In the vast wave of criminal skullduggery sweeping over the globe in recent years, art has played a five-star, leading role. Thefts of paintings and other artwork blossomed like sunflowers in a Monet garden, reaching lofty heights of $4 to $6 billion a year. Interpol claims art theft and fraud may be the third most profitable crime trade, running close behind drugs and arms, but thieves aren’t filing many tax returns, so it’s hard to say.

Stolen art is more likely to originate in Europe, Latin America or the East but often ends up in U.S. markets, so the FBI is busily involved. One massive exception was the largest art heist to date, from our own Isabelle Gardner museum in Boston in 1990. Built in the style of a cozy 5th-century Venetian palace, it’s hard to believe that 13 paintings worth $500 million were easily walked off the property by two phony policemen in a leisurely 80-minute soiree there.

Although the paintings seem to have vanished entirely, signs of hope remain at the Gardner. Their empty frames linger on museum walls symbolizing the future return of the Rembrandt, Vermeer and other priceless works of art. An aggressive campaign by district attorneys, the FBI, Interpol and art agencies is re-publicizing the thefts and hoping to re-heat this cold case.

The drama is playing out in the press right now, as publicity is ramped up by restating a $5-million reward for information leading to return of the work and a flurry of press conferences. Adding to the chatter is a trail of mafia suspects who can’t remember a thing and are comfortably dying of old age while they refuse to talk.

One is James “Whitey” Bulger, the most publicized mobster since Al Capone and target of a decades long international manhunt. Bulger, a major mafia figure, may well know who has the loot but isn’t talking. In spite of denials Bulger had ties to all Boston suspects, living and dead, and had past ties to the Irish Republican Army, which was pressing for stolen art to increase its coffers about that time.

Since his capture, he almost certainly has been questioned on the Gardner theft, but there will be no plea deals in return for art, according to officials connected with his case.

Donald K. Stern, former U.S. attorney who led both the manhunt for Bulger and the Gardner case till 2001 explained why: “These charges are just too serious, too overwhelming for there to be any consideration of release.”

The FBI will consider immunity for those involved in the heist in return for the art, but 19 dead bodies is a deal breaker.

The Gardner Museum should have learned to zip things thing up a little tighter after a high school student managed to steal a Rembrandt self-portrait from them in 1981 by simply breaking a light bulb and waltzing off. Apparently the student’s adventure with the purloined Rembrandt didn’t last much past the exit according to Anthony Amore, security expert for the Gardner, who has been much featured in the press lately.

The student bandit’s redux just came out last spring as a group of Johannesburg thieves posing as fascinated art students robbed the Pretoria Art Museum at gunpoint after dutifully paying their admission. They were picky, choosing $2 billion worth of paintings from South Africans such as Irma Stern, which were found a few days later in private cemetery, oddly enough.

"The Concert," by Vermeer, stolen from the Gardner

It’s also been a good year for the recovery of stolen art, should you have a missing Vermeer or a white gold and diamond tiara. The Duchess of Argyll lost some luggage with several family treasures at Glasgow Airport in 2006 and recovered most of them last June when she saw them offered in an auction catalog. Strangely, her gems had been sold for charity as unclaimed property held by the British Airports Association. Did anyone actually bother to look in lost luggage first? At any rate, the airport staff must be stellar there.

For victims of art theft the horizon is looking brighter, and it’s promising to get better as groups such as Art Loss Register aid the cause. Currently the ALR is world’s largest international private database of stolen, missing and looted artwork. As they add to their vast digital inventory, sellers and buyers find a place to check on the provenance of a piece. ALR also promises to help make life tougher on thieves, who have to do something with the stuff once they’ve nicked it.

Just months ago a pilfered Matisse valued at $1 million was returned to the Museum of Modern Art in Stockholm due to the expert sleuthing of Christopher A. Marinello, a lawyer working with ALR in London. He watched the art market for 22 years but finally it floated to the surface. Marinello has been intercepting stolen art en route to other owners at quite a pace, often working with Interpol or the FBI.

Perhaps the tale of Jeffrey Gundlach, CEO of DoubleLine Capital LP and his $20-$39 million worth of stolen art and goods is less inspiring. Thieves stole modern art and a Porsche last year from Gundlach , legendary for his investments as well as the huge stash of pornography, alcohol, drugs and “sexual devices,” which lead to his firing from TCW.

I include him for his clever tactics in finding the perps, which apparently worked. Immediately after offering a $200,000 reward, Gundlach had another idea. Some of the paintings were publicly known to have come from his grandmother. He told police look up recent Google searches for “Helen Fuchs,” and lo and behold there were only two, Gundlach and the art thieves.

Generally, stolen art is sold for pennies on the dollar, so paper worth translates to much less in the real life of a crook. The FBI and Interpol are conducting a big PR campaign at the moment aimed at art thieves and those considering it as a career move. They point out that almost no one will buy instantly recognizable art off the street unless your name is Verne or Saatchi. Walking into a gallery and claiming the Goya was littering your great aunt’s basement is not likely to fly far. Holding it ransom rarely works either. For that reason art gets stashed in private homes and storage lockers getting moldy and warped for decades until the hue and cry dies down.

Stealing art still appeals to criminals, because they assume they will encounter less resistance and generally don’t end up harming anyone. There are a few exceptions, however, such as the unfortunate case of a Belgian collector who was seriously injured by home intruders and art robbers last December. Traditionally art thieves only began to carry weapons quite recently, and the days we can count on the genteel art thief may be gone.

Stolen art is also is a flooded market, with approximately 350,000 works floating around the globe. As a last resort art is sometimes traded between crime rings, cartel leaders or terrorists as a kind of black market currency for guns or drugs.

Marinello noted that “stolen artwork has no real value in the legitimate marketplace and will eventually resurface … it’s just a matter of waiting it out.”

But wait! News of the world’s art heists wouldn’t be complete without he tale of the “sleeping art thief.” Yes, it is possible to have a law degree, be in a lucid conversation at cocktail party, slip out and steal art next door and be sleeping the entire time.

This is what a court in Australia ruled in the case of lawyer Michael Gerard Sullivan, who stole art by James Willebrant in 2008 and is now an entirely free man due to his strange afflictions. Yes, a team of highly imaginative lawyers and psychologists fabricated an entirely new permutation of disorder for the situation (fortunately for Sullivan) who was “assuming the identity of an art thief.”

Sullivan admits he took the objects (CCTV recorded him doing it and they were in his home) but denied it all because he “didn’t remember.” Not a bit. Two psychiatric reports claim he was “suffering from a case of dissociative disorder, dissociative amnesia at the time that led to him ‘assuming the identity of an art thief’ and then forgetting” that he committed the theft.

Not only is Sullivan’s memory to blame, but also his terribly sensitive nature. Dissociative amnesia causes persons to forget details of a “traumatic or stressful event” and can last from a few days to one or more years. I’d assume, though, that the “traumatic event” was done to you, not by you, but what do I know? I’m not a lawyer or a psychiatrist.

Anyway, the judge was convinced, and because of no prior records of pathological lying, deception or greed, Sullivan is free to continue practice at Leahy Lewin Nutley Sullivan in Papua New Guinea. At least Willebrant got his pieces back, and now all’s well with the art world.

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