IT looked like just another parked trailer on an industrial estate in Los Angeles. Inside, however, were prized artworks by such illustrious artists as Matisse, Miro and Chagall.

Unfortunately for the owner, the trailer and its contents – worth an estimated $250,000 – are now at the centre of a massive police investigation in the Californian city after it disappeared, becoming one of the many art thefts that occur around the world each year in a booming black market for looted cultural property.

“Looking at this from the point of view of a criminologist, you want to ask, firstly, who keeps art like that in a trailer?” said Dr Donna Yates, an expert in antiquities trafficking research at the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research. “Keeping it in a trailer is pretty much asking for it to be stolen. There are lots of questions in this case.”

The bizarre theft will be high on the agenda as part of a unique online university course being launched in Glasgow next week which has put Scotland at the heart of the global fight against art theft. Antiquities Trafficking and Art Crime, a course developed by the Trafficking Culture project and the University of Glasgow, will cover cutting-edge research into what it describes as “art’s seedy underworld”.

The course will draw upon expertise in fields such as archaeology, criminology, art history and law, and it is already proving so popular that more than 7,000 people have signed up from around the world, among them a former FBI agent, novelists and archaeologists. Yates said: “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 resemble 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 this online course is a good start.”

The course will be at pains to point out that art crime usually does not pay. Both the Mona Lisa and The Scream were stolen but were recovered by the police. The thieves, unable to find buyers for such globally-known artworks, were arrested. There is, however, a strong market for looted art.

Antiquities experts have been particularly distressed by footage of Isis militants looting or destroying priceless cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq.

Yates added: “We’re really talking about what people do with that stuff afterwards. Who buys stolen art – and can anybody really buy stolen art?

“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. 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. The criminals saw the antiquities as part of their heritage.

“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 free on the Open University’s online learning platform FutureLearn: