A week-long exhibit called "National Treasures of the People's Republic of China" opens today at the Capital Children's Museum in Northeast Washington. Large illustrated ads tout the exhibit as "a collection of Registered National Treasures of the People's Republic of China" . . . "The first Cultural Exchange since Normalization. . . ."

There are 21 National Treasures on display, 15 others "considered as valuable," and 343,000 items for sale -- ranging in price from $5 to a quarter of a million dollars apiece.

It's the National Registry that Washington Oriental art expert Thomas Lawton, director of the Freer Gallery, has never heard of. " don't know of any registry of cultural national treasures -- like the Japanese have," said Lawton. "The People's Republic does have a number of monuments -- tombs, buildings -- that they consider important cultural monuments."

Sam L. Manatt Jr., the man who organized the show and negotiated with the museum for their space, is happy with the quality of the National Treasures. Manatt ran the family bank in Corning, Ark., before retiring a year ago and getting into art.

The exhibit is a commercial venture organized by Manatt's company, Two Winds U.S.A, Inc., Two Winds Co. Ltd -- a Hong Kong-based operation set up by a woman named K H. Leung -- and the Special Peking Arts and Crafts Industrial Corp a 30-year-old government unit of artists and craftspeople, one of whose part members produced at least one of the most recent works on display.

The Special Peking Arts and Crafts corporation is headed by Chao Zuencio. He appeared last night at the special reception for the exhibit, attended by some 2,000 people who packed the rooms filled with art and wedged into the room with wares for sale.

Chao Zuen-cio said there was indeed a registry of national treasures, decided by specialists in various fields of culture working for the ministry of culture in the People's Republic.

"As art, this is much more valuable than pieces from much earlier times," said Zuen-cio.

"These are perfect in quality," said K. H. Leung, who also translated for Zuen-cio. "We would like people to understand how we see art -- not as time or history. What we value most is the art work."

"The show is incredible. It's the ultimate in ivory and jade," said Ann Lewin, director of the Capital Children's Museum.

The museum is 2 years old and always desperately in need of money, according to Lewin.

"We' in a very precarious position financially," said another official of the museum, "and the offer they gave us was very attractive."

The offer: In exchange for exhibit space, Manatt renovated the halls used for the Chinese exhibit -- the renovation included painting, resurfacing, lighting and floor treatment, according to Lewin. Manatt also underwrote the costs of the opening reception last night and agreed to return a commission -- estimated by Lewin at 15 percent -- on every item sold.

The price of $2.50 for admission, which Manatt said was set by "mutual agreement," is split between Manatt and the museum. We're trying to help the museum, said Manatt. Over 30 per cent of the admission price goes back to the museum.

The items for sale, displayed in one room of the four-room exhibit, include silver and gold jewelry -- rings, bracelets -- lamps, birds, models of temples. sWhen the exhibit moves on to New York, they'll also have for sale hanging carpets, linen, jade, snuff bottles, paintings, sculptures, antiques -- all from the Special Peking Arts and Crafts Industrial Corporation, a government craft company of the People's Republic of China.

Another of the four rooms will be for artists from the Special Peking Arts and Crafts, who are trained in the craftsmanship of these treasures in "time-honored technique of China's hardstone carving heritage" (as one press release puts it).

They will carve lacquer and craft intricate snuff bottles. These will be for sale. And if one catches your fancy the artists will be happy to personalize it for you according to Manatt.

Manatt does not think it unusual to set up an exhibit in one room of a museum with wares for sale in a nearby room of the same building. "There were sales associated with the King Tut exhibit," he said. "I think what's unusual is that a country would trust sending out an art exhibit like this."

After leaving Washington, the exhibit will go to the World Trade Center in New York until Thanksgiving, then to a convention center in San Francisco and finally to the Buena Vista Hotel in Los Angeles, according to Manatt.

Manatt describes the exhibited works like this: "The pieces date anywhere from 40 years ago to maybe thousands of years back. We have no ideas. A lot of it [on display] is more recent. But it's prized more. These items stand out more than things from antiquity. It's like comparing a newly blossomed spring flower to a dead, wilted flower."

Manatt says there is no price for these items. "What is our Liberty Bell worth? These are things the People's Republic of China have said belong to their country: "They represent our best."

When the plane carrying the treasurers from China arrived at Dulles some six weeks ago. Manatt did not have a museum to exhibit in. "At the time we were negotiating with several museums -- the Corcoran, the Smithsonian. I think we talked to just about everybody in Washington," said Manatt.

He chose the Capital Children's Museum because "this is the Year of the Child, and the Chinese are very partial to children. It seems natural to exhibit there."

Two Winds U.S.A. Inc. actually now owns all of the items for sale from the Special Peking Arts and Crafts, but Manatt refused to divulge his financial arrangement with the company. "It will be good for us, and it will be good for Special Peking Arts and Crafts," said Manatt. "If I break even, I'll be happy. Do you know what it costs to go to China? To come back? To hire the plane to fly the treasures here?

"The main theme," Manatt said, "is the cultural exchange. Oh, I intend to make a profit. But that's not the only reason why I'm doing this."