Are America's art museums becoming shopping malls for rich Japanese art collectors?

If the price is right, will museums, hard up for acquisitions funds, now sell anything they own?

They're selling their Kuniyoshis, that's for sure. Over the past two years, four American museums -- possibly more -- have quietly sold off major paintings by the Japanese American modernist Yasuo Kuniyoshi (1889-1953) for as much as $3 million -- five times the artist's auction record of $616,000.

Three of the paintings were sold off the walls of a Kuniyoshi retrospective that toured three cities in Japan last winter, ending in April. All were reproduced in the exhibition catalogue and listed as the property, respectively, of the Terra Museum of American Art, Chicago; the Baltimore Museum of Art; and the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Mo.

A fourth painting in the show, now part of the Fukutake collection, was sold by the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts in 1988. The Terra painting was sold just as the exhibition was being packed for shipment to Japan.

None was slated to be deaccessioned, or sold from the collection. But in the case of all but the Terra painting, the museums agreed to sell them after private New York dealer James Maroney made irresistible offers on behalf of Soichiro Fukutake, head of Fukutake Publishing Co. Ltd., which is constructing new headquarters in Okayama, Japan, Kuniyoshi's birthplace. The building will include a gallery for Fukutake's already substantial collection of the artist's work, and will be called the Yasuo Kuniyoshi Museum. It is scheduled to open in September.

Kuniyoshi, who spent his entire life after age 17 in America, achieved considerable success here as an early, highly individualistic modernist. William F. Lieberman, chairman of 20th-century art at New York's Metropolitan Museum, which acquired a Kuniyoshi as recently as 1984, says of the artist: "He's one of the great American painters of the 20th century, a figurative painter, romantic during the '30s and '40s, quite mystical and magic in the later years. Some of the best painters of that generation are slightly out of fashion at the moment. It's fascinating how these things come and go."

Other museum directors, particularly of the museums that made the sales, were less lavish in their praise, although they all admitted Kuniyoshi's importance as a middle-rung modernist. His stock in Japan, however, has gone up with the Nikkei stock index: Twenty years ago, nearly all of Kuniyoshi's work was in the United States. Today, approximately 40 percent is in Japan, according to Kuniyoshi scholars.

"I don't disapprove of deaccessioning," said Lieberman. "I believe that collections should be refined. But I do object if someone comes in and says, 'I'll give you so much for that.' "

That's exactly what Maroney did. "I approached the Baltimore Museum and suggested a trade," he says. "In this case, they said they wanted the cash." Given 10 days by Maroney to make its decision, the museum decided to sell its only Kuniyoshi oil, titled "Mr. Ace," for close to $3 million.

The Nelson-Atkins, however, chose to trade its only Kuniyoshi oil, "All Alone," for a much-desired painting by American trompe-l'oeil artist John Peto, and another -- a bonus -- by William Baziotes. Maroney had set the precedent for this trade in 1988 when he approached the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts about its painting, "This Is My Playground," for which the museum received in exchange, much to its delight, a painting by Charles Demuth that it had coveted for years as well as an earlier Kuniyoshi.

Another museum, the Detroit Institute of the Arts, was approached by Maroney about selling a Kuniyoshi it lent to the Japanese show, but turned him down. "I think they missed the boat. Now it's too late," says Maroney.

The artist's widow, Sara Mazo Kuniyoshi -- who calls Maroney "Mr. Museum Marauder" -- said she was aware of these sales but has mixed reactions. Reached at her country home in Upstate New York, she said, "It's true, Mr. Fukutake is putting up a new building, and just a week ago, he asked if he could call it the Yasuo Kuniyoshi Museum -- it's really more like a gallery -- and of course I agreed.

"Mr. Fukutake's father before him began acquiring Kuniyoshis, and his son followed," she said.

"Now the Japanese have claimed Kuniyoshi, and that's nice. The only thing I said when I was in Japan last fall is that I wish they wouldn't take everything, and that museums here won't sell everything, because my husband's reputation -- his career, everything -- happened here.

"But if museums begin to deaccession, there will be at least one place in the world where his work can be seen, though it's a long way for us to go."

The great irony of the situation, she said, is that nothing would have pleased her husband more than American citizenship, which he was not permitted because of immigration and naturalization laws against Japanese after the start of World War II. "It only became possible for him to apply for citizenship in 1952 when he was ill, and couldn't possibly fill out papers," said Sara Kuniyoshi. "Several organizations he belonged to even wrote to Mrs. Roosevelt, but of course nothing happened."

"I think it's terrible," said Lieberman of this rash of Kuniyoshi sales by museums. "I realize there's a case for him in Japan, but he was, in every sense, an American painter."

"I just go to ask what they want: They all have lists," said Maroney in his own defense.

"The nice thing about this is that everybody gets what they want in the end," said Maroney. "Mr. Fukutake gets what he wants, the museums get what they want, and I get my commission."