Where there's art, there's theft. Lots of art, lots of theft. New York? It's emerging as the art-theft capital of the nation, and one of the centers in the world.

"It's a major problem, and I don't see it going away," says senior special agent Charles Koczka of the U.S. Customs Service here, which is cooperating with the New York Police Department in investigating Sunday's thwarted theft of $18.5 million in Middle Eastern antiquities.

"There's a market for it," says Koczka, who specializes in recovering stolen artwork and is sometimes referred to as the Raider of the Lost Art. "Some people will restrict themselves to what's legally obtained; some won't. It will come here, to where the money is. That's the magnet -- New York."

The three men arrested at 1:30 a.m. Sunday as they attempted to make off with ancient vases, urns and jewelry at a Queens warehouse were arraigned yesterday in New York Criminal Court, charged with burglary, conspiracy and possession of stolen property. Sgt. Harry Sakin of the NYPD's Manhattan Robbery Squad said that "several" more arrests would follow within the week.

Sakin's team of five detectives had been watching the men for four months; they called the case "Old King Cole" because one of the arrested men, Daniel Kohl of Queens, owns an Upper East Side antique shop called "Old King Kohl." Sakin described the other dealer arrested, Nedjatollah Sakhai, owner of Ely's Antiques on lower Fifth Avenue, as a prosperous U.S. citizen who lives in a "mansion" in suburban Old Westbury, Long Island, and owns four Mercedeses. The third man, Thomas May of Elmhurst, Queens, manages a Sixth Avenue bar. Kohl and a fourth man, Al Brown of the Bronx, were also arraigned yesterday in connection with an attempted robbery of an Upper East Side oriental rug dealer in November.

It was oriental rugs that first drew the attention of the police, Sakin said yesterday. "We had a pattern of stickups in oriental rug stores. One rug might be worth as much as $60,000." Round-the-clock surveillance and "infiltration" of the operation by one of Sakin's detectives led to an informant's tip that the ring would hit a bonded Long Island City warehouse where the antiquities, sent by a London art dealer, were awaiting further shipment.

Sakin and his team (augmented by seven other detectives, three customs agents and two FBI agents) observed the break-in through hand-held "nightscopes" that illuminate dark scenes, then moved in to make arrests. He believes the burglars had inside information on the shipment. "Picture this warehouse full of wooden crates," he said. "They went right to these two," which someone had conveniently marked with red ink.

The attempted theft was, in one respect, illustrative of a trend in art-stealing. Thieves increasingly are going after objets instead of paintings, according to Gilbert Edelson, spokesman for the Art Dealers Association of America. "They're easier to sell; they're not as noticeable," Edelson said. "You and I would recognize a major Monet; a vase is easier to pass along. A lot of vases look alike. A lot of oriental rugs look alike. Especially in antiquities; the emphasis was not on uniqueness."

But Sunday's heist was atypical in that authorities recovered the targeted artworks. According to Lynn Stowell Pearson, director of the art theft archives of the International Foundation for Art Research, only about 10 to 20 percent of stolen art is recovered. In 1984, IFAR received reports of 4,100 items stolen in about 500 robberies and burglaries. "There's evidence that a lot of stolen artwork passes through New York," she said.

Though art sources said it was difficult to document an increase in incidents of theft, the value of stolen art is clearly growing along with the marked inflation of the works. "A $10,000 painting in 1975 might be worth $100,000 today," noted Fritz Hatton, director of operations at Christie's, the Park Avenue auction house. "People are considerably more security-conscious than they were."

At Christie's, where security costs run into "the significant six figures," Hatton said "we tend to be more cautious about sizing up a consigner, asking about where he obtained the property."

Edelson pointed out that nearly every art gallery now has an alarm system, as insurance companies require, and that many have added locked vitrines for small objects along with alarm devices triggered when a painting is removed from a wall.

Despite those precautions, customs agent Koczka says he is "being kept quite busy recovering works of art." On one memorable day last year the Raider picked up a $300,000 18th-century painting by Bellotto, which Christie's had brought in not knowing that it had been stolen from an Italian widow ; recovered a $50,000 marble sculpture of Socrates' head, which a dealer recognized from IFAR's Stolen Art Alert as missing from Hadrian's Villa outside Rome; and informed a New York dealer that the $12,000 Impressionist painting he'd bought in Paris and legally imported had been stolen from a Parisian home. "It was like hitting three home runs in one ball game," he said.

Law enforcement authorities have also won convictions of art dealers who traffic in stolen work. One prominent Boston gallery owner is serving five years probation after being convicted a year ago on three counts of conspiracy to transport and receive stolen property. He was also fined $30,000 and ordered to lecture the disadvantaged on art and art history for a total of 1,000 hours. Last fall, a New Jersey art dealer was convicted of interstate transport of stolen property. According to IFAR, which keeps track of these things, this dealer ran a sophisticated shell game, taking artworks from New York dealers on consignment and selling them without paying the owners. Then, when pressured for the proceeds, she took the same works on consignment from their new owners and returned them to the original dealers. She was sentenced to six years in federal prison.

But those triumphs, like Sunday's, are infrequent and may grow more so as thieves turn to little-known works that are less likely to be recognized and therefore are easier to sell. There are rather few Raiders in law enforcement -- one specialist detective with the New York City Police, one with the FBI, and Koczka. Scotland Yard, by contrast, has a whole antiquities squad; so do the Su rete' in France and the carabinieri in Italy.

Koczka understands. "If you ask 10 people coming out of the subway what priority they would give recovery of stolen art, they'd say it would be at the bottom. But I see the theft notices from Interpol. It's only growing."