The Louvre. The Metropolitan. The Interior Department.

The Interior Department?

While it may not rank among the world's great art museums, the huge land-management agency boasts an impressive store of artwork and cultural artifacts valued in the tens of millions. But according to the results of a recent internal investigation, many of its finest examples might soon wind up on the endangered species list.

An audit by Interior's inspector general cited numerous instances of lost or damaged artworks, including some by artists such as Norman Rockwell and a $10,000 painting that had been spattered by workers redoing office walls at Interior's Washington headquarters.

The audit could not account for 360 artworks, "many of which were of significant historical and monetary value," while others were in attics or basements where they were threatened by "environmental hazards" such as water and mold. The audit faulted Interior for failing to keep an accurate inventory and allowing "unlimited access" by employees and others.

Interior spokesman Steven Goldstein called the findings "disconcerting" but said the department is now cataloging its collection of art and artifacts. "These artists didn't give their paintings to be stored in a musty attic somewhere," Goldstein said.

Among the examples cited in the report:

Interior employees in Washington were using a $5,000 Apache basket as a trash can and other baskets had been employed as planters.

A painting by Navajo artist R.C. Gorman, valued at $50,000, was missing from the headquarters of Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs; another "was retrieved from a collection of trash in the hallway."

A Zuni pot, worth an estimated $8,000, and a Civil War sword were missing from the Reston office of Interior's U.S. Geological Service.

Nine Navajo rugs had been nailed to the walls of an Interior office in Phoenix, causing "undue stress on the fabric," and two had been used as floor coverings. Similar rugs had been valued at $3,000 to $20,000, the report said.

More than 150 paintings were missing after they were moved from Interior offices in Washington to Denver.

Interior's collection of art and artifacts is as varied as the terrain it oversees. Probably the most extensive is that of the National Park Service, whose many public displays include paintings and sculptures as well as archeological and historic artifacts. Yosemite National Park alone boasts a collection of 32,000 objects worth more than $8 million, the report said.

In addition, the Bureau of Indian Affairs has an extensive collection of Indian art and artifacts, while the Bureau of Reclamation, which builds federal water projects, has commissioned numerous paintings that celebrate its activities in the West.

The report's most serious finding concerned the disappearance of paintings by artists such as Norman Rockwell, Dean Fauset and Jerome Tiger. It found that many Interior employees were unaware of the value of objects in their care, and that the department lacks adequate staff to keep track of its collection.

Many artworks, moreover, had been damaged by water stains, faded by direct sunlight -- even nibbled on by insects. One of them, a painting by Jerome Tiger titled "Misery on the Trail of Tears," showed signs of water damage. But the auditors were unable to determine the full extent of damage. On May 10, the painting was reported missing from a wall in the South Interior building.