The first full-time fund-raiser for the Vatican Museums makes money the old-fashioned way--he urns it, hunting down a patron for each antique vase, faded fresco or tarnished treasure.

In five years on the job, the Rev. Allen Duston has signed up enough Americans for repair projects such as the newly finished restoration of the Sistine Chapel and polishing Pope Pius XI's old roadster.

"An easy sell," the globe-trotting American priest recalls while sitting at his computer in an old papal library. "And the papal carriages were a very easy sell."

"Pretty frescoes" are easy too, Duston says. "And if it's a big name, it helps--Raphael, Michelangelo."

Ticket fees generally pay only for day-to-day operation of the Vatican Museums, which include 20 miles of viewing space for art dating back millennia and spanning continents.

Duston, a former president of the Dominican theology school at the University of California at Berkeley, and his Vatican-based staff of two are dedicated to finding money for the bigger projects, chiefly restoration. In 1999, the projects included restoring 8th century to 6th century B.C. Etruscan works and handicapped access to the Etruscan Museum.

Pope John Paul II will preside over Saturday's dedication of Duston's biggest project to date--the cleaning and repair of the wall frescoes lining the Sistine Chapel.

Botticelli and his peers from Umbria and Tuscany painted the parallel allegories of the lives of Moses and Jesus in the 15th century, decades before Michelangelo got to work on the ceiling.

About 20 donors, many of them American, paid for the $3 million restoration.

During the past weekend, Duston secured his largest single gift to date--$2 million to restore the rooms of Pope Pius IV, courtesy of a private New York foundation.

Americans make up about 1,000 of the 1,200 names on the patron's list--which has tripled in size since Duston and his staff started raising money full time.

It includes some big names, such as Loretta Young, Bob Hope and Ricardo Montalban. And some big money, Texas oilmen among them.

About 60 percent of the donors are Roman Catholic but a sizable minority isn't--15 percent are Jews, the rest mostly Protestant. And whether they are religiously observant does not seem to matter.

"These are people who are not necessarily interested in religion, but they are interested in art," Duston says.

After struggling with financial troubles, the Vatican began to turn increasingly to sponsors for its upkeep in the 1990s. Italian utilities footed much of the bill for the scrubbing of the facade this summer.

"One of the first things you have to do is work through the myth of the riches of the Vatican," Duston said.

John Paul has had an answer for those who question that art should be a priority for a church.

The church's patronage of the arts is age-old, John Paul said at the 1997 dedication of restored frescoes of Fra Angelico, calling "beauty . . . a clear expression of mankind's highest aspirations and a manifestation of the glory of God."

And, "sure, there are perks," Duston says of the other motivations driving his patrons.

For a minimum contribution of $500 a year, those perks include backstairs access to the Vatican Museums.

For considerably more, there's the prospect of a plaque with your name on it at the museums.

Which makes holes in the ground a perpetually hard sell for Duston.

Finding funding for archaeological excavations under early Rome churches is "the hardest thing of all," the fund-raiser says.

"People like to see . . . what it is they helped conserve."