at the rate of several hundred a day. Among them are a former FBI agent, novelists and archaeologists, as well as academics, security guards and people employed by museums, police forces or cultural institutions.

The interactive course, which will draw on archaeology, criminology, art history and law, will be led by Dr Donna Yates, an expert in antiquities trafficking research at the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research. She herself has studied the theft, trafficking, and security of Sacred Art, including art looted from churches in Latin America.

She said: “This free course is a stimulating opportunity to explore cases of art crime that make headlines around the world.

"Every day we see disturbing reports about the destruction of heritage in Yemen, Libya, Iraq, or Syria.

“Photographs of looters’ holes at important archaeological sites look like lunar landscapes. Paintings disappear off the walls of museums and go through incredible journeys through the criminal underworld. And indigenous people fight for the return of their sacred objects.

“People always ask me what they can do to help. I say, learn more and raise awareness. We believe that taking part in the course is a great start.”

Dr Yates added: "We were really looking for a way to translate our academic research findings for the general public, because the past and its heritage matters to absolutely everyone. Art crime and antiquities trafficking is something that more and more people are becoming very concerned about.

"While we do things with the UNESCO and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime we think our core findings, and the way that academics have been thinking about these issues, are totally relevant to the general public.

"The course is meant to be fun - if you can so describe such a slightly depressing subject - and engaging, but also really based on solid academic research. Our other goal is to raise awareness of the issue.

"We think that the only way there will be any substantive change towards protecting heritage in the right ways is if everybody knows about it and if this information becomes public," Dr Yates added.

The hope is that members of the public will be inspired to talk to MPs or MSPs about the issues and will engage more widely with museums.

Just three months ago, a trailer parked in Los Angles was stolen. Inside it were some $250,000 worth of works by such prominent artists as Miro, Matisse and Chagall.

Said Dr Yates: "Looking at this from the point of view of a criminologist, you want to ask, firstly, who keeps art like that in a trailer? Keeping it in a trailer is pretty much asking for it to be stolen. There are lots of questions in this case.

"But the question we're really talking about art theft in this course is, what do people do with that stuff afterwards? That's always the next step. How do they fence it? Who buys stolen art - and can anybody really buy stolen art?

"It might be the case that stealing art is a bad idea because there's no-one to offload it." But research has indicated that art or antiquities might be stolen to order to be enjoyed by a collector in private - the so-called 'Dr No' theory.

"But in a lot of major art heists where the police say it was probably looted to order, we tend to find out that was not actually the case.”

She added: "There was a famous theft from Mexico's National Museum on Christmas Eve in 1985, when the country's finest antiquities were stolen.

"The word was that they must have been looted to order but it turned out that it was just the work of some failed veterinary students who were drunk.

"They held onto the stuff for several years before trying to sell it to some real criminals who turned them in to the authorities. The criminals saw the antiquities as part of their heritage and took the view, ‘how dare these students steal it?’

"Sometimes art and antiquities thefts seem like 'Dr No' affairs, sometimes it's just the work of idiots who don't really realise what they are getting into. It's a combination of both, I think."

* Antiquities Trafficking and Art Crime starts on February 1, available for free on the Open University's online learning platform FutureLearn: