Fireboards, once used in homes to cover the opening of a fireplace when not in use, have become hot items among collectors who favor the rustic look. Also called chimney boards, many have become collectibles -- investments -- and are appreciated for their artwork.

Fireboards were used to keep dirt, soot and chimney swallows from getting into the house through the chimney. Many wooden ones were painted with designs, scenes, and motifs, adding a decorative touch to the room. Some were homemade, decorated by family members who, for the most part, were untrained artists who painted with a folk-art flair as best they could.

Professional as well as itinerant artists who painted everything from portraits to sign boards for a living also decorated fireboards. Today, some of their work brings sums that would have made them wealthy men during their lifetimes.

Some wooden fireboards were beautifully painted with landscapes, seascapes and farm scenes, sometimes with realistic-looking frames painted on the board. Also popular as decoration was trompe l'oeil or "fool-the-eye" art -- still-lifes painted in a highly detailed and realistic manner to create a three-dimensional effect.

Wooden fireboards also were decorated in the folk-art manner with colorful pots of flowers, urns, fruit trees, weeping willows, animals, horses, houses, birds and other motifs. One motif found on many fireboards is a pot of posies or an urn with a floral arrangement. It's believed that such a motif stems from an old custom of placing plants or flowers in unused fireplaces.

The value of an old fireboard (no two are alike) depends on its condition, design, features, attractiveness and authenticity. They usually command prices from a few hundred dollars to several thousand.

Although many fireboards were painted, others were papered, and still others were carved or covered with needlework. Some also had large bordered paper prints of colorful scenes and designs pasted on them. Many such fireboard prints were made by Lemuel Steele of Albany, New York, who worked from the 1830s and who was succeeded by the firm of Steele, Richardson & Harris. Such printed fireboard paper squares are sometimes referred to as "Steele prints."

Some fireboards consisted of a wood or wire frame covered with heavy paper decorated with either a pretty print or decoupage. These were called paper fireboards. Heavy paper or wallpaper was used on some, pasted on canvas that was nailed over the edges of the frame.

Examples of charming, painted fireboards can be seen at Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, as well as in other museums around the country that feature folk art pieces. One word of warning: If you find an old painted wooden fireboard with faded or worn paint, don't attempt to touch up or repaint the piece: You'd reduce its value considerably. : For the last 25 years I've been the owner of a neighborhood tavern in our town. Several years ago, a fellow who couldn't come up with the cash to pay for a sizable bar bill offered me instead an old tomahawk that I mounted on the wall behind the bar. Now that I'm in the process of selling the tavern, I'd like to know how I can find out the value of the tomahawk and where I could sell it. The only thing the fellow told me about it was that it was worth more than his bar bill. A: The value of a tomahawk depends on its type, age, features, rarity, authenticity, origin and historical background (if any) that can be documented. Tomahawks used by the Indians have longer handles and heavier blades than those used by the white men (to hack wood rather than heads), which are smaller in size and lighter in weight. Some authentic tomahawks are quite valuable, while reproductions or movie props have little value.

In any event, I suggest you write to firearms and weapon counsultant, dealer, and appraiser Arnold Marcus Chernoff, P.O. Box 344, Deerfield, Illinois 60015. Enclose an addressed, stamped envelope for a response. Chernoff charges a $5 fee for an oral appraisal per firearm or weapon, or $10 for a written appraisal per firearm or weapon, and buys such items (if the party wishes to sell) for 70 percent of their appraised value, refunding the appraisal fee if such a transaction takes place. Chernoff will travel anywhere in the world to appraise and deal in firearms, firearm collections, weapons, American Indian artifacts (even scalps) ancient military items, suits of armor, ivory, bronzes, powder horns and flasks, halberds and even battle-axes. Expenses for out-of-town transactions will be added to the appraisal fees. Any old weapons, gun or related item should be checked out for its value, as very often such pieces turn out to be worth far more than anticipated, and indeed some are worth staggering sums. Q: Whom can I contact about disposing of a collection of insulators? There are hundreds of them, all marked and catalogued, and some are very old and rare. The collection belonged to my late brother. A: Write to the Insulator Society of American, P.O. Box 622, Manasquan, New Jersey 08736. Enclose an addressed, stamped envelope for information about selling the collection. Q: My sister has two old Oriental dolls that she sent me and wants me to sell. I've been told they may have been made for children of royalty. How can I check this out? A: Here are some addresses you can write to. Enclose an addressed, stamped envelope for each: The Oriental Art Society of Chicago, c/o James Thornton, 1355 North Sandburg Terrace, Chicago 60610; Chase Gilmore Art Galleries, 724 West Washington Street, Chicago 60606; International Society of Fine Arts Appraisers, Ltd., c/o Elizabeth Carr, P.O. Box 280, River Forest, Illinois 60305; Antique Doll Hospital, c/o Edith Garney, 3110 West Irving Park Road, Chicago 60618; United Federation of Doll Clubs, Inc., 137 Hendricks Boulevard, Buffalo, New York 14226; and International Doll Association, 10920 Indian Trail, Suite 302, Dallas, Texas 75229.