"As I appear before you today," Sheika Hussah Sabah Salem Sabah said before she broke down in tears, "I do not know the whereabouts of many of my family and my friends. I do not know if they are safe at this moment, and if they will be safe at the end of my statement."

The Kuwaiti princess, now living in exile in Switzerland, was in Washington recently to announce the U.S. tour of a small but representative group of works from her family's collection of Islamic art. "Islamic Art and Patronage: Selections From Kuwait" will open Dec. 9 at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore and go on to Fort Worth, Atlanta, St. Louis and Richmond.

The 114 pieces in the exhibition, on display in the Hermitage in Leningrad when Iraq invaded Kuwait in August, and another six lent to the Virginia Museum of Art in Richmond, are all that are known to be safe from the collection assembled since 1975 by Sabah and her husband, Sheik Nasser Sabah Ahmad Sabah. Sheika Sabah told reporters at the Meridian House news conference that she had heard reports of Iraqi trucks being loaded in front of the Kuwait National Museum, which houses the collection of 7,000 major works from the 8th through the 19th centuries -- Korans, rugs, metalwork, glass and ceramics -- plus 9,000 coins.

She worries that the art objects, the best of which were installed in elaborate, electronically controlled showcases, might have been damaged. "To get the objects out, they would have to take an electric drill -- the delicate ceramics would be destroyed," Sabah, who is director of the Kuwait museum, said. "Iraq has many beautiful objects in its own museum. ... I so hope they are not harmed, that the Iraqis will take care of them. In the museum they had the proper lights and humidity to preserve them. The earliest is an 8th-century parchment of the Koran."

Pictures and lists of the objects have been given to UNESCO in the hopes that if they are sold on international markets, they can be recovered, Sabah said. "More likely, they would be sold in the black market," she added.

Ironically, said Esin Atil, Islamic art historian at the Smithsonian's Arthur M. Sackler Gallery and curator of the exhibition, "as a responsible curator, I didn't select the more fragile or the most valuable pieces. Fortunately, the ones I chose are the most representative of Islamic design and craft."

Paul Perrot, director of the Virginia Museum, said the Sabah collection "is one of the greatest Islamic collections in the world. The Metropolitan Museum envies its works. Since Sheik Sabah is on the board of Christie's {auction house}, he has a wonderful opportunity to know what's coming up in the world."

The National Endowment for the Arts last week agreed to indemnify the exhibit at a value of almost $18 million. Without that action, private insurance on the show would have cost almost $100,000, said Ann Van Devanter Townsend, president of the Trust for Museum Exhibitions. The Kuwait government and 22 Kuwaiti and U.S. corporations are sponsoring the exhibit and each museum pays a fee for the rental.

Speculation as to the worth of the entire collection doesn't interest Sabah, she said. "The value is not in money. We bought some private collections, but found other individual pieces in markets in New Delhi or bazaars elsewhere. Some can never be replaced."

"I was not brave this morning," the princess said in her hotel suite after the news conference. "I couldn't get myself together."

Sabah, 40, lives in an apartment in Switzerland with their children, ranging in age from 11 to 19. She is awaiting her fifth child in another two months. "The landlord asked me to take our name off the door for security's sake." When she telephones, her friends and the trust officials don't ask where she is. She worries every day about her husband. "He is where he should be," she said, "with the government in exile on the Kuwait-Saudi Arabian border."

She said she had almost none of her possessions with her when she left Kuwait in the summer to enroll their children in an Austrian camp and to go on to Prague to help prepare an audiovisual program on Kuwaiti culture, using slides and real actors. (Sabah also is working on a documentary on Islamic culture with Washington filmmaker Jo Franklin-Trout.)

"My husband insisted I take a large gold bracelet he had just given me so I would get used to it. I hate it -- my wrists, you see, are too small to properly support it," she said.

At the time, Sabah had little fear for the safety of their belongings. "Kuwait is a very safe country. We don't lock our cars. We leave the keys in the ignition. We leave the doors to the house open. A woman can in perfect safety come home at midnight. The emir walks down the street without fear," she said, still referring to her country in the present tense.

"We had no real warning of the Iraq attack. We were told the gathering at the border was only a training exercise. I've heard that even the Iraq soldiers didn't know, and had no real weapons, except for the elite troops who were sent to kill the emir -- and when they failed, they were all executed themselves."

Sabah waved away talk of the stresses of being seven months pregnant at such a traumatic time.

"There are so few of us, only a third of the population of Kuwait, that we are urged to have many children," she said. By "us" she meant the founders of the nation, two prosperous, well-educated tribes who brought the tiny country to a high state of culture and wealth. Sabah is the daughter of the late emir and the sister of a former ambassador to the United States. She and her husband, first cousins, are niece and nephew to the present emir. Her father-in-law is the foreign minister.

Hussah and Nasser Sabah played together as children. "I hated him. He was so naughty." She said she was not interested in marrying anyone in her young adulthood; "I was more interested in intellectual things." She studied in England and graduated from Kuwait University with a degree in English literature. "Nasser sought me out. Then I found he had become nicer, more interesting." Now her husband breeds Arabian horses and is a politician, banker and collector.

"I was first interested in contemporary Western art, my husband in Renaissance furniture," Sabah said. "One day in 1975 my husband brought home a bottle from the 14th-century Islamic culture. We decided that Islamic art had everything that we loved in modern art. And we began to collect Islamic works from all over the world."

The artworks came from countries from Spain to India, but not from Kuwait. Her land, she says, "was not a center of culture in the height of the Islamic period." Iraq is represented in their collection -- one piece is a 9th-century astrolabe, believed to be the only one that carries its date and the name of its maker.

"The Iraqi people are kind, gentle, wonderful craftspeople, civilized," Sabah said. "It is their conquerors who are warlike."