Helene de Ludinghausen took one look around the Portland Art Museum here on Thursday, raised both hands to her cheeks and in a deep, throaty voice let out a long ''Ooooohh.'' The joy on her face was as evident as snow in a Russian winter.
Arrayed before her were portraits of her ancestors, a vitrine of exquisite German porcelains, a marquetry commode and -- in the middle of the room -- a malachite coupe, or basin, that is usually the centerpiece of the Malachite Room of the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. And this was only the start: several more galleries lay beyond, filled with icons, manuscripts, antiquities, fine furniture, paintings by Botticelli, Van Dyke and other old masters and other art objects drawn from a half dozen Russian museums and archives.
Baroness de Ludinghausen is the last of the Stroganoffs, the Russian aristocrats who are now most famous for, yes, that rich beef stew. But she had never seen these objects together before. Some 80 years ago, the Bolsheviks nationalized the treasures her family had collected over four centuries; later the Soviet Union sold some in the West and dispersed others to Russian institutions.
Now more than 230 of them are in Portland, reunited in an exhibition called ''Stroganoff: The Palace and Collections of a Russian Noble Family.'' The catalog documented what Ms. de Ludinghausen had long heard and surmised about her family's legacy.
''It is a miracle,'' she said. ''But being a Russian, I was taught to never lose faith. If we had not lost everything in the revolution, I would not be here today. I would not be able to enjoy this with so many people.''
From their roots in the 14th century, the Stroganoffs grew to be the richest family in Russia -- probably even wealthier than their royal friends, the Romanovs -- by dealing in salt, timber, fur, iron ore and gold. They had opened Siberia and so been deeded it by Ivan the Terrible. They had founded schools and churches, imported artists to develop the Stroganoff style of icon painting and built the baroque Stroganoff Palace on Nevsky Prospekt that remains a St. Petersburg landmark despite severe damage during the Soviet era. Peter the Great ennobled them. And they were great arts patrons who both preserved local traditions and introduced Western art, helping to shape the culture of Russia. The works on view here alone are insured for $200 million. The exhibition, which remains in Portland until May 31 and then travels to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth and possibly to Sydney and Versailles before going to the Hermitage, chronicles that saga. But like all great Russian stories, the show is also laden with subplots.
There is, for example, the Portland museum's coup in organizing it, a bid to raise its ranking among American art centers and position itself for the better shows. Until the other day, Ms. de Ludinghausen, who lives in Paris, had never been to Portland. But after being introduced to the museum's executive director, John E. Buchanan Jr., in 1996, she chose to work with him rather than approach a more prestigious museum.
There is the remarkable turnaround that has occurred in Russian cultural history over the last decade. As Dr. Mikhail B. Piotrovsky, the director of the Hermitage, noted in the exhibition catalog, it was not always safe to mention the name Stroganoff. ''The museums of Russia have done too little to perpetuate their memory,'' he wrote, adding: ''The exhibition we are presenting and the book created to go with it represent a partial attempt to atone for our sins and repay some of our debt.''
By honoring private arts patronage of the past, the Russians are trying to encourage private support from the West for their cash-starved museums.
There is also the gamesmanship, inherent in every international cultural exchange, over exactly which art works would be allowed to leave Russia. It reached a showdown over the malachite coupe, which prompted Ms. de Ludinghausen to issue an ultimatum: ''No coupe, no exhibition.'' The Hermitage caved in to her, but Dr. Piotrovsky drove a hard bargain on a huge Baroque history painting by Luca Giordano that Mr. Buchanan badly wanted for the show. To get it, the museum had to pay for its restoration at a cost of $50,000.
And there is the twist that Ms. de Ludinghausen, unlike many who lost their possessions in the political upheavals of the 20th century, has no desire to reclaim her family's treasures. Rather, she started the Stroganoff Foundation in 1992 to restore the family name and preserve the artistic treasures and historic sites it once owned or financed.
Portland has never seen anything like this. With a cost of $3.5 million, ''Stroganoff'' is the biggest art show ever initiated in Oregon. To celebrate, there were two gala dinners (one black tie, one white tie). The over-the-top opening ceremony on Friday featured Russian gypsy singers and a troop of Cossack dancers who changed costumes three times and leaped, whirled, kicked, back-flipped and stomped before a standing-room-only audience of 1,250 schoolchildren and museum members (dozens of others had been turned away).
Also present were Oregon's governor; both of its senators; Svetlana Ushakova, the wife of the Russian ambassador; and Portland's mayor. Dr. Piotrovsky and nearly 60 other Russian officials and curators flew in. Only Vladimir Gusev, the director of the State Russian Museum, stayed home: at the last minute Acting President Vladimir V. Putin called him to a meeting on the museum's budget.
