She's proud to have it, but she doesn't know quite what to do with the thing. It's gold, of course, big as a gingersnap, half an inch thick and much too heavy to wear around her neck. Besides, it has a swirling impressionistic carving of an owl's face on the back ("Now, that has to be Dillon Ripley's doing") that you wouldn't want to lose sight of in its box.

The Smithsonian doesn't exactly hand out the Secretary's Gold Medal like a Grenada invasion decoration. There have been four in the past three years, one of them given recently to Adelyn Dohme Breeskin.

The citation was for exceptional service by a woman "whose inspired publications on Mary Cassatt have made her one of the best known and most loved of American artists; whose rediscovery of the paintings of Romaine Brooks and William H. Johnson has greatly enriched the nation's collection, the history of American art and the heritage of women and minorities; whose life is an inspiration to many . . ."

Adelyn Breeskin is 89 years old and only last month decided to cut back to four days a week, 9 to 4, at the National Museum of American Art, where she is senior curatorial adviser.

"I drove to work until last week or so," she says. "I got bumped into twice. Washington drivers are so bad. I gave my car to a grandson, and he came in from Albuquerque last week and picked it up."

Right now she is working on a new edition of her 1970 landmark catalogue raisonne' of Cassatt's paintings and drawings, to which some 100 newly confirmed works will have to be added. She also is preparing a new edition of her catalogue of Cassatt's graphics.

"It'll probably take another few years, though I'd like to get it published within the year," Breeskin says. "There's so much to do."

On her desk lies a transparency of a Cassatt portrait sent to her by a dealer for authentication. People in the art world, from Sotheby's on down (or up, according to your viewpoint), come to her constantly for these decisions about Cassatt's works, which are comparatively easy to counterfeit.

"Now here, you look at this picture . . ." -- she holds up a reproduction of a known Cassatt portrait of a little girl -- "and then this . . ." Now she holds up the transparency. They are the same picture -- but not quite. The lines of the chin and nose are softer and more delicate in the reproduction, and there is something about the eyes, something alive and fresh, that the transparency lacks.

"I've documented at least 1,200 works of Cassatt's -- drawings, pastels, paintings. She loved pastels. And the prints -- there are some lovely color prints in here."

A deft riffle of pages through the book she knows so intimately. She pauses to glance at the frontispiece, a scene of a woman bathing. The colors, gentle tans and grays and cool yellows, are elegantly understated.

"I own this," she muses, passing her fingertips over the curve of the woman's bare back. "You know, Degas was a great friend of Cassatt, and when he saw this he asked her if she had sculpted it first, as a study."

But she hadn't. She didn't need to.

Before Breeskin came along, Mary Cassatt was an obscure figure widely regarded as an afterthought of the Impressionists. Only one biography of her was written in her lifetime. Breeskin herself knows something about the struggles of women in the male-dominated art world: In 1942, after 12 years at the Baltimore Museum of Art, she was named acting director ("The war was the only reason; the men had gone away so the trustees turned to me") -- but it was another five years before she was given the full title of director.

She stayed 15 more years, the first woman to direct a major American museum -- among other things, she brought to Baltimore the Cone Collection of early Modernist works -- and then came to Washington to help found the Washington Gallery of Modern Art and awaken the city to the avant-garde.

"I stayed two years," she says. "The problem was they didn't have enough avant-garde stuff to keep open all the time. I insisted they needed a permanent collection so they wouldn't have to close down between exhibitions. We ended up with a big show of Van Gogh, so at least people would know where we were. I got the pictures through his nephew, whom I'd met in Amsterdam, but the board said Van Gogh was too old-fashioned and only used the paintings. I had to send back stacks of his drawings, among his greatest things."

That was in 1964, the year she moved downtown to what was then the National Collection of Fine Arts. She's been there ever since.

As a witness to Washington's gradual discovery of contemporary art, from the flowering of the Color School ("They got along with each other, the Gene Davises and Morris Louises and Kenneth Nolands, and that's a healthy sign") to the Washington Project for the Arts ("I'm all for the Seventh Street people; they don't have an easy time"), Breeskin seems to enjoy the combat that goes with it.

She was furious when the Lyonel Feininger show went to the Phillips last month. It focused on 49 paintings by the late American artist that have been hidden in East Germany since 1937 but have just been recovered. The estate has been selling the works for up to $750,000 each but allowed the exhibition to go ahead in the meantime.

"But we couldn't do it because the sale made it commercial and we can't get involved with commercial stuff," Breeskin mutters, eyes flashing. She'd had the idea for a Feininger show in the first place.

You don't exactly have to coax opinions from her:

*"Some of these big museum shows are getting pretty flashy. Lots of PR. Lots of corporation money. They only want sure things."

*"Women painters? There's no one like Georgia O'Keeffe. She's in a class by herself." But . . .

*"I don't like treating women artists as such. You're either an artist or you're not."

Breeskin has three daughters, eight grandchildren, going on four great-grandchildren. She shares her Georgetown house with her middle daughter, Dorothy Brown, and she plans to keep on working indefinitely.

"I enjoy my work. I don't want to stop. If you retire, you dry up. If you ever start thinking about retiring, come and see me."