LOOTING BURIED TREASURE is one of the world's oldest, and least honorable, professions. As a measure of how such vandalism can practically eradicate the traces of a great culture, consider that the precious objects recovered after 3,000 years from the tomb of Tut are assumed by experts to be only a small sample of what once lay in the Valley of the Kings' 26 other tombs - presumably all looted. It is for this reason that we are troubled by some of the opposition to a bill, now before the House Ways and Means Committee, aimed primarily at curbing international traffic in plundered archaeological treasures.
Members of the American Association of Dealers in Ancient, Oriental and Primitive Art have raised numerous, and reasonable, objections to details of the proposal that the United States join this international effort to curtail pillage, but one argument frequently raised strikes us as sheer irresponsibility.
Since the Americans, they maintain, would become the only major art consumers to have joined this international enterprise to protect excavations and collections - particularly those in the Mideast, Africa, and Central and South America - the action would merely drive the illegal trade away from here and into the art markets of Europe and Japan. As the proposal's sponsor, Rep. Abner J. Mikva (D-III.) so pungently observed after recent hearings, "It was just amazing to hear the arguments. The gist of them was 'We've got to pillage, because if we don't someone else will.'"
This, some would argue, is putting it a little harshly. But to block - on these grounds - this plan to align the United States with the 30 nations that have already joined together under the aegis of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization is to ignore, we think, the fundamental issue. Agree, the gaping hole in the control net posed by nonmembership of other major art-consuming nations is quite a problem, but you can be sure they're never going to join if we don't. True, there's also no guarantee that they will join if we do. So the effect of our participation might be only to lessen, not eliminate, the plunder. Even so, there is a serious principle involved here, whaever the precise practical effect of American membership in this enterprise, and it astonishes us that so many members of Congress seem to be taking so casual an attitude about it.