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Where masterworks of art find a gracious New York home

The Frick Collection is the jewel of all New York museums. It's the place I'd take a child for his or her introduction to great art, and where I'd hold court if I were king.

My reasons are simple. The Frick is the only museum I know whose collection consists almost exclusively of great or nearly great art. And it's the best and most elegant place in New York for a life of regal splendor.

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It's a relatively small museum that once was the residence of coke and steel industrialist Henry Clay Frick. Although subtly altered to accommodate the public, it retains the sense of elegance and spaciousness typical of the mansions built around the turn of the century.

One enters the Frick on East 70th Street, just off Fifth Avenue, and proceeds down a hall to the main gallery. Anyone stepping into this large room is assured of encountering nothing but masterpieces, nothing but superb examples of first-rate art.

Now, I don't know how that affects most people, but I remember vividly that when I first entered that room almost 30 years ago, I immediately had to sit down. I was accustomed to great art, but not to so much of it at one time.

I still cannot respond casually to what hangs in that room. If, on certain days, I feel relatively immune to Vermeer's superb ''Mistress and Maid,'' or to El Greco's magnificent early portrait of ''Vincenze Anastagi,'' I will move on casually, only to be bowled over once again by Rembrandt's ''The Polish Rider,'' or astounded by the painterly facility demonstrated in Van Dyck's portrait of ''Frans Snyders.'' Or, possibly, I will discover an enchanting passage in a Turner, Corot, or Hals I hadn't noticed before.

That gallery is a marvel. Not once in the many times I've visited it have I failed to be deeply moved and even awed by what it contains.

But there's more to the Frick than what hangs in the main gallery. In a small adjoining room the visitor will find ravishing examples of earlier and smaller Italian and Flemish art. And in two rooms flanking the large gallery on the other side, he or she will come across magnificent examples of painting from the late 18th and 19th centuries.

But there are still more surprises in store for the visitor. Giovanni Bellini's stunning and important ''St. Francis in Ecstasy'' hangs only a few feet from El Greco's ''St. Jerome'' and Holbein's great ''Sir Thomas More.'' And down the hall a bit, Vermeer's small but absolutely first-class ''Officer and Laughing Girl'' stands guard near the room containing 18th-century portraits by Romney, Reynolds, Gainsborough, and others.

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There's little point in listing the Frick's other masterpieces, since that would mean naming almost everything on view. There are a few works, however, that stand out even in this company. Piero della Francesca's monumental ''St. Simon the Apostle'' and Jan van Eyck's ''Virgin and Child, with Saints and Donors'' are among the world's finest paintings. And any museum on earth would grab at the chance to acquire Rembrandt's 1658 ''Self Portrait,'' Goya's ''The Forge,'' Titian's ''Portrait of a Man in a Red Cap,'' El Greco's ''Purification of the Temple,'' and Constable's ''The White Horse.''

One other thing must be mentioned. The Frick is particularly rich in French decorative paintings of the 18th century. Outstanding among these are eight smallish canvases depicting ''The Arts and Sciences'' that tradition decrees Madame de Pompadour commissioned from Boucher around 1750 for a room in the Chateau de Crecy.

Even more impressive is a group of large canvases representing ''The Progress of Love'' that Fragonard painted for Madame du Barry between 1771 and 1772. Although a bit too florid and artificial for modern tastes, they nevertheless rank among the outstanding achievements of 18th-century French decorative art. ''The Meeting,'' in particular, is extremely effective.

Informality and elegance are the keynotes of the museum itself. It's a pleasure to wander about in it, not only because one never knows what little masterpiece will appear around the next corner, but also because the building itself is gracious and impressive. It is indeed more like a home than a museum. I suspect that if Mr. Frick were to return to it today he'd feel very comfortable among his paintings, Renaissance bronzes, assorted sculptures, porcelains, enamels, rugs, etc.

He would also be pleased at the public response to his collection, which he bequeathed, together with his residence, to the public ''for the use and benefit of all persons whomsoever.'' It was his wish that his collection remain intact in his home and that it be shown there in as informal a setting as possible. To that end, the staff has seen to it that fresh flowers are always present, that the clocks are kept ticking, and that the public has to put up with only a minimum of restraining devices.

Mr. Frick also left an endowment for the upkeep of the building and for the continued acquisition of works of art. Thanks to these funds, 38 paintings have been added to the original collection, including major works by Duccio, Van Eyck , Piero della Francesca, and Ingres.

A few alterations and additions to the building have been made since 1931. A small assembly room was added for lectures by staff members and visiting scholars and for occasional chamber music concerts.

The collection also sponsors educational activities for adults and for university students in art history. A symposium for graduate students is held annually, and the Frick Art Reference Library provides exceptional research facilities for serious students and scholars.

In all, a remarkable institution, and one I recommend all visitors to New York make a point to see. It is at 1 East 70th Street, and is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and on Sundays from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m.

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