On the eve of the 1981 election that gave France a socialist government led by Francois Mitterrand, Marvin Wiseman, the Center Art Galleries-Hawaii art expert, went to Paris loaded with cash.

When the election returns were announced at 8:00 p.m. nationwide, Wiseman got ready to wheel and deal. At 8:01, he says, his telephone started ringing as nervous French art collectors, worried about the imposition of a luxury tax on their assets, called him, offering to sell valuable works of art at bargain prices, in order to get cash (which could be easily hidden from the government if a luxury tax were imposed, he assumed).

"I was there with cash anticipating the panic selling of fine art, and we [Center Art Galleries] were in the right place at the right time," Wiseman said, in a recent interview in one of Center's Honolulu galleries. "This was not an accident. We anticipated it."

A network of international contacts, the ability to buy art "cheaply since we use cash," and aggressive marketing and promotion have made Hawaii-based Center Art Galleries one of the nation's biggest retailers of art, even though the gallery was not started until the early 1970s.

The gallery has purchased much of its most expensive art from private collections and dealers in Paris.

The owner of the galleries, Bill Mett, has a 10-by-13 foot painting by Salvador Dali in his living room, only a few feet from the ocean and the white, sandy Hawaii beach. This giant painting, "The Battle of Tetuan," is an original work owned by the gallery, which has sold hundreds of reproductions, some of which reportedly have gone for as much as $12,500.

"The image of this gallery is different than that of any gallery in Boston [where Wiseman was educated and worked], where the practice is basically 19th century merchandising," Wiseman said, referring to the laid-back style at Center Art Galleries, where consumers who know nothing about art are encouraged to browse and ask questions.

"Once you are inside a Boston gallery, you are expected to know about an artist and to have some idea of price or you are in the wrong place," he said.

Wiseman said Center's growth will come from traveling exhibits such as the one the company is sponsoring now in Washington at The Watergate Hotel. Rather than waiting for tourists to travel to Hawaii, Wiseman said, the gallery will try to increase sales by bringing some of its $150 million inventory of art to potential buyers in major cities on the mainland.

"We were told our laid-back and simple style of approaching art would never, ever do in highly sophisticated Manhattan," Wiseman said. "Well, we got out of our Aloha shirts, got some tuxedos, hired a four-piece chamber music group, rented the Regency Ballroom at The Palace Hotel, arrived with silver trays full of hors d'oeuvres that I couldn't spell or eat, and suddenly we were New York dealers.

"We did $2,380,000 in sales in eight days, which is more than many Madison Avenue dealers do in a year. All you have to do is tell us there are things that can't be done, and we'll be more than glad to do them," Wiseman said.

"Most galleries are small, specialized and lucky if they sell three pieces a week. If we're not turning a hundred pieces a week, we're in trouble," Wiseman said.