The big question is not who stole one of George Washington's four sets of false teeth from the Smithsonian Institution. The big question is not even why. The big question is: What was George Washington doing with four sets of false teeth?

The Smithsonian, well aware of its dignity as attic to the whole nation, was not about to comment on this yesterday. Instead, they prefeered to say, "We are, needless to say, deeply distressed and deeply humiliated. The Smithsonian holds these items in trust and it is a very grievous and painful loss for us."

The "why" of the theft is easy. They were made of ivory and gold, and the price of gold being what it is, they must have looked tempting. They were reported missing along with another set of false teeth dating from 1845 and two gold pocket watches belonging to pioneer anesthesiologists W.T.G. Morton and Crawford W. Long. ("Pioneer anesthesiologists"? Skulking around the wagon trains, clapping coonskin hats soaked in chloroform over people's faces?)

The "who" may not be as obvious.

Earlier this year the Museum of American History lost objects including two ceremonial swords, two gold presentation medals, and so on. Three people, including a guard, were arrested.

The museum doesn't know how much gold might have been in the teeth. Why would there be gold in false teeth, come to think of it? Maybe that's the style George Washington lived in. Got himself false teeth, and had to lay in some gold to show off to Lafayette when he came over to dinner.

"They're terrible looking things," said Lawrence Taylor, a museum spokesman. "They don't look like teeth at all, they're just a series of ivory blocks, all carved to essentially the same size."

Imagine old George unwrapping those teeth in a big horse laugh, and you'll know why they call them choppers. And see if you can stare down a face that includes that smile, Lafayette.

The teeth were made in 1795. They were kept in a high-security storage room with "controlled access," Taylor said. So it was no easy heist, not like putting a stuffed woodchuck under your arm and strolling out the door.

There must have been "entangling alliances" of just the kind the Father of Our Country used to worry about. Collusion! Masterminds! Or is it possible that his fear of "entangling alliances" came from some sorry attempt to ally his false teeth with an ear of corn, or some winter squash, the kind that gets all stringy and tangled up in the very best teeth, false or natural?

"I realize there's going to be some sort of snickering -- Ha, ha, George Washington's teeth," said a saddended Taylor, who asked that it be remembered that "the worst thing that can happen is to lose an item of great historical importance."

False teeth? Even George Washington's?

A thorough search has been made, the FBI has been called in.

By why four sets? Three would be understandable, but . . .

"The art of making false teeth, back then, was hardly an exact one," said Taylor, doing his best to be helpful.

Still, considering the importance the Smithsonian is putting on this theft, and the mystery presented by the existence of all those sets of teeth, investigators would do well not to rule out the possibility that George Washington was the owner of none other than the world's first set of wind-up clacking teeth, the kind you used to stick in your kid brother's drawer.

Think about it. Think about the look old George always has on his face in those portraits, like he's wrinkling down his lips trying not to laugh as old Lafayette heads upstairs for bed at Mt. Vernon, and any minute now he'll open the nightstand drawer and . . .