It is the custom in this museum-filled city to trumpet the arrival of a major new exhibition with a social splash designed to give attention to all who made it possible -- particularly when the benefactor is a status-conscious corporation.

Last night at the Corcoran this was the formula, but with a curious twist.

The show was a selection of paintings of the American West, from the Anschutz collection in Denver, and of Indian artifacts from New York's Museum of the American Indian. And the catch was that the exhibit just opened halfway around the world in Peking, at China's largest gallery, the Museum of Chinese History on Tian An Men Square.

Since few of the sponsors made it there for the opening Nov. 19, and since many of the paintings were shown earlier this year at the Corcoran, it seemed the best site at which to entertain those who contributed a total of $500,000 -- particularly the Atlantic Richfield Foundation -- and others who were involved one way or another.

The Corcoran's director, Peter Marzio, said it was the first time he had heard of such a remote-control museum fete. "At least I met the pilot of the plane that took it all over," he said.

Nor did Denver oilman Philip Anschutz, who owns the paintings, get to China. "I couldn't make it," he observed, "and I hope I won't have to go over to get them back."

Even Chinese Ambassador Chai Zemin said he never sees the cultural exchange offerings he helps arrange. "Is it all paintings or is it other things?" he inquired. "I have seen none of this, but I did visit a Navajo Indian reservation last June."

And he later told the assembled guests, "I realize that the American Indians may have come here from Asia, but that is still just a theory. Yet I saw in Arizona the similarity in how we and the Indians look and in some common customs of culture."

Wang Zicheng, the Chinese Embassy's minister for cultural and press affairs, was asked what would be next. He noted that the Indian show comes close on the heels of a large exhibit from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. "Maybe we should do performing arts and athletics next," he ventured, but said no more.