Treasure Hunt

For archeologists, the plundering of the National Museum of Iraq two weeks ago was a cultural catastrophe. Although museum officials had boxed up and stored much of the collection before the war, apparently saving some of it, 150,000 or so items were still believed lost. Last week Secretary of State Colin Powell declared that possession of stolen treasures would be treated as a crime, and the FBI and Interpol announced that they were sending agents to track down looted artifacts. Scholars quickly joined with UNESCO to begin compiling a database of missing items.

Will these measures help--or merely close the door after the cuneiform is gone? "More damage was done in 48 hours than we could repair in 48 years," says Gary Vikan of Baltimore's Walters Art Museum. Experience has shown that smugglers can spirit artifacts overland across Iraq's porous borders and ship them to dealers in Zurich, London and New York. As a rule, identifiable works of art do not surface openly for a long time--no reputable museum would touch them--but disappear into private collections. Lesser items without a traceable source are sold more openly, because it's tough to prove in court where they came from.

One small sign of hope: late last week Baghdad residents returned 20 looted items. As for the shards on the museum floor, curators are starting to pick up the pieces.