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Antique collecting on the upswing for quality over investment

''To market to market to buy . . .'' - a highboy, a stoneware crock, a 19 th-century painting, or a piece of 20th-century folk art. That's what increasing numbers of Americans are doing as the market for antiques continues to grow.

At a recent antique show, dealer Robert Wilkins of Austerlitz, N.Y., spoke for many other dealers when he said: ''The market is very healthy right now. The public is reflecting increasing sophistication and knowledge, and they're buying.''

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Crowds pour through ticket gates at shows and flea markets across the country , antique shops are multiplying, auctions continue to set record-breaking prices , buyers are developing into serious collectors, and the casual buyers and novice collectors are finding items at their levels of interest.

It's the quality shows that are attracting serious buyers and encouraging collectors.

Dean Failey, head of Christie's New York American Decorative Arts Department, says: ''Auctions are a bit of the pulse beat in terms of measuring where the market is going, because we stand between seller and buyer, collector and dealer. When things get tight, it shows up right away. Last year we saw dealers become more selective, but this past fall things turned around and the market has been very positive.''

Irving Slavid, a dealer from Sherborn, Mass., and his wife, Judith Applegate, echo thoughts of others in the field who say that ''buying antiques for investment is no longer the case. The private investor couldn't find an outlet for his goods. You can buy something for $1 and turn it over for $2 at a 100 percent profit, but you can't do that with $10,000.''

Harold Corbin of Three Ravens Antiques in Salisbury, Conn., adds: ''In general, people's investment attention is on the stock market. Antiques can't keep up with inflation, and the markup is getting smaller - the higher the price , the lower the markup. But you'll always be safe in purchasing high-quality pieces.''

The consensus, confirmed by Raymond B. Knight of Locust Valley, Long Island, N.Y., is that ''people are putting their money somewhere else for investment and using the profits to buy antiques to live with and enjoy. And these purchases do increase in value while giving pleasure.''

In Bolton, Mass., Steve Fletcher of Robert Skinner's auction galleries reveals the key to buying antiques: ''Build a collection rather than an accumulation'' of merchandise, he says. ''The proof of this is in the performance of what we've seen on our records over the years.''

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Everyone agrees that the best pieces continue to bring in the highest prices, and there will always be a market here. But as prices escalate, pieces become harder to find. Scudder Smith, editor and publisher of Antiques and the Arts Weekly, observes: ''As the quality pieces become harder to find, the lesser items become more obvious. While the best pieces continue to do well, various levels of quality are developing. There seems to be a market at all levels, and each element has its own following.''

Dealers and auctioneers are finding a more sophisticated following. One reason can be attributed to the kinds of shows being produced. Jackie and John Sideli, antique-show managers from Malden Bridge, N.Y., integrate history and education into their shows by supporting American landmarks. This tends, they say, to ''promote an awareness among collectors as to the history and value of our national heritage and artifacts.''

According to Jonathan Trace of Putnam Valley, N.Y.: ''There is no question that customers continue to become more scholarly. In the past 20 years, so much more reference material has become available, and there is greater consciousness among the buying public.''

Wickford, R.I., dealer Stephanie Wood adds: ''People are more eclectic. If young people can't afford 18th- and 19th-century pieces, the positive thing is that they are thinking 'quality' in later items, such as wood furniture from the 1950s.''

That is what Bethany, Conn., dealer Robert Kneeland thinks makes the business encouraging. ''Dealers and customers are not as concerned about age as they are in looking at fine quality and artistic value - even up through the 20th century ,'' he says. Adding to this, Don Abarbanel of Ashley Falls, Mass., says: ''If a piece is well made and has good design, then that is its value. Simply because it's old doesn't make it valuable.''

Reflecting upon this, Sam Pennington, editor and publisher of the Maine Antiques Digest, says: ''The business tends to be self-renewing. When one item becomes scarce, we expand our vision to pick up something else - like 20 th-century pieces.''

The antique business has had to expand its vision. Not only did prices for early pieces soar to astronomical heights, but a scarcity of goods became evident. Mr. Pennington explains: ''There was an incredible outpouring on the market of early pieces during 1973-1981, when prices crested because of inflation. People sold heavily, and now we're making up for it. Consequently, things are being held back from all elements. We can't order more pieces, because they aren't being made. [The field of] antiques doesn't follow the normal economic rules.''

It's just this fact that spurred Patty Gagarin, a dealer from Fairfield, Conn., to remark: ''The serious pieces which were once wonderful at $1,000 are not so wonderful today at $10,000. There is a scarcity of good, early things.''

Within this scarcity, Nina Hellman, a marine-antique dealer from Bedford, N.Y., says: ''The good things are selling, and there are new collectors who will educate themselves and spend money. They are more selective, and so we dealers need to be more selective.''

Many dealers note that an antique generally can be purchased less expensively than its modern equivalent, and the antique is often better made. Customers are finding their purchase of the antiques to be a better investment financially and practically, as well as aesthetically.

While the quality pieces continue to be at the top of the list (such as American silver, early decorated furniture, 18th- and early 19th-century folk art), some of the other strong areas include architectural items such as early door hinges, iron gates, finials, fanlights, walls, and mantles. Jerard P. Jordan of Ashford, Conn., is finding a demand for these items from those clients mixing modern and old in their art and decoration, as well as in the restoration of homes.

''The classics never change,'' Max Seigel of Covered Bridge Antiques in New York City explains. ''Fashion in antiques, like fashion in anything else, comes and goes.''

Collecting has broken barriers. What was primarily limited to early furniture and accessories now includes 20th-century art. People are buying because they enjoy antiques and art and are looking to other places for investment. The field offers items to the serious collector as well as the new buyer. The early items are scarce, but they can be found. As usual, the best pieces continue to bring in the best prices, and there's always a market at this level.

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