The first thing Stefan Mauger stole was a dossier. He was still a boy of 13 (called "The young Count") and his father, a minor member of the nobility in Central Europe on the brink of World War I, had been put in an insane asylum after taking a shot at him on a hunting expedition.

Why? In his eagerness for an explanation, the baffled Stefan visited the clinic where his father was confined, had a meaningless conversation with the psychiatrist, and stole the folder containing his father's case history and reports. After reading it, "he was not enlightened; at least, however, his confusion was shared by the most eminent doctors . . . In all events, in the passion to know the truth, he overlooked one aspect of his conduct, distinctly odd for a young Count, even a Count of the lesser nobility. He had committed a theft."

He was true to his heritage, of course; the Maugers (or Von Maugers) had "marauder origins," as noble lines tend to do if they are traced back far enough. But he was true also to himself, stealing an explanation, not something of commerical value.

Forty years later, having cast off his attenuated claim to nobility, Stefan Mauger is living in Mexico and making a career of theft. Now, he is stealing pre-Columbian art on a grand scale. It is there for the taking, carefully preserved in ancient tombs, and its value is enough to support Stefan in comfort while he pursues his own career as a sculptor (respected but not commerical). Every time he sells a piece of his own work, he loses money on it -- so he lives by robbing the dead, plundering a national heritage.

As he did when he was a boy, he is still stealing explanations -- the whole Mayan view of reality is embodied in its sculptures. And as before, his attitude toward the explanations he steals is still bascially one of contempt. The Mayan explanation enlightens and satisfies him no more than that of a long-ago Salzburg psychiatrist.

Stefan is a clever thief, and he is pursued by an appropriately clever investigator, Inspector Baltasar Mariposa, who works in a social investigative branch of Mexico's Department of the Interior. "Mariposa guards the Mexico nobody remembers," according to his self-description. "All alone. I do it all alone. One day they will want to recall what nobody cares about any longer and they will thank Mariposa for vigilance."

What Mariposa really guards is his roots, a past that he would like to restore. He explains it to a policeman who does not see the value of "a mess of clay statues."

"Once upon a time, my friend, you and I were not Christian. We were worshipers of the sun and the moon, and the god of good harvest, and rain, and all those gods had their statues . . . It's just as terrible to steal those statues as it is to steal the cross, perhaps even more terrible because it means stealing something that you and I were long before we were actually born, stealing our past and smuggling it out to sell to gringos to put in their living rooms or in their gardens."

Mauger and Mariposa are both collectors. Mauger keeps one choice item from each batch of sculptures he steals and sells. Mariposa keeps one from each batch he retrieves.

On one level, "Acts of Theft" is a very elaborate story of cops and robbers -- but its aspires to much more and its aspirations are largely fulfilled. The parallels that spring to mind are "Crime and Punishment" or "Les Miserables," and if it does not have quite the depth of the one or the sweeping scope of the other, it is certainly more than a routine novel. Its texture is rich, with a background that ranges from the decadent nobility of Europe, through the Parisian art scene of the '20s (with a splendid vignette of Brancusi, Stefan's idol) to a careful consideration of North American primitive cultures -- the dead Maya of Mexico and the still-living Kwakiutl of the Pacific Northwest. Its central characters are deeply pondered, and the metaphysical concerns that drive them are rendered not only in occasional dialogues a la Plato but in gestures both concrete and symbolic that add up to a well-engineered plot.

The book's real subjects include the gods we worship -- not only old idols but art and the vision that informs it and the self that engenders the vision; the tension between the civilized and the primitive; the persistence of myth (an explanation that we no longer believe but still consider beautiful) in shaping our lives; the obsessive power of mystery, and the passion at least to possess that which we cannot understand; the curious links between the acts of creation and destruction.

Underlying all these is the subject of sculpture -- though the intricate weaving of thematic strands makes Arthur Cohen's technique seem more like that of tapestry. But in the final analysis, his technique, too, is sculptural; the book has a three-dimensional solidity, and it looks at its subject from many different angles.