When America's most popular artist directly contradicts the man who used to run our greatest art museum, who does not believe - painter Andrew Wyeth or Thomas P.F. Hoving, former director of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art?

Hoving, now a businessman, is selling framed, photo-mechanical reproductions of Andrew Wyeth's art through the mails. Reproductions of "The Quaker" cost $155 each. Hoving wrote that they are "artist-authorized," but Wyeth said yesterday they're not.

Hoving, in a six-page "Dear Collector" letter sent potential buyers, says the reproduction "is signed by Andrew Wyeth in the plate." "I didn't sign the plate," says Wyeth. "I never even saw it."

Hoving says his project was discussed "very carefully with both Mr. and Mrs. Wyeth. They called me back a few days later to say they thought it fine. I would never have gone ahead without their approval."

"I don't know what Hoving is talking about," said Wyeth. "This whole thing is a surprise to me. I had no idea the reproductions would be advertised that way or sold."

"The Quaker" shows a pair of coats hanging from a mantelpiece in an empty room. "It is all so sad, so sad," said the painter who is known for his melancholy subjects. "I hate to be in the middle of such a mass."

"I find Andy's comments extremely puzzling," said Hoving.

"The Quaker" is being published by the Triton Press, a New York printing house with which Andrew Wyeth has worked closely in the past. It is not a limited edition. Thousands may be printed, depending on demand.

"I respect Tom Hoving greatly, I respect the Triton Press - this is so unfortune - I'll tell you what I know," said Wyeth.

"During my exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum - Tom was still director then - he told me that the Met might do some reproductions of "The Quaker." I couldn't object. I had sold the painting, and the reproduction rights, to Joseph E. Levine."

"Any early version of the reproduction was shown to me last summer by Triton's Harry Lerner. It was not good. I said, 'No Harry. It's terrible.' He assured be that he knew exactly how to fix it. I haven't seen it since."

"I had control over the corrections," explains Hoving.

Museum print specialists say that when Hoving calls "The Quaker" an "excellent print," he is blurring the traditional distinction between photo-mechanical reproduction, whose value is largely decorative, and the prints that art museums study and collect. Wyeth agrees. "I never call my reproductions prints," he says. "A print to me is like a lithograph or an etching. This is a reproduction."

"A print is a print," says Hoving. "I think they're being picky."

Though Wyeth did not sign the plate, he did sign the painting that he sold to Levine. "You can read his name in the reproduction," said Hoving. "When I wrote 'signed in the plate,' I was referring to that signature," said Hoving.

"Imagine it! Only $155 for a print of a Wyeth painting that sold for over $200,000 in 1976!" writes Hoving. Wyeth says he is not being paid from sales of the reproductions. "I don't even know who is getting the money."

"It isn't a matter of paying him," said James Cherry, Levine's New York attorney. "The rights of reproduction were sold by Mr. Wyeth to Mr. Levine. Any additional compensation would be purely voluntary."

"We are printing "The Quaker" as a charitable project," said Derek Limbocker of Triton Press. "Andy will get something; I'm pretty sure of that.Originally the Met was going to get a large part of the proceeds, but since Hoving is no longer there I don't know if that still stands." Limbocker said that Hoving will be paid an unspecified amount, so will Triton Press, but the most of the profits will go to the Joseph E. Levine Foundation, and that the Foundation will distribute them to charities but he could not say which ones.

"I have to stand with Hoving," said Limbocker. "I can guarantee that Andy saw the print. He forgets what he forgets. He really want to go off and paint."