Some statues 17 centuries old are at the center of a controversy generating international outrage.
This past week, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan ordered the destruction of thousands of ancient statues and allegedly began blowing some of them up this weekend.
"There's no way you could reproduce these," said Pratapaditya Pal, visiting curator at the Cultural Institute of Chicago. "If these are lost, then the largest, oldest statues of the Buddha in the world are lost forever."
The towering Buddha statues — up to 17 stories tall — were already damaged by artillery fire in Afghanistan's protracted civil war.
The Taliban militia would allow no photographs of the destruction, but the country's information minister says two-thirds of all the country's statues are wiped out. The rest, they say, will be destroyed in the next two days.
The government's drive to eradicate artifacts from the pre-Islamic past has sparked an international outcry. Even the country's closest ally, Pakistan, pleaded with the militia to spare the statues.
"All ambassadors from Islamic countries, whether from Africa, Asia and Arab states — they were all unanimous that this act and this decision is totally contrary to the principles of Islam," said Mounir Bouchen, vice director for culture for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
The United Nations led an 11th-hour drive to rescue the artifacts, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has offered to pay to remove them.
One art curator compares the Taliban's action to the West destroying the Mona Lisa.
"I would say it's more calamitous than destroying the Statue of Liberty or the Eiffel Tower," said Pal.