Only in Washington could a piece of artwork by a politician outsell most other artists at an auction.

That's what happened last night at the elegant Arts Club of Washington, where approximately 130 guests attended a benefit dinner and art auction on behalf of the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, a retreat for writers, artists and composers. The gala auction attracted a variety of Washington's favorites, including William Styron, Art Buchwald, Lynda Robb and various local artists.

But Virginia Sen. John Warner, whose artwork was among 44 to be auctioned off, attracted much of the limelight. Warner came unescorted, and this seemed to enhance his presence; one woman was overheard whispering, "He's alone tonight! We've got to talk to him."

Warner's artwork, purchased for $375 by the James L. Camp III and his wife, Jane, actually turned out to be a "promissory note." The senator gave his written word that by July 1 his painting (a giant sunflower) would be completed and "personally delivered."

Art Buchwald, who served as an auctioneer along with Washingtonian magazine's Rudy Maxa, stressed that the painting would be done in "five weeks--that's the fastest thing to ever happen in the Senate." In encouraging people to bid, Buchwald said, "If you buy it, well, if you need a favor in Virginia, John will do it . . . need a pothole fixed?"

Other works sold for between $60 and $750, totaling $6,570 for the auction. Many of the pieces were by artists who have stayed at the Virginia retreat.

Painter Deborah Ellis sat quietly as her watercolor "Sliced Vegetables" sold for $200. Ellis had stayed at the center, a 450-acre estate in Amherst County, where she was "given a wonderful, huge studio in a barn . . . it was so big--it must have held 20 cows." She described her experience there as "exhausting . . . the intensity . . . the sound deprivation . . . You didn't talk to anybody unless you wanted to. Your lunch was delivered in a box outside the studio door."

Before dinner, board president Jane Camp stood in a corner of the room talking about one painter who had benefited from her stay at the center. "This woman had recently been in an auto accident when she came to the center. She seem preoccupied with death. She started doing exquisite line drawings of a skull . . ."

Camp went on to describe the beauty of the center's site, explaining how the landscape affected the painter: "And then the skull became the landscape--they began to move from death to life . . . and so did she."

Out on the terrace, a band played, bartenders tended, men with trays served bite-size quiche and various people tried to get people in the mood to buy art. Styron, looking out over the begowned and bejeweled, said, "I don't know what to say, but I hope y'all have a lot of money . . . there are remarkably talented artists who need the shelter and support of a place like this . . . and God will bless you all, 'cause we Virginians stick together."