As much as this exhibition is about artistic treasures, it is also about history lost and history regained, thanks to the last Stroganoff. Now 57, Ms. de Ludinghausen is the only child of Princess Xenia Shcherbatova-Stroganova (who lives in Paris but, at 87, could not travel to Portland) and Andrei, Baron de Ludinghausen, who is no longer living. As children both fled Russia with their parents, taking nothing from the family collections but jewelry, a few Faberge eggs and a few icons, Ms. de Ludinghausen said. She was born in Paris, but the family soon moved to Rio de Janeiro. They maintained some Russian traditions, and Ms. de Ludinghausen learned Russian as a child because her paternal grandmother refused to speak anything else.
She said: ''I was brought up with Russia as a dream, the Russia of my grandparents, and the Russia of the day was for me foreign, threatening, scary -- they were Communists and they were enemies. There was that gap, and so I never wanted to go to Russia.''
After studying in the United States and Switzerland, Ms. de Ludinghausen settled in Paris in 1963, went to work for Yves Saint Laurent in 1969 and two years later became the director of his couture salons, her current position.
It was her husband, an Englishman named Robin Smith-Ryland, who pushed her to go to Russia in 1985, just before their marriage. Ms. de Ludinghausen was delighted by the country's beauty, she recalled, but depressed by the sadness of the people. She did not return until 1992, when a Russian friend she had met through her job put her in touch with Mr. Gusev, whose museum has responsibility for the Stroganoff Palace.
Ms. de Ludinghausen did not ask Mr. Gusev for any of her family's possessions. ''I knew I would never get them,'' she said. ''And I have no children. If I had children, it might have been different. This has become my child; this is my way of keeping my family alive. If all of this were mine, I would be happy to leave it to the country.''
But a friend pushed her to do an exhibition, she met Mr. Buchanan, and their work began. They did not have much to start with. ''Helene lent me two books that her grandfather and her father kept,'' Mr. Buchanan said in his office here, unwrapping two large catalogs. One is an 1835 catalog of the collection of Count Alexander Stroganoff (1734-1811), a close friend to Catherine the Great, who bought many French paintings and who opened the palace gallery to anyone interested in art.
The other book is the catalog of the works sold in Berlin in 1931 by Soviet officials. In it, the Stroganoffs had penciled in the prices the works brought.
''In fall 1996 we went to Russia together and the doors were flung open,'' Mr. Buchanan said. At that time the Russian museums did not disclose provenance on their wall labels. ''The curators knew what was Stroganoff,'' Dr. Piotrovsky said in an interview. Museum directors instructed staff members to help, and as Ms. de Ludinghausen and Mr. Buchanan walked through galleries, Mr. Buchanan took notes and Polaroids.
''We began to make inventories,'' he said. ''It became a wonderful research fest,'' not least because the Stroganoffs had assembled a universal collection that, extraordinarily for Europeans at that time, included even pre-Columbian works from Mexico. In five trips to Russia, Mr. Buchanan estimates, they looked at as many as 2,000 artworks. To help edit them, he hired Penelope Hunter-Stiebel, a former decorative arts curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art who is vice president at Rosenberg & Stiebel, a Manhattan gallery.
They were shown everything that belonged to the Stroganoffs but were not allowed to borrow everything they wanted. Mr. Buchanan coveted a pair of Egyptian-style tables whose lapis lazuli tops were too fragile to travel. Ms. Hunter-Stiebel wanted a Fra Angelico gold painting on panel that travel might also jeopardize. But they did get a lot -- as much, Dr. Piotrovsky said, as any large museum, like the Met, would have gotten. ''We wanted to pay homage to the family,'' he said. ''If we had done it ourselves, it would have looked very much like this. It is very much in our style; it's academic and it's beautiful.''
Dr. Piotrovsky, on his first visit to Portland, said he was not disappointed that the show was not going to bigger art centers. ''I am absolutely sure the exhibition will be appreciated here, and we want people to appreciate art,'' he said.
Neither that nor anything else seemed to bother Ms. de Ludinghausen. Over four days here, she rarely stopped beaming, at least in public. ''More and more I am feeling I am Russian,'' she said. ''And I admire the Russian people tremendously for their suffering and for their dignity.''
Correction: February 23, 2000, Wednesday A picture caption yesterday with an Arts in America article about an exhibition of pieces once owned by the Stroganoff family misattributed a portrait of Baron G. A. Stroganoff. The artist was Marie-Louise-Elisabeth Vigee-Lebrun, not Alexander Warnek.