"Americana is it today. They go nuts over anything that's antique and made in America. Anything!"

Fred Guarnieri, who runs Boobala's Antiques of Norfolk, Va., with Bill Mark, is at the Antiques Fair in the D.C. Armory. They have one of 177 booths at the show, which lasts through tomorrow, and, yes, he is a direct descendant of the great violin-maker.

"In the last 10 years prices for Americana have gone crazy. Things you bought for $100 then, you buy for $1,000 now. They have American antiques shows in New York, and some dealers are sold out before the show even opens."

Partly, he added, it is because of the search for investments against inflation. But it is also because primitive styles appeal to the modern eye.

For sale here, he had an 1867 wardrobe, imported from Austria and selling at $2,500 ("if it was American it would be worth $8,000"), and a charming six-foot pine cabinet painted by some neighborhood esthete to look like oak, knots and all. The panels are painted with flowers.Inside are not one but two secret compartments.

"People," said Bill Mark, "don't buy antiques. They buy a look. The country kitchen look . . ."

He waved at a handsome pine kitchen cabinet. Above the stall hung an eight-foot German tavern sign in beaten iron, dating to 1760 and going for $4,750.

Come to think of it, nearly everything in the Armory was American. Conrad and Ellie Nelson of New Haven, Conn., specialize in cut glass, "all-American. Brilliant Period," going back to the 1880s. They had a sumptuous display of pieces, many signed, that made Waterford look like something from the dime store.

"American glass was the best in the world at that time," said Nelson. "A lot of Czechs and other European craftsmen came over about then and settled all over the East, places like Corning."

Across the way, Frederick Moore and his son Frederick Jr., from Cohasset, Mass., had a tableful of old brass, doorknobs (carved ones from the '80s, plain round ones from the '20s, glass ones from many decades), elevator door handles, escutcheon plates, even fancy bathroom faucets polished up like heirlooms.

"We get them from old houses in the Boston area," said Moore. "We used to go to the wreckers and buy the interior before they started. But it's hard to find those things anymore. I used to have hundreds of these little carved sleeves, but all I have left are the ones you see."

Of course there were antiques from all over the world -- Afghan rugs, Japanese paintings, English silver (an entire case full of nothing but napkin rings), French china, Swiss miniatures (10 bandsmen in lederhosen, half-an-inch tall, for $300), Balinese carvings.

But mostly it was an American show. And if America is a very young country, some of these antiques were pretty young themselves. A Roy Rogers lunchbox! A Batman doll! A Beatles badge! A 1953 Virginia license plate!


An elephant's-foot umbrella stand with buffed nails.

A marzipan valentine with angels, vintage 1883, for $150.

A skillfully carved folk-art bust, carved in palm wood, "of an unknown person who resembles Andrew Jackson," or maybe Jose Marti. $450.

A case populated by tiny Austrian bronze cats, hundreds of cats an inch long or less, cats skiing, cats dancing, cats cooking, cats eating, cats playing ball, cats playing the accordion, cats fencing, cats boxing, cats with umbrellas, cats sick in bed, cats smelling flowers, cats doing everything but sell antiques.

Fruit crate labels. Fruit crate labels? Fruit crate labels.

A painting of somebody's 18th-century ancestor, soon to become somebody else's 18th-century ancestor for $850.

A human skull with jaw on springs. $150.

Plus! Such a stupefying, flabbergasting, phantasmagoric collection of gewgaws, knickknacks, doodads, begatelles, kickshaws, froufrou, chichi and Big Little Books that any normal person is certain to come away with this one mighty truth firmly in mind: No matter what happens, no matter what anyone says, no matter if you have to buy a bigger house, never, ever give anything away.