Reprinted from yesterday's late editions.

It took seven years of friendly persuasion to bring the priceless Tokugawa exhibit of robes and masks from Japan to the United States.

"When you're dealing with a man like Mr. Tokugawa," said New York's Japan House Gallery director Rand Castile, who dealt with Tokugawa, "whose family have been collecting for 374 years, what's seven years?

"It would be unseemly for him to give it in less time. It would be unseemly for me to expect him to give it in less time. It's just tradition."

So Castile hung in with tradition and Tokugawa Yoshinobu, of the Tokugawa family of Nagoya, Japan, powerful shoguns from 1603 to 1868, with the result being a preview Thursday night at the National Gallery of Art that the result being a preview Thursday everyone there seemed to agree was worth waiting for.

That included President and Mrs. Carter, who got a preview of the preview of the show. (The show will open to the public Sunday and run until May 22 before moving to New York, Fort Worth, and back to Japan and probably storage).

The Carters spent 45 minutes touring the exhibit, but didn't stick around for an impeccably-served candlelight veal dinner for 120, including a platoon of various board chairmen, in the flower-filled East Garden Court.

The Carters were greeted by Chief Justice Warren Burger, board chairman of the National Gallery; Paul Mellon, the gallery's president, and J. Carter Brown, its director. The Carters then toured with those three, Japanese Ambassador Fumihiko Togo, Tokugawa, Japan Society board chairman John D. Rockefeller III, Castile, and the sponsors' representatives, J. Paul Austin, board chairman of Coca-Cola, and the chairman of independent bottlers of Coke in Japan, Nisaburo Takanashi.

Carter Brown related that President Carter was "inquisitive, as he was at the Tut exhibit," and inquired about the construction of the 17th and 18th-century robes and purposes of the masks used in the rural No drama of Japan.

If Carter's interest in Japan and art were not enough to prompt his visit, there were such additional considerations as a friendship with Coca-Cola's Austin and the Langford connection. James Langford, a Coke official, is the border of Judy Langford, wife of the President's son, Jack.

Other guests included Zbigniew Brzezinski, assistant to the President for national security affairs; former Ambassador to Japan James Hodgson; Ambassador-designate to Japan Mike Mansfield; former Senators J. William Fulbright and Hugh Scott; the Smith Bagleys, and former Vogue editor Diana Vreeland.

All the while, Paul Mellon was engaged in a long discussion with a business executive, so long and serious, in fact, it seemed some business of major import was being conducted. Apparently not so. Upon parting, the fellow checked with a photographer to make sure it was Mellon he had been talking to.

After dinner Mellon introduced Tokugawa and proposed a toast to him. Tokugawa then offered thanks all around. Though appearing in the best of spirits, he actually was making a somewhat courageous appearance, having been felled with the flu late Tuesday and pretty much flattened Wednesday.

One person familiar with Tokugawa's heavy schedule since arriving from Japan blamed it for his illness. Still, there was no letup in sight; he is due in Fort Worth, the third exhibit site, over the weekend, and also will get to try out a Texas ranch if he is up to it.