Tighter economy, bringing hardship to dealers, creates opportunities for public AN ANTIQUES BUYERS' MARKET

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Seems everybody's singing the recession blues these days. Especially people with something to sell: condos, ad space, $10 pantyhose. With budget-pressed Americans sitting on their hands (when they're not using them to pack their own brown-bag lunches), retailers are beginning to doubt that there is such a thing as "discretionary income" anymore.

Imagine, then, what business must be like if you're a purveyor of such luxurious nonessentials as baroque silver compotes and carved jade snuff bottles.

"It's terrible!" exclaims Carol Klapper, who runs Town and Country Antiques Shows with her husband Dave. The couple's eighth annual Baltimore summer show is at the Convention Center this weekend.

"The recession has really hit [the antiques market] bad," she continues. "Our last show was off 20 percent. But that's good, because some shows are off 50 percent!"

"I would attribute it to peoples' concern that they should stay away from temptation," says Dave Klapper, a former Wall Street underwriter. " 'Out of sight, out of mind.' "

The Baltimore-Washington area has not been as hard hit, the Klappers say, as the formerly free-spending New York region, where three recent shows had to close several hours early because of a lack of customers. Still, things are hardly rosy in Washington, which is not as "recessionproof" as many people believe, and Baltimore, an "old money" town where people of means get their antiques the old-fashioned way -- they inherit them.

Like most dark clouds and ill winds, though, the '90s recession can be turned to someone's advantage; in this case, the antiques lover's. Not only should financial hard times shake up the industry, winnowing out dilettante dealers and leaving the field to the sensible and knowledgeable, but they will mean good prices for those buyers who still have the income to invest. An antique is, after all, the best kind of investment, providing beauty and service as well as holding its value.

For buyers interested in becoming cool-headed antiques shoppers in a chilly economy, the Klappers have the following suggestions:

*Don't be afraid to discuss price. Antiques dealers have bills to pay, too, and if they are not selling as much, they are more willing to strike bargains with their customers to keep the merchandise moving.

"Everything's been so high in the last few years, but now things are coming down to a much more realistic level," Mrs. Klapper says. "You can't get anything good for nothing. You still have to pay a fair price, but you don't have to pay an exaggerated price."

"You're not going to steal it," she adds. "And if you can steal it, don't buy it, because it probably isn't right to begin with."

If you walk up and say, "I really love this piece, but could you possibly do a little better on the price?" most dealers are willing to talk. But avoid saying "I'll give you . . ." and naming a dollar amount. This is a real turnoff.

And don't insult them by offering much less than the item is worth. Top-of-the-line antiques shows aren't like flea markets or yard sales; the dealer didn't pluck that sideboard out of his attic. He knows its value, and probably paid handsomely for it himself. However distressed the dealer, he won't sell it to you for less.

*Stick to specialists. If you are shopping for investment pieces, don't go to a little-bit-of-this, little-bit-of-that generalist. If you want a Hepplewhite love seat, in other words, seek out a dealer who is an acknowledged expert in period furniture. You probably won't be able to wrangle anything on the cheap from specialists -- they know more than you do -- but their in-depth knowledge and access to premium quality will serve you well. And they won't rip you off or sell you bogus goods -- their reputations are far too important to them.

*Shop the shows. Buying from local shops may seem the safest move, as those shops will presumably still be there tomorrow if you have questions about something you purchased. But shows can often provide the best deals, Mrs. Klapper says. While some show dealers do have permanent shops in their own home towns, others, she says, "are like vagabonds -- they just travel." Without rent expenses to worry about, they can often be more flexible about price. In addition, managers of top shows select their dealers very carefully, and keep a close watch over their "flock"; shoddy or reproduction merchandise or questionable business dealings reflect on them, too.

*Have a game plan. "The hunt" is part of the fun of any antique show. But, Mrs. Klapper says, "If you have something specific in mind, consult your program before going through the whole show and getting sidetracked, and buying something you didn't want to begin with."

If you know exactly what you are looking for, ask the show manager, who should be familiar with what every dealer has to offer, to steer you in the right direction.

Do your homework, too, and check the sales records of recent auctions. Since many dealers base their prices on what similar items sold for at auction, these figures can give buyers an idea of what they can expect to pay.

*Insist on authenticity. If you are spending a lot of money, make sure you are getting what you are paying so dearly for -- especially in certain categories. Folk art is notorious for fakery, Mrs. Klapper says; many so-called American antiques are actually being produced new in Scandinavia. Dealers should be required to authenticate what they sell.

Art, too, can be tricky. Your painting or print should be signed, and the artist should be listed in "Who's Who in American Art" or another standard work.

"I would not buy any art unless signed and dated and verified by the dealer -- unless it's very very cheap," she advises.

Some of today's best buys are listed below. All are good investments, not to mention wise buys for anyone who admires beauty and lasting workmanship.

*Furniture. American pieces from the 18th to the early 19th century, and 18th and 19th century formal French furniture are the blue-chip items here. Prices are still relatively high, but as Dave Klapper points out, people pay almost as much for utilitarian modern furniture as they would pay for a lower-end antique complete with dovetailed corners, fine hardware and history.

*Rare books and illuminated manuscripts. These items are available at a variety of price points for literate connoisseurs, according to Mr. Klapper.

*English enamels. Thanks to a modern revival of the art by such English companies as Halcyon Days, Crummles and Staffordshire, more people know about "Battersea boxes," originally made in the 18th century to hold snuff or beauty patches, and young collectors of the reproductions are beginning to crave the real thing. Prices are still moderate.

*Silver and silver plate. Hallmarked antique silver of good quality and in good condition is always a smart purchase, and there's lots of it available, from teaspoons to elaborate centerpieces.

*Art. The art market's bubble has burst, and dealers no longer believe they can get $5,000 for a painting whose worth is closer to $125, Mrs. Klapper says. Good choices now are English paintings and 17th and 18th century botanical and bird prints.

*Art glass. Tiffany and other famous names are blue-chip, of course, but look into other styles as well, such as sharply faceted American brilliant glass and opalescent glass from France, made in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

*Rugs. The price of Middle Eastern rugs, like the price of Middle Eastern oil, shifts according to political as well as economic factors. Buy now for the best investment "mileage."

Weekend antiques show

Town and Country Antiques Shows are well known for featuring 18th and 19th century furniture, displayed in room-like settings.

However, at the eighth annual Town and Country Summer Antiques Show and Sale this weekend at the Baltimore Convention Center, there will also be a strong emphasis on important decorative arts.

Art glass, including American brilliant glass and French opaline glass; silver and silver plate, paintings and prints, Oriental art and rugs, folk art, fine textiles and rare books are among the museum-quality goods to be offered for sale.

The show will run today from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m..

Admission is $6, with free re-entry.

For information, call 234-1500 during show hours.

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