AN EXHIBITION OF 57 OLD MASTER PAINTINGS FROM THE RENOWED COLLECTION OF THE BARON HANS HEINRICH THYSSEN-BORNEMISZA WILL BEGIN A TOUR OF NINE AMERICAN MUSEUMS AT THE NATIONAL GALLERY NOV. 17.

THE TOUR WAS ANNOUNCED YESTERDAY AT THE NATIONAL GALLERY PRECEDING A LUNCH IN HONOR OF BARON THYSSEN, WHOSE OLD MASTER COLLECTION IS CONSIDERED ONE OF THE FINEST STILL IN PRIVATE HANDS. THE GALLERY CALLS IT "ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT LOAN EXHIBITIONS OF OLD MASTERS EVER PRESENTED IN THE UNITED STATES."

"THIS IS ONLY THE TIP OF A FABULOUS ICEBERG," SAID GALLERY DIRECTOR J. CARTER BROWN, AS HE GAVE A SLIDE PREVIEW OF SOME OF THE HIGHLIGHTS OF THE FORTHCOMING SHOW, ALL RARE EXAMPLES FROM THE 14TH THROUGH THE 19TH CENTURIES BY DUCCIO, VAN EYCK, CRANACH, TITIAN, EL GRECO, ZURBARAN, RUBENS, REMBRANDT AND GOYA.

"IF I HAD TO PICK OUT ONE IMAGE THAT WOULD ABSOLUTELY ZAP YOU, IT WOULD BE THE PORTRAIT BY ANTONELLO DA MESSINA," SAID BROWN.

BARON THYSSEN OF LUGANO, SWITZERLAND, EXPLAINED THAT HE NOW OWNS ONLY 500 SHARES OF THE GREAT GERMAN THYSSEN STEEL, MINING AND MANUFACTURING EMPIRE FOUNDED BY HIS GRANDFATER. WITH OR WITHOUT THE SHARES HE IS ACCORDING TO ASSOCIATES, A BILLIONAIRE WITH WIDE-RANGING INTERESTS IN AMERICA AS WELL AS EUROPE.

IN THE LATE 1920S THYSSEN'S FATHER SETTLED INTO THE VENETIAN-STYLE VILLA FAVORITA ON THE SHORES OF LAKE LUGANO WHERE, IN 12 YEAR,S, HE ACCUMULATED ONE OF EUROPE'S GREATEST PRIVATE COLLECTIONS OF OLD MASTER PAINTINGS. IT HAS BEEN A MECCA FOR ART LOVERS EVER SINCE. THE BARON, NOW 57, HAS CONTINUED TO COLLECT CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN ART AS WELL AS OLD MASTERS, AND ONE OF HIS PAINTINGS, BY PHOTO-REALIST RICHARD ESTES, IS CURRENTLY ON VIEW AT THE HIRSHHORN.

THE LUNCHEON CONVERSATION OF MUSEUM OFFICIALS SUGGESTED AN EPIDEMIC OF MUSEUM DEACCESSIONS-A SIGN OF THE TIMES. WHEN TOLD THE BARON ALSO WAS COLLECTING AMERICAN 19TH-CENTURY PAINTINS, PHILLIPPE DE MONTEBELLO, DIRECTOR OF NEW YORK'S METROPOLITAN, SAID, "MAYBE WE CAN SELL HIM SOME. WE DEACCESSION PAINTINGS ALL THE TIME, SELLING TERTIARY MATERIAL TO BUY PRIMARY MATERIAL." DR PRATAPADITYA PAL, ACTING DIRECTOR OF THE LOS ANGELES COUNTY MUSEUM OF ART, SAID A 1977 AUCTION NETTED HIS MUSEUM $1.7 MILLION.

ANNEMARIE POPE, PRESIDENT OF THE INTERNATIONAL EXHIBITIONS FOUNDATION, WHO DREAMED UP THE SHOW AND ARRANGED THE TOUR OF NINE AMERICAN MUSEUMS, SPOKE OF HER SATISFACTION WITH THE ENTERPRISE, AS DID OFFICIALS OF UNITED TECHNOLOGIES CORPORATION, WHOSE $75,000 GRANT BACKS THE SHOW AND PICKED UP THE TAB FOR THE HYACINTH-LADEN LUNCHEON.

"NOBODY KNOWS WHAT WE DO," EXPLAINED SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT RAYMOND D' ARGENIO. "BY SUPPORTING THIS SHOW WE HOPE TO MAKE SOME NEW FRIENDS."